Many scholars argue that in ancient Greco-Roman culture, reading aloud was the norm, as seen in examples like Augustine's Confessions, where Augustine sees someone reading silently and sees this as highly unusual. Paul Saenger's Space Between Words argues that the shift to silent reading in Europe was closely tied to word spacing in medieval manuscripts*, and I think Ivan Illych argues something similar in In the Vineyard of the Text. (Of course, some other scholars dispute these theories.)

I've recently read Wu Cheng'En's Journey to the West (Ming Dynasty) and some Tang-dynasty poetry (Li Bai) from China, and I was wondering if there was a similar shift from reading aloud to reading silently in pre-modern Chinese culture, moving from ancient texts like the Book of Songs to the Classic Novels. So: what were common reading practices in ancient China, and was there a likely shift from reading aloud to reading silently? (If this should be directed to a different exchange, my apologies!)

*Edited to add citations: Paul Saenger, Space Between Words, 1997: https://books.google.com/books?id=w3vZaFoaa3EC&pg=PA1&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=2#v=onepage&q&f=false [see especially the intro and final chapter; the intro also makes the point that Chinese as a character-based language is much easier to learn silently than, say, Latin]. For the opposing view (thanks CMW!), which seems to be the scholarly consensus at this point, see A. K. Gavrilov, "Techniques in Classical Reading," The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 1 (1997), pp. 56-73, https://www.jstor.org/stable/639597.

  • 7
    That the Greeks and Romans didn't read silently has been thoroughly debunked.
    – cmw
    Nov 17 at 6:44
  • 3
    Could you cite one of those scholars? I'm intrigued by the question, but as stated, it is founded on an unsupported assertion.
    – MCW
    Nov 17 at 17:53
  • 1
    I have no data that bears directly on the question, but I'll note that reading aloud helps sound out words. This would have been helpful with Latin or Greek; less so with Chinese.
    – Mark Olson
    Nov 18 at 21:02
  • Thanks, everyone! I've been aware that there was some controversy over the assertion that ancient Greek and Romans didn't read aloud, but I wasn't sure of the current scholarly consensus on the issue; CMW's article provided in the link is a very helpful overview. And thanks, Mark Olson, for the point about phonetic vs. character-based languages! I am still wondering which was the norm in pre-modern Chinese literary culture (i.e., were novels read aloud socially, as they sometimes were in Europe through the Victorian era?). But this gives me something to go on for now...
    – jamesG
    Nov 19 at 23:42


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