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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: [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, .

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    That the Greeks and Romans didn't read silently has been thoroughly debunked.
    – cmw
    Commented Nov 17, 2023 at 6:44
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    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
    Commented Nov 18, 2023 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
    Commented Nov 19, 2023 at 23:42

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This is a very interesting question. I don't think there is much research about the reading practice in ancient China. I've read many Chinese classics and have not found a single reference about how books were read. Although there is a book about reading in the West, A History of Reading, by Alberto Manguel, and there is a chapter on silent reading, there is no mention of how reading was practiced in the East.

I dare to conjecture that silent reading was the normal way of reading in ancient China, for the following reasons:

  1. The Chinese written language and spoken language were very different. There were so many dialects that it was hard to communicate verbally back then (and now). In China today, people may speak in very different tongues that they can hardly understand each other but the written language is the same. Reaing aloud would not have helped much.
  2. Writing was only available to educated people. Writing books and reading books were the privileges of aristocrats. Most of the population were illiterate. With the written language so different from the everyday spoken language, reading books aloud to common people would not help them understand the book.
  3. On the other hand, poems were generally considered words of songs and were probably read aloud when recited. Later in Song and Ming dynasties, poems were written for entertainers to sing, but not books.
  4. Unlike western languages, the Chinese language is not phonetic. There are many characters with exactly the same pronunciation. Even today, when a word is spoken out of context, people have to explain which word. This is particularly true in pronouncing people's names. Popular Chinese surnames such as Zhang, Liu, and Wang all have different characters with the exact same tune.
  5. In history records, whenever something is read, it is considered that the reading is done silently. When something is read aloud, it is generally indicated.
  6. In recent centuries, popular novels such as The Romance of Three Kingdoms and others were told in story forms by artists on streets. These narrators had amazing memories that they were able to recite whole books without reading them. They did this as a living. If books were read aloud, then common people wouldn't have to pay to listen to stories.

I'm not a researcher and I've never studied subjects like this. I can be wrong. But as far as I know, there have been no study on the reading habits of people in ancient China. There is no published sources I can refer. I hope my suggestion can at least make people who are interested in studying this topic as something useful.

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