Jia Li, a white collar worker in the northwestern province of Gansu, received four short messages on her mobile phone -- and made prompt replies to each in just five minutes.
"This has become an important means of communication with my friends," she said as her fingers worked nimbly on the keypad. "In fact, we cannot do without short messages these days."
The short message service has drawn a growing number of mobile phone subscribers in recent years, particularly young people who are always leading fashions and seeking out novelties.
Latest figures released by China's Ministry of Information Industry (MII) show China has the world's largest mobile phone ownership with 206 million subscribers -- or 16 in every 100 people owning mobile phones.
In 2002, China's mobile phone users sent over 90 billion text messages, as against 18.9 billion in 2001 and one billion in 2000.
"In addition, many subscribers are downloading more personalized ring tones, screen savers and jokes from the Internet, which they send around on the cell phone," said an MII source.
A new survey has found that 40 percent of urban Chinese subscribers aged between 18 and 60 have used the service. The proportion is higher among males, the highly-educated and those under 35.
For young people like Jia Li, letters, phone calls and even e-mails have lost out to short messages, a faster, cheaper and more convenient means of communication.
In the capital, Beijing, for example, it costs 0.40 yuan per minute to make or to receive a local call on the cell phone, but only 0.10 yuan to send a text message -- and no charge for the recipient.
To send a short message is also believed to be safer than a conversation on the cell phone, as there is still controversy over radiation levels and health risks.
"Few people my age do not know how to send a short message," Jia said. "You can do it virtually anytime -- lying in bed, sitting on a bus or wandering along the street."
The college graduate bought a stylish cell phone last year with her first month's salary. "I myself send at least five daily, sometimes over 50. I've also subscribed to weather forecasts, stock prices and advertisements for upcoming concerts and movies," she said.
In Beijing, some quick-witted young people have even become professional short message writers, creating humorous text messages on websites for the netizens to choose from.
But just like the Internet, short messages are also believed to have their side effects. Many parents worry that messages carrying fraudulent and pornographic content may harm young children.
Wang Xiang, a member with the country's top advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, recently called on the authorities to tighten control over short message services and when necessary, draft laws to better regulate the sector.
(Xinhua News Agency March 17, 2003)