MODERN CHINESE WRITERS, THEIR CRITICS AND THE INTERNET

MODERN CHINESE LITERATURE

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Short stories are very popular in China but few of them have been translated into English. Many of theme are quite short and require readers to use their imagination to fill in missing spots. One collection that has been translated into English---Loud Sparrows translated and edited by Aili Mu, Julie Chiu and Howard Goldblatt (Columbia University, 2007)---features 91 stores that vary in length from one paragraph to three pages. Characters include a monk that can change himself into water if he meditates hard enough and a prison escapee that breaks into his former jail.

Science fiction is also very popular in China. There are millions of readers and a host of fanzines and websites to keep them informed. Homegrown Chinese science fiction began in 1954 with the short story From Earth to Mars by astronomer-writer Zheng Wenguang and reached its zenith in 1978, after Mao's death, with story Death Ray on a Coral Island by Tang Enzheng.

Themes of modern Chinese literature include nationalism, humanism, progress, memory, pleasure, and "cultural China." Chinese works that sell well in the United States tend to deal with the Cultural Revolution, the Mao era, the early 20th century or some other period from the past. Those that deal with contemporary issues don’t do so well. Sometimes publishers refer to works coming out of China and Asia a whole as “scar “or “misery “literature”---about enduring hard times and poverty under repressive regimes.

One blogger compared contemporary Chinese literature to Chinese manufactured goods: low price, high quantity, little added value, no brand.

The Mao Dun Literary Award is one of the most prestigious literary awards in China. The Bookworm, a bookstore and café in the Sanlitun district of Beijing, is regarded as a center of the English-speaking literati in Beijing. The One Way Street café is regarded as a center of the Chinese-speaking literati in Beijing

Modern Chinese literature in translation, www.paper-republic.org,

Modern Chinese Writers and Literature: MCLC Resource Center mclc.osu.edu ; Yellow Bridge yellowbridge.com ; Mao slogans sacu.org ; Mao Sayings art-bin.com; Pearl Buck University of Pennsylvania english.upenn.edu ; Gao Xingjian Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Nobel Prize site nobelprize.org ; BBC Report bbc.co.uk ; Wang Shou Wikipedia article on Wang Shou Wikipedia : Shanghai Baby Google Books books.google.com ; Book Reporter Review bookreporter.com ; Free Williamsburg Review freewilliamsburg.com : Ha Jin Random House randomhouse.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Interview powells.com ; Book Browse bookbrowse.com ; Book Reporter bookreporter.com ; Amy Tan Amy Tam.net amytan.net ; Academy of Achievement biography achievement.org ; Anniina’s Amy Tam Page luminarium.org ; Links in this Website: CHINESE CULTURE Factsanddetails.com/China ;CLASSIC CHINESE LITERATURE Factsanddetails.com/China ; LEADERSHIP AND PROPAGANDA UNDER MAO Factsanddetails.com/China ; CULTURAL REVOLUTION --ENEMIES AND HORRORS Factsanddetails.com/China ;

Communism and Literature

The Communists have traditionally viewed literature primarily as a propaganda device. In a piece entitled Yan'an Talks of Art and Literature, Mao argued that literature was something that should be used for a revolutionary purposes. Most Communist literature is about peasants, workers and soldiers who overcome great odds to achieve great things.

After Liberation in 1949, popular Chinese pulp novels were replaced by Communist books such as Red Star Heroes, We Fight Best When We March Our Hardest, After Reaping the Bumper Harvest and Grandma Sees Six Different Machines. Party line fables like The Foolish Man Who Removed the Mountains were known to everyone. It was several decades before the Ministries of Truth, Propaganda and Culture allowed romantic novels about liberation soldiers who missed their girlfriends to be published.

For many Chinese in their 30s and 40s the only reading material that was available when they were children was The Little Red Book. Books were hard to come by during the Cultural Revolution, or they would circulate in mutilated form, The writer Yu Hua said he read the middle of a torn copy of a novel by Guy de Maupassant (I remember it had a lot of sex, he said) without knowing its title or author. His formative reading experience was provided by the big character posters of the Cultural Revolution, in which people denounced their neighbors with violent inventiveness. [Source: Pankaj Mishra, New York Times, January 23, 2009]

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Mao with writers and artists in Yannan in 1942

Many Chinese books that are banned in China are available outside the county, and many Chinese classics can be read in English but not Chinese. In some places Chinese still have to show a passbook to enter "special section" in bookstores and libraries with books by British and American writers such as Saul Bellow and George Orwell. Libraries are regarded as places to read books. It is nearly impossible to check out a book.

English-language versions of English classic were widely available throughout the Maoist era, even during the Cultural Revolution when Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were widely read. Other famous English-language classic available in China include Dickens' A Story of Two Places and Difficult Years, Hawthorne's The Red Letter, and Steinbeck's Angry Grapes. [Source: Theroux]

By the early 1990s, when almost all major works of international fiction were being translated into Chinese, he was also reading more widely, particularly novels by V. S. Naipaul and Toni Morrison.

Chinese Writers Under the Communists

Writers were singled out in the anti-rightist campaign in the 1950s and banished to remote labor camps and harassed and humiliated in the Cultural Revolution when intellectuals were branded the “The Stinking Ninth”---the last and worst category of class enemies. About 2900 writers were killed or driven to suicide, including the great novelist Lao She who drowned himself in Taiping Lake after being attacked by Red Guards at Beijing’s Confucius Temple.

During the Tiananmen Square demonstrations 100 or so of China’s most successful writers marched out of the Chinese Writers Association building and called for political reform and an end to corruption. After the protests were crushed essayist Liu Xiabo and novelist Zheng Yi and other named as ring leaders were imprisoned or forced into exile. Gao Xingjian, who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature, resigned from the party, left for France and never has been allowed back to China.

The London-based Chinese writer Ma Jian wrote in Times of London: “No sooner had the Government washed the blood from the streets that it began to wipe the tragedy from history. Numbed by horror and fear, most writers fell silent. Some even parroted the party line that the demonstrations amounted to a “counter-revolutionary riot “and that violent suppression had been essential to return the nation to order. They turned away from the real world and retreated into the cozy confines of their silk-padded prison, They chose to write melodrama about the imperial or republican past.”

Ma Jian criticized one Chinese writer who referred to himself as a dissident writer and boasted he was asleep during the Tiananmen massacre and didn’t join in the march because he were too exhausted.

Literature in the Mao Era

After 1949 socialist realism, based on Mao's famous 1942 "Yan'an Talks on Literature and Art," became the uniform style of Chinese authors whose works were published. Conflict, however, soon developed between the government and the writers. The ability to satirize and expose the evils in contemporary society that had made writers useful to the Chinese Communist Party before its accession to power was no longer welcomed. Even more unwelcome to the party was the persistence among writers of what was deplored as "petty bourgeois idealism," "humanitarianism," and an insistence on freedom to choose subject matter. [Source: Library of Congress]

“At the time of the Great Leap Forward, the government increased its insistence on the use of socialist realism and combined with it so-called revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism. Authors were permitted to write about contemporary China, as well as other times during China's modern period--as long as it was accomplished with the desired socialist revolutionary realism. Nonetheless, the political restrictions discouraged many writers. Although authors were encouraged to write, production of literature fell off to the point that in 1962 only forty-two novels were published. [Ibid]

“During the Cultural Revolution, the repression and intimidation led by Mao's fourth wife, Jiang Qing, succeeded in drying up all cultural activity except a few "model" operas and heroic stories. Although it has since been learned that some writers continued to produce in secret, during that period no significant literary work was published. [Ibid]

Literature in the Post-Mao Period

The arrest of Jiang Qing and the other members of the Gang of Four in 1976, and especially the reforms initiated at the Third Plenum of the Eleventh National Party Congress Central Committee in December 1978, led more and more older writers and some younger writers to take up their pens again. Much of the literature discussed the serious abuses of power that had taken place at both the national and the local levels during the Cultural Revolution. The writers decried the waste of time and talent during that decade and bemoaned abuses that had held China back. At the same time, the writers expressed eagerness to make a contribution to building Chinese society. This literature, often called "the literature of the wounded," contained some disquieting views of the party and the political system. Intensely patriotic, these authors wrote cynically of the political leadership that gave rise to the extreme chaos and disorder of the Cultural Revolution. Some of them extended the blame to the entire generation of leaders and to the political system itself. The political authorities were faced with a serious problem: how could they encourage writers to criticize and discredit the abuses of the Cultural Revolution without allowing that criticism to go beyond what they considered tolerable limits?[Source: Library of Congress]

“During this period, a large number of novels and short stories were published; literary magazines from before the Cultural Revolution were revived, and new ones were added to satisfy the seemingly insatiable appetite of the reading public. There was a special interest in foreign works. Linguists were commissioned to translate recently published foreign literature, often without carefully considering its interest for the Chinese reader. Literary magazines specializing in translations of foreign short stories became very popular, especially among the young. [Ibid]

“It is not surprising that such dramatic change brought objections from some leaders in government and literary and art circles, who feared it was happening too fast. The first reaction came in 1980 with calls to combat "bourgeois liberalism," a campaign that was repeated in 1981. These two difficult periods were followed by the campaign against spiritual pollution in late 1983, but by 1986 writers were again enjoying greater creative freedom. [Ibid]

Chinese Writers Today

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“The idealistic writers who marched in 1989 are now luminaries of the literary establishment,” Ma wrote. “The Chinese Writers Association has provided them with rural villas equipped with saunas and gyms, and almost limitless expense accounts. When they go to give lectures, police cars with blaring sirens clear the roads for their chauffeur-driven limousines.” When they travel abroad they are told by their party handlers to ‘speak about what you should speak about and not speak about what you shouldn’t speak about.”

Many of the writers that receive no state support are referred to as “hooligan writers “who often “focus on the alienation of urban youth “and “beautiful women writers “who produce reams of narcissistic chick-lit.”

Writers born in the 1970s are known as “70-hou “in Chinese. Although they get published many feel neglected and don’t have big numbers of readers. A typical “70-hou “writer keeps a day job. Many are public servants, or minor officials, and others are newspaper and magazine editors. The 36-year-old Xie Zongyu is a policeman in Changsha. The job gives him an endless supply of unusual crime stories, which he can adapt into fiction.

Xie started by contributing to Zhiyin, a popular magazine that pays a good price for this kind of story. One day, he witnessed the bloated corpse of a young woman floating down the river. She was one of a pair of lovers who committed suicide because they could not see any future for their love. The man's body surfaced soon after drowning, but it took 10 days for the woman to be found. When people used a forklift that pierced into her body to drag it ashore, he could not help pondering the meaning of life.

Why should I spend my life churning out words that do not express the profundity of the human existence, he asked himself. He turned to serious writing, which often pays 100 yuan ($15) or less for every 1,000 Chinese characters. But he has no regrets. Unless you're a best-selling writer, he says, the money from creating literature does not make a difference to the quality of your material life.

However, people like Xie do care about fame and feel their writing can bring about change and gain them more respect. “What we want most is the recognition and applause from peers,” said Zhe Gui, the 35-year-old from Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, a place with a pervasive business culture.

Wolfgang Kubin Condemns Chinese Writers

right Wolfgang Kubin, the respected Sinologist and professor at the University of Bonn, wrote in the China Daily, “What I often hear or read in German-speaking countries about contemporary Chinese writers amounts to contempt...I have never read deeper condemnation of a Chinese writer than that of Gao Xingjian in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, first in 2000 and then last year. But, I have to confess, I'd prefer dying to writing Soul Mountain and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature for it, as the novel is a real shame.” [Source:Wolfgang Kubin, China Daily, October 9, 2010]

“What makes contemporary Chinese writers in general, suspicious in the eyes of German intellectuals, writers and scholars is that they do not seem to fulfill the duties of a true author. From a German perspective, a writer has to be the servant of the language and sacrifice everything in its service. He/she has to forget about the market and success, and live only for his/her work. In fact, his/her achievements may be recognized only after his/her death. A true writer has to accept this.” [Ibid]

“Many Chinese writers today write a kind of “baby Chinese”, which does not demand even a foreigner to use a dictionary. They squint at the market and entrench themselves behind walls, protected by guards. As part of the middle class, they do not live among the common people any more, and cannot, or prefer not to, speak about social problems.” [Ibid]

“What many Chinese writers lack today is the feeling of solidarity, which is actually is a socialist virtue. It has been lost among today's Chinese writers. Instead of helping their colleagues in distress, they prefer to blame them, or worse, praise themselves. Never was Cao Pi's saying more true than today: Those who are in literature despise each other.” [Ibid]

“For many reasons, contemporary Chinese literature is a real problem. Many best-selling Chinese authors are, from a German perspective, outdated. Their books may sell well even in Germany, but their readers do not include German intellectuals, writers or scholars, but people who are not interested in literature per se but in their descriptions of sex and crime.” [Ibid]

Lack of Exposure Outside China for Chinese Literature

Shen Lili wrote in the Global Times: Excellent Chinese literature has been undiscovered for too long and it's high time it gained more worldwide appreciation. Today, many foreign publishers appear to be clamoring to discover new Chinese writers, but they often don't know where to begin. These translated Chinese literature magazines step right into the void and provide them a proper platform to find celebrated Chinese writers. [Source: Shen Lili, Global Times, December 13, 2011]

Not long ago, Li Jingze and Qiu Huadong of Path Light, met the chief and vice editors of Granta, the respected and distinguished English literature magazine from the UK. The Granta editors were very pleased to receive the first issue of Path Light, saying they devoted their latest issue to Afghan authors and the following two to post-Soviet and Indian authors, and they were considering doing a Chinese issue."We can act as a window to them, providing access to the abundance of Chinese literature," said Qiu. It's definitely a win-win deal.

"It turns out that our idea of 'good' works almost perfectly coincide with that of foreigners!" said Qiu. "It's reasonable," he added. "A novel by Mo Yan about life in a Chinese village and an American novel describing the life of a Las Vegas gambler may have the same essential theme - the brilliance of humanity."

In the past, most Chinese novels published in the West were mainly about the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), but, in China, many of these novels are widely thought to be poor in quality. The novel Red, which tells the history of three generations of Chinese women in one family, has been a best-seller in Britain for many years, but to literary experts like Qiu Huadong, it has "little value in literature, and is not very well written."

These books are quite influential abroad, regarded as a window to China. But in fact scenes in these stories are far from the reality of life in China, and they reflect even less the reality of today's China.

Why Chinese Writers Are Not Read Overseas

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“Modern Chinese literature is at best a niche interest overseas, breaking through only occasionally in the form of books such as Mo Yan's Red Sorghum , which was later made into a film by Oscar-nominated director Zhang Yimou. Even iconic Chinese writers such as Lu Xun---who wrote biting social satire and sought to change what they viewed as a corrupt, backward and foreign-dominated China in the early 20th century---is largely unread and unknown in the West.” [Source: Ben Blanchard, South China Morning Post, Reuters, May 4, 2009]

“Chinese writers bemoan the lack of interest abroad in the country's literary treasures. “When western literature started coming into China over that period of the May 4 movement, there were lots of people translating their books into Chinese,” said Feng Jicai, whose most famous novels explore the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. “But there is hardly anybody in the west translating Chinese works. It's important to introduce Chinese literature to the west, but it's not the fault of the Chinese that it's not happening,” he says.” [Ibid]

“Jo Lusby, general manager of publisher Penguin China, admits to a sense of frustration at trying to bring contemporary Chinese authors to a western audience, even as sales of classics such as Journey to the West, are strong. “Chinese writers are writing for a Chinese audience about China. There are some books I would love to do out of China, but I think it needs too much back story for a western reader to enjoy them in the way a Chinese reader reads them,” she says, adding that a lack of translators compounds the problem. Often, the books which do achieve a level of success overseas are not the ones the government approves of, although there are exceptions. Jiang Rong's strongly political and best-selling Wolf Totem has sold well in English.” [Ibid]

“In 2000, China banned two novels for their graphic sexual content which then caused a brief stir abroad after they were translated into English - Mian Mian's Candy and literary counterpart Zhou Weihui's Shanghai Baby. These aren't the kinds of writers the mainland, keen to promote itself as a modern, cultured and benign rising power, wants to be popular abroad. “Westerners are attracted to banned Chinese books even if they are not good works of literature,” says Chen Jiangong, vice-chairman of the government-linked Chinese Writers' Association. “They are curious about them. So sometimes Chinese authors write simply to shock and be banned so as to appeal to foreigners.” [Ibid]

“Lusby says it is a challenge to bring Chinese writers over for book tours because few speak much English, so publishers need some other way of drawing in readers. “Oftentimes `banned in China' is the only selling point publishers can use to communicate what the book is about,” she says.” [Ibid]

Pathlight and Chutzpah: English Translation of Chinese Literature

In November 2011 the first issue of Pathlight magazine, a new literary publication produced jointly by Paper Republic and People's Literature magazine, was released. Now in a three-issue trial period, Pathlight will focus primarily on writing from relatively new and unknown Chinese writers, and aims to provide a comprehensive look at the newest trends in contemporary Chinese.

Shen Lili wrote in the Global Time: People's Literature (a magazine founded in 1949, the same year as the PRC) launched its own English edition, called Path Light, following the example of Chutzpah magazine. People's Literature spent about two months preparing the first edition of Path Light. Unlike Chutzpah, which publishes its English edition twice a month as an extension of its Chinese version, Path Light will publish four issues per year as an independent magazine. Although they take different forms, the two publications share the same goals. [Source: Shen Lili, Global Times, December 13, 2011]

"As our purpose is to promote excellent Chinese literary works and writers to the outside world, making a profit is currently not a consideration. In fact, it is impossible to earn money immediately," chief editor ofPeople's Literature Li Jingze told the Global Times. "We have to do it this way. Chinese literature badly needs dedicated advocates." According to Li, new Chinese writers are unknown to foreigners even though in the last decade, China's cultural communication with other countries has increased substantially.

Ou Ning, the chief editor of Chutzpah, founded the bilingual magazine after making the same observation. A few years ago, Ou was shopping in a bookstore abroad, and found the Asian literature section filled with Indian and Japanese books translated into English, while Chinese works were few. "Then I thought I wanted to do something about this," Ou told Global Times.

The translation staff at both Path Light and Chutzpah are Chinese who immigrated to English speaking countries at an early age, generally four or five years old, and stayed there into adulthood. Aside from being skilled in Chinese-English translation, the ideal translators must have a "passion for Chinese literature," according to Qiu. "There are only a few people who possess these qualities in the whole world. Only dozens, I suppose, fit this description, and we scoured the planet to find about 20 of them."

Both Path Light and Chutzpah insist on taking art as the only standard in choosing articles for their magazine. "We only look at quality, not the whims of the market," Ou Ning told Global Times. Qiu Huadong also said, "Art is our ruler. With a wide scope and an open mind, we choose articles that truly exemplify and represent the abundant and complicated realities of our country, past and present. We will display only the highest level of Chinese literature."

Pathlight: A New Literary Magazine

Difficulty of Translating Chinese Literature to English

Shen Lili wrote in the Global Times: “Anyone who has ever done translation work understands how difficult it can be, especially when it's between two fundamentally different languages. And anyone who's ever read a bad translation knows how it can cast a bad light on the writing itself. [Source: Shen Lili, Global Times, December 13, 2011]

Literature translation is different from other, more straightforward kinds of translation. It's even harder and must be done by native speakers. Although many Chinese who are extraordinarily good in English may have no problem translating English into Chinese, translating Chinese into English is a different animal altogether.

On Rewriting English Translations of Chinese Novels

Chitralekha Basu wrote in the China Daily, Bonn University academic Wolfgang Kubin has said “Chinese novelists cannot handle long works of fiction.” He attributes the success of Jiang Rong (WolfTotem), Su Tong (The Boat to Redemption) and Bi Feiyu (Three Sisters) in the international arena to the intervention of translators who, he says, are rewriting the original texts to make them more presentable to a Western audience. [Source: Chitralekha Basu, China Daily August 19, 2011]

Significantly, the translator of all three books mentioned above is Howard Goldblatt, a professor of Chinese at the University of Notre Dame, and generally recognized as the doyenamong the translators of Chinese fiction in English, with more than 40 titles in print. Kubin's take on Goldblatt's staggering pile of translations is this: "Goldblatt summarizes in his own English what the Chinese novelist in question might have wanted to say. He irons out the flaws in the original text. Sometimes he drops paragraphs altogether and deletes culture-specific references to make the text more accessible to Western readers. The end product is significantly different from the original."

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Goldblatt sounds equally ambivalent when asked to respond to the contentious issue of the translator's right to rewrite - a question that seems to turn up like a bad penny in his mailbox every other week since he published his translation of Wolf Totem in 2007. Journalists, bloggers and dissertation-writers keep asking him why he chose to drop a large section, about 30,000 Chinese characters, from the book's postscript and glossed the reference to sky burial - thereby adding a sentence not in the original. "I'm happy to take Wolfgang's comments as a compliment," Goldblatt says in a cryptic e-mail note. "Jiang Rong, the author, would likely disagree. But he (Kubin) gives me too much credit, since the Penguin editor's role was significant and authoritative, in that the cuts originated with her."

Editorial intervention is something that happens backstage of the translation show, unbeknownst to the reader. Nicky Harman, who has translated several Chinese authors, including Han Dong and Hong Ying, says, "Many publishing houses have editors who will edit your translation whether you like it or not." "If you come across a translation which has dropped a significant component of the original, don't immediately shoot down the translator. It may have been the editor who did it."

A translator's job is often riddled with tough choices. While seasoned translator Eric Abrahamsen would like Western readers to learn to appreciate Chinese particularities, sometimes these appear somewhat idiosyncratic or plain bizarre in English. For instance, a pretty girl described as having a "goose-egg face" sounds nice in Chinese, "but not necessarily attractive or alluring in English". While Abrahamsen is mulling over whether to "go with moon-shaped or heart-shaped, as equivalent ways of creating a similar effect in English", he admits that "part of me would really like to leave it as goose-egg".

In a way, Abrahamsen - who runs Paper Republic, a website dedicated to promoting Chinese literature among an English-speaking audience - is in agreement with Kubin's contention that Chinese fiction needs a bit of nip and tuck, to be made presentable to the world market. "The craft of writing is not very developed or highly regarded in China, and much of what is published contains malapropisms or plain old errors that shouldn't be allowed into the translation," he says. He can see the point of editors "willing to alter the story to fit the narrative expectations of Western readers - most notably in toning down egregious melodrama, or when a writer starts sermonizing in the middle of a story."

Mao Dun Prize

The Mao Dun Literature Prize is the country's most prestigious literary prize for novels. Launched in 1982 it is awarded every four years to no more than five novels. In 2011, for the first time, since the establishment of the prize in 1982, each winner was given substantial prize money---500,000 yuan ($78,200).

Over the three decades since the prize was started, 38 novels have won the honor. Statistics from People's Literature Publishing House, which has published 17 of the 38 winners, shows that total sales volume of the 17 titles has exceeded 6.5 million. Among them, the top three are White Deer Plain by Chen Zhongshi with 1.35 million copies sold, Red Poppies by A Lai with 0.96 million copies sold, and Hibiscus Town by Gu Hua with 0.86 million copies sold.

The Mao Dun Literature Prize is now administered by the Chinese Writers' Association (CWA). The Eighth Mao Dun Literature Prize winners were announced in August 2011 after five rounds of voting by 61 jury members including literary critics and writers. The awards ceremony was held at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing a month later

Internet novels were among Mao Dun competitors for the first time in 2011. The Global Times reported: “Eight items of literary works published on the Internet will join another 170 novels to compete for the Mao Dun Literature Prize, one of China’s most prestigious literary awards, according to the Chinese Writers Association (CWA)...This is the first time that Internet novels have been accepted as qualified candidates for the prize....Recent years have shown a growing trend of Internet-based publication of literary works in China, whose number of Internet users climbed to 477 million this year. In an earlier talk with media, Chen Qirong, a spokesman with the CWA, said that by opening the doors for Internet novels, China’s awards have begun to recognize the influence of Internet literature. [Source: Global Times June 21, 2011]

Writing and the Internet in China

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “The Internet has ignited a revolution in China’s publishing industry by allowing a diversity of voices to bloom. Publishing houses can spot new talents and buy the rights for print editions. All this has contributed to the market reforms of the past decade and debate within the party about how to both nurture and control the industry.

Although its systemic censorship crushes creativity, the party craves domestic and international respect for China’s cultural output. After a four-day policy meeting on culture and ideology in October, the party’s Central Committee said China needed to bolster its soft power and “cultural security” with more “outstanding cultural products.” Last week, People’s Daily ran a commentary that called for the state to build up publishing houses into companies with international brands so their books can help spread “socialist core values.” And some officials ache for a mainland Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, November 6, 2011]

“The Internet created all, and I say all, the literary trends that took off in 2005 and afterward,” said Jo Lusby, managing director of Penguin China. But the Internet does not offer writers total liberation, either, since there are online monitors. And some writers are reluctant to post entire books because of fears of piracy; Murong Xuecun said he had not posted his last book, a nonfiction work about a pyramid scheme.

On how the Internet has influenced writing, the poet Hu Xudong told Artspace China: “If you want to work independently to develop your own style and language, you can do that online. But society still judges you by whether or not you have published a book according to traditional conventions. You might be known as a famous internet writer, but if you really want to be recognised with any sort of authority you still have to publish a physical book. [Source: Christen Cornell, Artspace China July 15, 2011]

Then again, the internet and traditional forms of publishing do sometimes crossover. So for example I know lots of publishers who’ll use the internet to do their research looking for new writers. If they find something that’s popular, that they think has potential to sell, they’ll approach the writers, arrange a contract and publish straight away.

So lots of people who write online---not only those writing novels, also those writing other things like a personal diary---can have a very clear ambition which is still to be published in traditional form. To still have a paper book. I think people are starting to see publication on the internet as a stage before real publication. A prelude to more serious work.

On the influence of the Internet on writing, Xu said, “There has definitely been some influence here, although we’re still in awkward phase. When the internet first started I had a website with some friends. It was huge, a bit like Douban today, and was called New Youth---or Xin Qingnian. We wanted to use the internet to innovate with some of these basic principles of language and narrative, and we did some experiments with poetry. So for example if you moved the mouse somewhere on the screen a word might suddenly jump out and turn into something else; or if you clicked a sentence it might take you somewhere else. A bit like a game, or hypertext.

We were looking for a new way of using the Chinese language. Something that you could call poetry but also contemporary art. A scientific art, or “a geek art', you could say. It was very difficult to find a context for this kind of thing in China, though, and we wrapped up the website after a few years. While poets in other countries spent the 1960s and 1970s experimenting with concrete poetry, visual poetry, and performance poetry, most poets in China were busy creating large-scale, traditional works. So we never really had this base.

Internet novels were among Mao Dun competitors for the first time in 2011. The Global Times reported: “Eight items of literary works published on the Internet will join another 170 novels to compete for the Mao Dun Literature Prize, one of China’s most prestigious literary awards, according to the Chinese Writers Association (CWA)...This is the first time that Internet novels have been accepted as qualified candidates for the prize....Recent years have shown a growing trend of Internet-based publication of literary works in China, whose number of Internet users climbed to 477 million this year. In an earlier talk with media, Chen Qirong, a spokesman with the CWA, said that by opening the doors for Internet novels, China’s awards have begun to recognize the influence of Internet literature. [Source: Global Times June 21, 2011]

China’s First Microblog Novel

Jiang Wanjuan wrote in the Global Times, “Writer Wen Huajian recently published his new novel---but it's quite different from his previous ones and probably any other Chinese novels out there: this one is made up of chapters written on his microblog, 140 characters a time. Weibo Shiqi De Aiqing (“Love in the Age of Microblogging”), a story about a romance between a middle-aged writer and a famous actress, is recognized as the first microblog novel in China. [Source: Jiang Wanjuan, Global Times, April 13, 2011]

Wen was inspired by people he met on his microblog 15 months ago. He set the main storyline but allowed readers to interact and suggest details as the story evolved post-by-post on his Sina microblog. His narrative finished at around 500 posts in January and attracted more than 126,000 readers. "My idea was simple. I saw so many people turning to a short-form blog as they were looking for something easy to digest," Wen explained in a press conference earlier this week. "So I decided to write something different, something bite-sized."

In Wen's understanding, microblog novels should include people who blog themselves, the things they talk about and their slang and idioms, such as emoticons.The most important thing, he said, was that every post of 140 words must end with a cliffhanger or an open-ended question. Microblog novels are evolving into a phenomenon in other countries, especially Japan, which constantly hosts contests for the world's latest literature form.

Even so, before Wen's book got published, few people saw the market potential in the genre as being particularly lucrative, as microblogs are free to access. "It is a brand new style of literature.Besides that, there are still many people who prefer paper books. With delicate writing and page design, it is a different experience from reading on the screen," said Tian Xuefeng, head of Shenyang Publishing House, Wen's publisher. "It does have risks to invest in [this], but which book does not?"

One-Tweet Novels' Are Big in China

On the same subject Ho Ai Li wrote in The Straits Times, “The short story has become even shorter in China's cyberspace. First there were the tales of a few hundred words called flash fiction that could be read over a smoke break. Now readers are going for stories that can unfold in a tweet, or two cellphone text messages. Called 'micro-novels' or 'hint fiction', these 140-word tales have found favour among Chinese netizens who like their stories short and sweet. They have become common on Twitter-like social media websites in China, with netizens writing their own tales or sharing good ones. [Source: Ho Ai Li, The Straits Times, July 6, 2011]

Contests to choose the best micro-novels have attracted tens of thousands of entries, and well-known writers like columnist Cai Lan and author Liu Liu are getting in on the act as well. Websites and even a conference have sprung up to discuss the new literary form, with plans for a new magazine devoted to these short tales. One author has even published a book, titled "Love In The Age of Weibo", where he put together 492 of his self-contained tweets into a novel about a man who falls in love with an actress.

The popularity of these quick reads is a sign of the times, says professor Mo Huaiqi from Chongqing Normal University. "We are living in an era of fast food. Such micro-novels represent reading and writing fast food-style," he tells The Straits Times. They also represent an offshoot of China's vibrant online literary scene, which has seen many an Internet writer make it big. Take for instance, Murong Xuecun, a nominee for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008 and best known for "Leave Me Alone: A Novel Of Chengdu", a novel that was written on the Internet.

Like a lot of online literature, micro-novels are also known for their interactivity. Readers can post instant comments or forward the story to their friends. Or they can write one themselves. The brevity of the form has certainly encouraged aspiring authors, but some questioned if such short story forms will enjoy a long life. Mo believes that they are just a fad and do not have much substance. He says: "They are more like word games. People will get sick of them over time."

In a way, micro-novels are not that novel. Stories of around 100 words can be found in classical Chinese literature, like those in "The Strange Tales Of Liaozhai", a collection of mainly supernatural stories written in the Qing Dynasty. But Murong notes that novels that have had the most appeal traditionally in China are those of considerable length, of around 100,000 words. In comparison, micro-novels usually do not make the ranks of classics. "It's only a snapshot. It doesn't meet people's expectations for plot development and characters," the writer says.

But others say the genre has potential. These stories may be brief but they need not be small, notes netizen Lu Cheng Yi Jian. They do not just have to be about little snapshots of life or stories, but can touch on larger themes, he adds. It is too early to say how such story forms will develop, but the 140-word limit does force writers to be skilful and precise in their use of the language, says prominent Chinese publisher Lu Jinbo.

While some say the 140-word limit is too little, it may be a tad long for others, namely budding online writers trying to compose a narrative in just 20 words. No wonder Peking University's Chinese language lecturer Zhang Yiwu jokes: "Micro-novels are like women's skirts - the shorter, the better."

Image Sources: University of Washington, Ohio State University, Amazon.com, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html , Wikipedia, Achievement.org, Landberger posters

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2012

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