BEIJING — For the country that invented paper it is no small irony that China’s most innovative writing happens off the page. A number of authors, stifled by state censorship and a conservative publishing industry, are finding freedom online.
In the late 1990s aspiring literati began to share works online. One of these, Li Jie, started to write internet stories for no other reason than to kill time. Bored with her job serving customers in a bank, she signed up under the pen name Anni Baobei. Her depiction of a damaged, disillusioned youth hit a nerve. Aged just 25, to the horror of her parents, Ms Li gave up a secure income to write full time. The gamble paid off. She made the transition to print and is still one of China’s bestselling authors.
Internet writing has been nothing short of a revolution for Chinese literature. It has allowed myriad voices to be heard. The digital landscape and technology have changed since the first wave of authors began to write; readers in China now access novels through smartphones and tablets rather than desktops. Yet the internet remains the “single root” in China today to kick-start a career as a wordsmith, says Jo Lusby, managing director of Penguin China, a publishing house. “There are no authors under the age of 35 who were not discovered on the internet,” she adds.
Online literature sites have blossomed in the last decade. They provide a rich, and grassroots, alternative to the staid state-run publishing houses. While all books published in the mainland are subject to scrutiny by cautious editors and zealous censors, online literature sites are watched less carefully. They still operate behind the “great firewall”, China’s internet-filtering system which blocks sensitive words or topics, but the sheer volume of works produced, combined with the lack of editorial oversight, creates an important loophole.
On sites such as Rongshuxia visitors pay per instalment to read works. Authors, often posting and writing simultaneously, can gauge reader feedback and shift plots as they go. Innovative editors from China’s burgeoning private publishing industry trawl through them to find the next big thing.
In 2002 Hao Qun was working as a car salesman in Chengdu, a metropolis in southern China, when he began to write a novel. Under the pseudonym Murong Xuecun (the name by which he is now known) he posted his work online in instalments, in Dickensian fashion, adjusting characters and plot turns as he went. The resulting book “Chengdu, Please Forget Me Tonight”, a brutal indictment of a disenchanted urban China, found fans in the country’s cyber-youth. It has attracted an estimated three to five million readers, according to Harvey Thomlinson, Mr Murong’s English-language publisher and translator. In 2008, the book (published in English as “Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu”) was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary prize. Known for tackling social issues, Mr Murong (pictured right) also serialised “Dancing Through Red Dust”, a novel about China’s corrupt legal system, online in 2008.
Online writing is not without perils. Mr Murong says that one impatient reader tried to write his own version of the next chapter before the author’s instalment had been published. Piracy is another issue. But Mr Murong insists that copyright abuse is the least of his concerns: “A relaxed and free environment is more important than royalties.”
Internet writing is not, however, just a platform for speaking out; it is for entertainment too. While many state publishers continue to stubbornly view literature as a vehicle for propaganda or self-improvement, online sites are driven by market forces and the interests of readers have encouraged niche genres, from teen romance to time travel. On the site Qidian, the top three ranked novels in January were a Chinese knight-errant novel, fantasy fiction and historical fiction. Mainstream acceptance has followed. In 2011, internet novels were included for the first time as candidates for the state-approved Mao Dun Literature prize.
With 564m internet users in China, online literature sites are big business. Shanda Literature is one of the largest players. The company, founded in 2008, conglomerated the popular websites Qidian and Hongxiu, among others. It currently has more than 6m user-generated titles in its database, according to the company’s CEO, Hou Xiaoqiang.
Shanda is interested in marketable writers who can generate income for the company through spin-off TV, film and video-game deals. But with success comes growth and recognition, making it impossible for Shanda to stay under the radar—to remain operational, good government relations are key. Mr Hou claims that Shanda’s websites have far less intervention from censors than traditional publishing houses. But he says he “stands firm” in cracking down on content which violates state rules.
With their old spaces squeezed as such sites attract more state surveillance, some of the more daring political writers are turning to even newer online platforms, especially micro-blogs, to express their views. Social media is now a far more important tool for Mr Murong—his account on Sina Weibo (a Chinese version of Twitter) has more than 3m followers. Posts can be deleted by censors, but not before they have been read by thousands. Although no replacement for long-form fiction, it enables authors to connect directly with readers and pass on sensitive messages that online sites might no longer stand.
For Ms Li writing online has become too mass market. In the 1990s, she explains, the few internet users were well-educated and authors who posted online were passionately serious about their craft. Now vanity publishing is rife and anyone can try their hand as a writer. “The internet has become too popularised,” she argues. The sheer quantity and speed of online literature means that much will be forgettable dross. But the internet has opened up pathways around China’s state censorship apparatus. From the wilderness, new important voices will continue to emerge.
Photograph by Kevin Poh