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Why what China is reading matters

by Paul French
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From xianxia (alternate reality) to danmei (boys love) novels, a new book on reading in China reveals just how different Chinese readers are from their Western counterparts. Paul French caught up with author Megan Walsh to find out more

Knowing what China is reading is useful for anyone trying to better understand the Chinese consumer and Chinese society. It’s a great addition to our knowledge of trends, tastes, consumption and, of course, the limits of what can be said and read. Knowing what a society is reading shows us its obsessions, fascinations and regional and demographic differences. In The Subplot: What China is Reading and Why it Matters (Columbia Global Reports), Megan Walsh has done an incredible job pulling together all the strands of what China is reading right now — which authors, genres and styles, as well as how they are reading (online, e-books, hard copy). It’s a surprising and revealing book showing that Chinese readers are very different from their Western counterparts. 

Megan studied Chinese literature and film at SOAS in London and regularly writes about and reviews Chinese fiction for many major newspapers and journals. Paul French caught up with Walsh to talk about Chinese fiction tastes and trends.

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There’s so much to talk about in this book, but I’d like to focus on Chapter 3 which you title ‘The Factory: The Business of Online Escapism.’ I think the Chinese online literature market is fascinating because we don’t really have any equivalent in Britain and it’s about what stories compel readers so much that they are paying to read new chapters all the time. Can you give us a brief overview of China’s online reading platforms, the size and scope of what they’re publishing and how many people use them?

Chinese online fiction is, in short, the largest, self-generating industry of unregulated, free-market fiction in the world, and the quality is usually pretty poor. Still, it boasts impressive statistics. There are an estimated 450 million active readers and 17 million authors vying to catch and keep “eyeballs.” Most platforms, including Hongxiu, Jinjiang Literature City (Jjwxc), Qidian and China Literature operate a pay-per-chapter system, which has created a culture of serialisation. It has nurtured a rather dog-eat-dog approach to writing, with writers often plagiarising other people’s work and deploying sloppy clickbait tactics in order to keep updating and keep people reading. Novels are cancelled if they don’t attract enough visits, while the most popular romance and fantasy titles might be snapped up for highly coveted and extremely lucrative TV, anime or gaming adaptations. 

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Online platforms, the largest of which is Tencent’s China Literature, do not think of themselves as publishers, but instead IP cultivation powerhouses, in which the main aim of novel-writing is, basically, mercenary. China Literature sees itself as the new Disney, a media and entertainment behemoth that generates and capitalises on its own IP, with its own TV and movie production companies, including New Classics Media. While its growth has somewhat plateaued in China, it now has its sights set on international expansion, setting up Webnovel and Inkstone, platforms to showcase translated online Chinese fiction as well as a platform for international writers themselves — a canny move given how popular fan fiction is becoming these days. Webnovel is already very popular in the West, and mired in controversy, with poor regulations to prevent plagiarism and giving writers little opportunity to have a meaningful, individualised presence online.

It seems to me that online reading is where genre really exists in China — both familiar genres such as crime, fantasy and romance, as well as what you call “male oriented titles,” “face slapping books” and “xianxia” or immortal hero novels. Can you tell us which genres are most popular and which of them replicate what we have in the West or are unique to China?

The biggest overlaps between China and the West are fan fiction and teen romance. In terms of genres that are unique to China, traditional wuxia (the mythical world of martial arts heroes popularised by Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) and the newer fantastical realm of xianxia are the most notable. Like wuxia, xianxia novels take place in a mythic alternate reality, but it has shunned the camaraderie, moral compass and magical realism of wuxia stories and replaced it with dimension-bending worlds in which an often shameless, militantly individualistic protagonist spends thousands of chapters levelling up and smiting opponents to achieve his own immortality and omnipotence. As a result, xianxia is completely detached from reality. Often referred to as “cultivation novels,” xianxia narratives are plotted more like a computer game in which new weapons, superpowers and enemies differentiate one chapter from another. Amoral, self-obsessed hotheads are, of course, not to the taste of the CCP, who want self-sacrificing socialist heroes, and the crackdown on xianxia is already in full swing. Beyond this, there are in excess of 200 genres — things like tomb-raiding sagas, gaming or avatar-style romances and workplace politics — but created within the same climate as all the others, they tend to be deceptively, rather than thrillingly, diverse.  

Can you talk a little about online novels aimed specifically at female readers?

Unsurprisingly, romance dominates female-orientated fiction and is the feeder lane for the most popular TV adaptations. Romance — and fiction about it — was effectively banned under Mao; back then one’s heart belonged to the Party. In 1980, Zhang Jie’s short story Love Must Not Be Forgotten, about a female cadre who was never able to act on her feelings, reignited romance as both a subject and a human right. And as far as heteronormative romances go, young online novelists are certainly making up for lost time. The internet is flooded with girl-next-door protagonists (widely seen as self-inserts) who captivate the heart of a celebrity, tycoon, feudal aristocrat or immortal god. Other girls in the story are routinely depicted as shameless deceivers, trying to steal the man’s affections (much to the mixed pleasure and outrage of online readers who comment feverishly on associated forums). The wealth and status of the male love interest is baked into the dynamic, so much so that the romance often begins as a purely financial arrangement: a girl agrees to carry a CEO’s baby or signs a loveless marriage contract to a tycoon who is wedded to his work.

It is, therefore, quite revealing that the most popular romances for young girls are in fact danmei or boy’s love (BL) novels. They are written by and for young heterosexual girls about male lovers. The main reason for their popularity is widely thought to be that educated, only-child girls who receive the same pressures as their male peers – but fewer of their freedoms, particularly in relationships – find imagining themselves as boys without any of the burdens that come with being a liberated woman. 

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Clearly, the Party is keen to see certain sorts of fiction dominate — “saints and martyrs” as you say — and are also rather distrustful and wary of online reading platforms. What’s emerging in this new, somewhat more controlled, cultural moment, and is anyone buying it?

I think the popularity and scale of online fantasies has taken the Party by surprise, and they are desperately trying to reclaim control of production and content. Several websites, in particular Jjwxc, which hosts the majority of danmei novels, have had to undergo “rectification” and commit to a higher socialist rating in terms of the content they host. The government has set up its own University of Online Fiction, devoted to realism and patriotic narratives, and commissioned “Red Stories” in which it has been claimed that superhero narratives can simply be mapped on to the stories of China’s red heroes from history. I genuinely don’t know how popular these propagandist novels will be – it is arguably one of the hardest things to gauge. The government don’t want to see its socialist heroes floundering in fact or fiction. But certainly, just as many action movies have done in the West, screen depictions of China being the world’s moral, technological and military trailblazer have been incredibly popular in recent years. Whether or not patriotism works on the page too, and I suspect it doesn’t, we are yet to see.

Are reading tastes national or are the cities reading differently to the countryside and younger readers differently to older readers? How segmented is the market?

I genuinely don’t think I can answer with any authority, but I can say what I imagine to the be case. There is obviously still a huge divide between rural and urban residents in terms of access to quality education and opportunity. By extension, there are big differences in lifestyle for those living in third or fourth-tier cities compared to those in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that those with less economic mobility and perceived cultural capital were more likely to be drawn to escapist fantasies, while self-help titles dominate reading habits in the bigger cities. Many fantasy readers refer to themselves with a degree of ironic pride as diaosi (variously translated as “penis hairs” or “losers”); they are only too aware of the stark difference between the superheroes and irresistible heroines they read about and their own lowly status. But this is, of course, all relative. Young people who fail to ace the gaokao and get a high-earning job in Shanghai are also likely to feel the strain, and seek consolation in fiction, in computer games, in movie theatres.

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In many ways, the internet has democratised reading tastes in a way that wasn’t imaginable even ten years ago. The internet has meant that a steel worker can make money writing fiction by night, and it has nurtured the growing trove of wonderful migrant worker poetry published on various online platforms that, steeped in cultural and literary references, suggest that many of these apparently “uncultured” rural workers are in fact better read than the urban elites who invariably binge trashy fiction on their daily commute. As far as the older generations go, the literary types are incredibly well versed in both Chinese and translated world fiction, but have a penchant for social realism. Ge Fei wrote an interesting novella called The Invisibility Cloak (translated by Canaan Morse) about the few middle-aged eccentrics who go against the flow, whilst everyone else is moving in the same, homogenising direction of wanting more money and more stuff. If there were to be a national taste, the restless desire to change one’s fate at this time of economic ascension, either through hard work, graft or idle fantasy, has probably had the biggest impact on the kinds of books people are reading and writing. 

What or who are you reading right now? Can you suggest a few books to us, preferably translated, that are useful for getting a handle on contemporary Chinese literary tastes? 

For a mix of titles reflecting various aspects of Chinese literary (and not so literary) culture, you could try combining something like The Day the Sun Died by Yan Lianke (trans. Carlos Rojas), Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry (trans. Eleanor Goodman), I Shall Seal the Heavens by Er Gen (trans. Death Blade), Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by MXTX, In the Name of the People by Zhou Meisen (trans. Emily Hein), A Perfect Crime by A Yi (trans. Anna Holmwood) and Invisible Planets: 10 Visions of the Future from China (trans. Ken Liu). 

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