The past decade has seen a revolution in Chinese literature, fuelled by the rapid spread of the internet. Online writing has kicked open the doors for new topics and genres, redrawing the contours of China’s publishing industry.
"Before the net, the only way to publish was in a literary magazine or a newspaper, but these channels were governed by people with really unique tastes," explains Murong Xuecun, one of the most successful of China’s new generation of online novelists. "My first novel Leave Me Alone was huge when it was published because at that time there was no urban literature. Not a single book describing a real city."
Inspired by the profusion of Chinese literature websites that began appearing in the late 1990s, Murong posted Leave Me Alone — A Novel of Chengdu as a series in 2002 and it became a sensation. In contrast to the rural tales favoured by official publishers, the hard-boiled style of Leave Me Alone painted a brutally honest portrait of contemporary Chinese urban life, dripping with greed, corruption and emotionless sex. It struck an instant chord with China’s young middle class, eventually attracting an estimated five million readers.
A print version was quickly published and is thought to have sold over a million copies — although exact sales figures are notoriously unreliable in China. The novel has since been adapted as a film, a TV series and a stage play, while the first English translation was recently published by Australia’s Allen & Unwin.
Murong’s meteoric rise from hobbyist to best-selling author is not unusual. Many writers of China’s "online" generation have launched careers posting material on the net that could never have seen the light of day in earlier times. Their popularity in the virtual realm has allowed them to make the leap to print via the plethora of small, unofficial publishers that have grown up alongside the explosion in net-based literature.
Since the success of Leave Me Alone, Murong has posted a further three novels online, all of which have appeared in best-selling print editions. Similarly, Anni Baobei (Annie Baby) began posting her romantic tales of women standing alone from the crowd in 1998, and found a loyal audience among China’s growing class of urban white-collar women. Her publisher estimates she now sells around 800,000 volumes a year.
Although very different in style and subject matter, Murong and Anni Baobei’s individual concerns are typical of the way China’s online novelists eschew the social obligations traditionally placed on Chinese writers. Their approach has put them at odds with the country’s state-sponsored literary institutions.
"One way to look at this is there are really two types of writer in China," claims Harvey Thomlinson, Murong’s Hong Kong-based English translator. "One is the official writers who belong to the Chinese Writers’ Association. If you belong to that it’s like having a job — you get a salary just for being a member. They convene various conferences, the writers go along and it’s all very pleasant, but at the same time there is a subtle ideological pressure to be ‘constructive’. Then there are writers like Murong and many others who do not belong — or chose not to belong — to that association. They don’t have the support that official writers enjoy in terms of official favour, getting in with the big publishers, or being promoted at book fairs. They have to do it themselves."
To this day, all of China’s official publishing houses are state-owned, "regulating" the industry through their monopoly over the issuing of ISBN numbers, compulsory for all mainland publications. Paradoxically, over the past decade, the dominance of these companies has been undermined by their practice of selling ISBNs to small, unofficial publishers — a classic example of the way the Chinese Government manipulates social controls to maximise profits for state enterprises.
Lu Jinbo has been a key player in this new publishing landscape. He began his career as an online writer, under the penname Li Xunhuan, but since 2000 has worked for one of the most popular literature websites, Rongshuxia. When the site was founded in 1997, it was simply a space where amateur scribes could post their stories. After Lu Jinbo joined the Rongshu company, they began acting as literary agents, selling content to print publishers. In 2002, they took the next step and began purchasing ISBNs from state operations in order to release their own titles. Last year, Lu set a new precedent by forming a joint enterprise with a state publisher, in which he holds a 49 per cent stake. According to Lu, firms like Rongshu have transformed "80 per cent of China’s publishing structures in the last 10 years".
The commercially driven nature of unofficial publishers has seen genre writing become extremely popular, while discussions of sex and darker themes of violence and corruption have also appeared for the first time. Printed literature, however, is still subject to a far greater degree of censorship than the relatively unrestricted online environment for fiction. When Murong’s Leave Me Alone was released in book form, more than 10,000 words — including all discussions of police corruption and drug abuse — were deleted. His latest novel, Dancing Through Red Dust, had 20,000 words cut out and he had to rewrite the ending three times.
"Sensitive content is pre-emptively deleted by the publisher," explains Murong. "Because if they don’t the book may be banned outright, and the editor may get into trouble." He adds with a knowing grin, "But since 2002 Leave Me Alone has been republished many times. With each new version I have added some of the deleted content, until the full text is now available in China. In any case, it was always available online."
Lu Jinbo doesn’t directly acknowledge publishers’ pre-emptive censorship of authors’ work, but admits; "Our company has some power to decide content. We are very careful — we know what can be published and what can’t."
Despite the tight restrictions that still exist for printed fiction, the internet has unleashed a torrent of written expression in China. Unfortunately for non-Chinese readers, little of this material has been translated, although the recent English edition of Murong’s Leave Me Alone provides a tantalising glimpse into China’s new literary world. Most importantly, for the first time in over half a century, mainland Chinese have a space in which they can read and write fiction free from the dictates of state ideology.
Thanks to Hua Rong and Wang Yi for their assistance in translating the interviews with Murong Xuecun and Lu Jinbo.
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