Why you should care
Because in China, your popular blog can land you in the lap of literary luxury.
Imagine if Pulitzer-winning novelists like Donna Tartt blogged and enjoyed massive online readerships eclipsing even those of movie stars. Far-fetched? Not so in the Chinese-speaking world.
Only the corniest dreams are worth chasing. Even if you fall, your stumbles will take on the posture of a dauntless stride.
— Giddens Ko, best-selling novelist
Han Han was already a best-selling novelist, sure, penning elegiac tales of China’s aimless urbanites. But online, he became a superstar — and arguably the most influential blogger on earth. An astounding 598 million visitors have flocked to the 31-year-old writer’s Sina blog to read his short fiction, as well as missives on topics like democracy, China’s educational system and race car driving. His likeness sells canned beverages in TV spots, and his blogging spats with book critics have the power to ignite the entire Chinese-reading Internet (Bai Ye, chairman of the Modern Chinese Literature Association, once shuttered his blog after losing a much-ballyhooed online debate with Han in 2006).
Likewise, Taiwan’s Giddens Ko scribbled novels after he flunked out of a Tsinghua University PhD entrance exam in 2000; he languished on publishers’ blacklists for years after his debut novel’s disastrous sales flop. Undeterred, he began posting his novels on BBS message boards, which soon found a devoted following. By 2006 he was on publishers’ bestseller lists. By 2011, a movie adaption from his novel You Are the Apple of My Eye swept both box offices and top critics’ prizes in Hong Kong.
“Only the corniest dreams are worth chasing,” Ko famously wrote of his first years of obscure toiling online. “Even if you fall, your stumbles will take on the posture of a dauntless stride.”
Forget the anti-Internet screeds of Western novelists like Jonathan Franzen. In the Sinosphere, it doesn’t look like the Internet’s killing literature at all. Print publishers scramble to sign contracts with next great online star. What’s more, the Internet seems to trumpet the writings of talented autodidacts. Han Han dropped out of high school. Before penning influential novels about China’s urban working women, Anni Baobei was a miserable bank clerk moonlighting as a short story writer. And before Murong Xuecun was longlisted for a Man Asian Literary Prize for A Novel of Chengdu, he was a used car salesman with an occasional blogging habit.
Though controversial online posts are usually scrubbed by state censors within 24 hours, … online writing can still capture the zeitgeist more nimbly that state-approved printed fare.
These writers have an online audience that any Western wordsmith would envy. There’s a thirst for online storytelling and long-form writing in the Sinosphere perhaps unseen anywhere else. A CCTV report says over 100 million people in China are registered readers of online novel sites, while the state-run People Daily reports that 90% of college students say they regularly read online novels on clunky, Byzantine fiction websites.
The quality of these online authors varies, of course, from major literary prize winners (Murong Xuecun with the Man Asian Lit, Essay Liu with the Liberty Times Lin Rong-shan prize) and pop cultural “voices of their generations” (Han Han, Giddens Ko) to a vast majority of speedy fantasy and erotic writers. But the fact remains: demand for online Chinese prose and fiction is big enough that top e-publishing sites like Qidian.com can raise $110 million from Goldman Sachs, rank among Alexa’s top 100 most visited sites on earth and offer star Internet online novelists upwards of $4 million a year in pay. Every year, the Western China Metro Daily lists the richest Chinese Internet novelists with a pomp usually reserved for entrepreneurs, with the organizer hailing them as job creators (mostly in the form of video game and movie adaptations). High-profiled bidding wars regularly break out between rival sites trying to attract popular online writers with healthcare benefits and other perks.
Michel Hockx, who directs University of London’s China Institute, says that China’s online literature scene is especially vibrant “partly because print publishing is much more strictly controlled. Every printed book in China has to have a ‘book number’ issued by a state office, whereas books published online don’t need this.” Though controversial online posts are usually scrubbed by state censors within 24 hours, and writers like Murong Xuecun regularly face jail time for their blogging, online writing can still capture the zeitgeist more nimbly that state-approved printed fare.
He also stresses that, unlike in the West, where the viral Internet has almost exclusively produced lighter works like Fifty Shades of Grey, the Chinese online ecosystem can make household names of elegant, challenging prose stylists like Anni Baobei.