Megan Walsh on Understanding China Through Its Literature

Recent Features

Interviews | Society | East Asia

Megan Walsh on Understanding China Through Its Literature

In a new book, Walsh explores the wildly divergent genres and styles of writing that are popular in China today.

Megan Walsh on Understanding China Through Its Literature
Credit: Depositphotos

In her new book “The Subplot: What China Is Reading and Why It Matters,” Megan Walsh explores different genres and strands of Chinese literature today, from literary novels to wildly popular online books and the poetry of migrant workers. Each type of writing, Walsh explains, represents a different facet of Chinese society – and taken together, they help present a portrait of the dynamic, diverse reality of life in modern China.

In the interview below, Walsh explains more about her book, the role of censorship in shaping Chinese literature, and the question of China’s “soft power.”

You make the case for studying Chinese fiction: Because it is less censored than non-fiction (although certainly not uncensored), fiction could ironically provide a “truer” portrait of contemporary China. “For many writers, the best way to present inconvenient truths is to do the opposite, to willfully present fact as fiction,” you write. Can you elaborate for those who have not (yet) read your book?

I wrote it specifically in relation to Yan Lianke’s decision to turn his field study about China’s AIDs crisis in rural Henan (caused by unsanitary blood markets in the ’90s) into his haunting novel “Dream of Ding Village.” Yan said he did so to avoid censorship (even though the book was eventually banned anyway), and this is certainly one of the main reasons many other writers also choose to present “fact as fiction” – it is less risky.

But there’s another motivation. Yan’s novel about a “spreading fever,” narrated by a dead child, is arguably a much more immersive and accurate depiction of the nightmarish reality created by ruthless bloodsellers – or “bloodheads” – in these small, rural communities. Like Yan, many other writers – from Yu Hua, Can Xue, and Mo Yan to the next generation of surrealists – have created new absurdist or magical realist literary styles and genres to mirror what they experience as “unreality” in contemporary China.

That said, plenty of writers use realist fiction (as opposed to nonfiction) for the similar reason that it offers a creative distance between themselves and what they are writing. They may not be broaching censored experiences or events, but they still highlight difficult fractures in contemporary society, such as young writers wanting to explore the crushing weight of parental pressure without appearing unfilial or migrant workers needing to voice their hardships without necessarily blaming the government for them. Susan Sontag said that “information will never replace illumination,” which I’d say also neatly sums up the difference between fact and fiction for Chinese writers.

Speaking of censorship, let’s discuss the distinction between political vs. moral censorship (the banning of “black” vs. “yellow” writing). While certain political topics have always been taboo, recent years have seen a renewed emphasis on “morality and decency” as defined by the CCP. Does this pose a threat to some of the fiction styles you address? Danmei or boys’ love stories, for instance, emphasize same-sex relationship and in “face slapping” stories the protagonists are decidedly not moral paragons.

Yes, definitely. Writing in China, since the time of Confucius and Zhuang Zhou, has long been seen as the best way to imbue morality; [teaching] how to be good children, parents, or rulers. And literature serves the same purpose in the minds of the Chinese Communist Party today: it should be didactic, it should show the myriad ways “Red Culture” contributes to a moral and rejuvenated society.

Online novels were written off for a long time as pulp fiction, but these epic sagas have evolved into spaces, much like computer games, for youngsters to immerse themselves in worlds that are seen as both apolitical and amoral. They often depict zealous individualists on a quest for power, status, and allure, or romances in which the love interest is an unscrupulous, smoking-hot billionaire. These fantasies of individual grandeur are not examples of what young people are like – or even what they want to be – but perhaps offer a much-needed form of catharsis: it’s fun to pretend to be unthinking, unaccountable, and antisocial. In real life, the pressure to conform – at school, in the workplace – can be very stressful.

Still, given how popular online fiction has become it’s not surprising that the government wants to have much more control over its content. Just as “vulgar” TV programs, in particular aspirational reality TV, are apparently being replaced with “morality building shows,” online fiction platforms are subject to “socialist ratings,” for which a low score requires “rectification.” Up until recently, this has mostly meant removing a growing list of no-go areas: scenes involving sex, intimations of sex, religion, politics (including in ancient times), lesbians, effeminate men, ghosts, suicide, violent fights, toxic idol worship etc.  Interestingly, the (sex free) danmei or boy’s love novel “Guardian was straightened up for the screen, in which gay love between Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei was re-spun as platonic “socialist brotherly love.”

Still, any depictions of sex or violence are tightly regulated, and everything must effectively be suitable for a child to watch or read which, of course, poses a challenge to writers. There’s a lot of frustration, and some pride, amongst internet writers regarding the lengths they go to bowdlerize or disguise descriptions of anything below the neck. Equally, for illegally printed copies of danmei stories, the sexual transgressions and comparatively explicit material is, of course, part of the appeal. And the punishments for those young female writers have been severe.

Lastly, it is worth noting that, especially amongst older writers such as Yan Lianke and the now deceased Wang Xiaobo, their use of sex and violence in fiction often exposed the hypocrisy and sexual depravity of officials who punish others but indulge themselves.

Chinese danmei stories have found a niche but avid following overseas. A grassroots effort to translate “Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation,” for instance, coupled with the TV show being hosted on Netflix, created an enthusiastic fan club in the English-speaking world. And vlogger Li Ziqi has built up a global following on YouTube promoting life in rural China – even while the government pursues and advocates for urbanization. What should we make of the fact that some of China’s biggest “soft power” successes are promoting narratives the CCP itself is uncomfortable with?

It’s hard to say how this will play out, but as far as I can tell, the Chinese government will be delighted. Rural influencer Li Ziqi is seen as a figurehead for a new China, she is telling “a good China story.” Similarly, a lot of the xianxia fantasies that have been popular abroad, such as “Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation” and “I Shall Seal the Heavens,” have really distinct Chinese characteristics, and can be seen as a celebration of China’s unique – and saleable – cultural traditions. Crucially, these online fantasies are largely detached from politics. If Western readers are no longer only interested in “banned in China” novels this, in many ways, is a dream come true for the CCP. If anything, Chinese fantasy and sci-fi are the first examples of successful Chinese soft power out there.

That said, these days most online novels deemed “unhealthy” will be cancelled in China before they get a chance to be translated for foreign audiences, so the content might dry up soon. Similarly, Chinese nationalism is increasingly creeping into the plots of online stories, mainly as a bargaining chip offered by writers as a way to not get censored, so I don’t know how receptive young Western, or domestic audiences, will be if it becomes too prevalent.

To what extent is fiction that analysts in the West would categorize as “propaganda” popular in China? You discuss the popularity of the anti-corruption TV show “In the Name of the People,” for instance – is this an aberration as a success story or is there a broader appetite for pro-government stories? Certainly we have examples in the West — Jack Bauer or James Bond-style stories where the protagonist is literally a government agent.

That’s a tough question to answer. Apart from online fiction, it’s difficult to know what people actually get a kick out of reading. Naturally there are older, establishment writers such as Jiang Zilong, whose socialist realism and revolutionary romanticism organically shines through his work, and sometimes wins awards. The Mao Dun Prize is one of the country’s most prestigious awards, and it usually recognizes writers whose fiction does not, at least, offend the government’s taste which, in turn, is ever-shifting: I’m not sure if Ge Fei’s Jiangnan Trilogy, which won in 2015, would still receive the award in the current climate. Most importantly, this kind of fiction is not propaganda, even if the writers themselves have got used to self-censoring certain ideas or material, nor is it that widely read.

Writers of popular spy and crime genre fiction such as Zhou Meisen, Mai Jia and Zhou Haohui are careful to make government agents or police ultimately look good, but that’s no different from much of our airport fiction. “Red education” at school primes younger generations to feel incredibly patriotic about the CCP and its history and, in theory, well-disposed to most propaganda, be it fact or fiction. But while there is a concerted effort to get young online writers to pen “Red Stories” rather than superhero capers, we are yet to see how popular they are.

I think the most successful medium for pro-government stories is still the screen. Nakedly nationalistic movies about special ops teams such as “Wolf Warrior II” and “Operation Red Sea” were record-breaking blockbusters, while the TV drama “Awakening Age” about the May Fourth Movement and the early days of the CCP has proved an unexpected hit with young viewers. But patriotism is no shoo-in. Another retelling of the CCP’s origin story, the star-studded “1921,” was a turgid endurance test.

In short, I think contemporary military and crime genres depicting China’s global and moral supremacy (just as the equivalent does in the West) will always be more popular than attempts to make audiences swoon over Communist history. But that won’t stop those kinds of stories from flooding the market.

What did you make of Xi Jinping’s recent exhortation that “It is necessary to broadly unite and gather patriotic and dedicated literature and art workers under the leadership of the party”? Is the vibrant diversity of the literary scene, as outlined in your book, going to come under increasing pressure in the future to conform to “positive energy”? Or are certain genres too popular to entirely shut down?

This is, as far as I can tell, a continuation of Xi Jinping’s grand vision for a culture of patriotic art that has been gathering pace since 2014. However, apart from online fiction, which finds itself under increasing scrutiny – and is much easier to delete and disappear at the touch of a button – writers do seem to have a degree of freedom to write what they want, so long as they don’t become too popular. While I would never underestimate the government’s ability to crack down on anything it deems a potential challenge to its authority, or the narrative it wishes to tell, I suspect it sees writers as not that big a threat anymore – which is, hopefully, good for the diversity of the literary scene, but bad for the impact and reach that those narratives and stories will be able to have.

“The Subplot: What China is Reading and Why It Matters” by Megan Walsh was published by Columbia Global Reports on February 8.