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Chinese Authors Find Creative Outlets on the Web

Budding author Fu Tian poses in a Shanghai park. Her novels have found a wide audience on Qidian, a Chinese literary Web site. Now she's looking forward to her first mainstream publication.
Budding author Fu Tian poses in a Shanghai park. Her novels have found a wide audience on Qidian, a Chinese literary Web site. Now she's looking forward to her first mainstream publication.

Back in the days of the Cultural Revolution when Mao Tse Tung was still running China, people passed around bound notebooks of underground literature.

"It was very dangerous to copy them and to pass them around," says Perry Link, a professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton University. "You could get in trouble if you got caught."

Those notebooks weren't filled with the writings of a Chinese Solzhenitsyn, criticizing the Communist Party. "They were almost all ... entertainment fiction," says Link. "Triangular love stories and detective stories and things like that."

The only kind of literature that made it through the government censors — even long after Mao was dead — was dry and boring. It had to have a message about the improvement of communist society.

But writer Fu Tian — that's her pen name — does not think about how to make a better China when she writes.

As the pale afternoon sun filters through a dusty window in her Shanghai apartment, it lights up her mischievous face as she types. All she wants is to entertain her readers.

Romance and Intrigue, Censor-Free

Fu, whose real name is Zhang Shuyu, creates historical fiction. Her latest book is filled with romance and palace intrigue.

"The story is based on Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history, and this little girl who is like one of the daughters of the female emperor," explains Fu. "In real history, the princess did not succeed in getting power, but in this novel she is able to."

Fu doesn't have to worry about the publishing censors. She has been writing novels exclusively for the Internet for more than a year. She now has thousands of loyal readers. They come to find her books on a Web site called Qidian.

Qidian has grown from a small coterie of literature fans to a staff of 70. Many of them are editors who sort through the thousands of novel submissions posted on the site every month. They try and figure out which writers are the best and the most popular, and move those up to the front page.

Wu Wung Xao, one of the site's founders and its general manager, says Qidian gets about 200 million page views a day and is one of China's most popular literary sites.

Fu Tian quickly drew the attention of readers and editors, he says, because she's "funny and fun."

Fu is now being given health benefits and a base salary by Qidian. Her fans must pay 2 cents to read each new installment of her novels. And Fu gets a cut.

Manager Wu admits this model doesn't always lead to the most literary fiction. He says on the Internet writing is focused on plot. Writers end chapters on cliffhangers to keep readers' attention. There isn't always much attention to grammar and style.

Jo Lusby, the general manager of Penguin Books in China, thinks online lit is in its infancy and is likely to get better as it matures.

"I think it's very young," she says. "I think this is young people writing for young people."

Finding an Audience, Bringing It Along

There is some good news for people who like actual books made of paper. Fu and most other Chinese writers still want to see their books in print. Happily for them, publishers increasingly look to the Internet to find the most popular books.

City of Books, Shanghai's largest book store, takes up six stories, and more and more, books that first showed up on the Internet are turning up on the shelves there. As Fu Tian walks around the store, the books that catch her eye are often by friends.

"The Ghost Blows Out the Light!" she exclaims. "It used to be the biggest hit on the Qidian Web site, and it's being made into a movie."

Of course, Fu hopes that one of her books will get made into a film. She's very excited: This fall, she'll have her own first book on the shelves.

Self-Censorship Rules

While Fu is elated with the freedom and the opportunity that the Internet is bringing to her and to other young Chinese writers, she admits there are limits.

"We have greater freedom than traditional writers," she says. "But it is still not like you can write about [just] anything. You need to do positive things. ... If we can put it this way."

Fu cannot write about political topics such as Taiwan or Tibet, for instance. In the old days, under Mao, Chinese novelists were encouraged to address politics and society — as long as they did it through a Communist lens.

Now, Fu and the young writers on the Internet can be as entertaining as they want to be, with their cliffhangers, romances and historical fantasies. They just can't write about anything too serious or politically sensitive.

For them, the Internet is the great entertainment highway.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Sydell
Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.