May 7, 2022 - World

Why Chinese fiction matters

Book cover image of The Subplot.
Credit: Columbia Global Reports.

A new book offers a survey of what authors in China are writing, and it urges readers outside China to read this work and take it seriously.

Why it matters: "There is much to learn from Chinese writers who understand and illuminate the complex relationship between art and politics — one that is increasingly shaping Western artistic discourse," writes Megan Walsh, author of "The Subplot: What China is Reading and Why It Matters," published in February.

The big picture: China's "well-documented climate of censorship and propaganda can make foreign readers rather snobby about Chinese literature, often without having read any of it," Walsh writes.

  • "But the fact is that most Chinese writers who continue to live and work in mainland China write neither what their government nor foreign readers want or expect."

Details: In this slim 135-page volume, Walsh describes recent trends in several different genres in Chinese literature:

  • The meteoric rise of online fiction platforms, which in some cases have developed into social media-like giants. Walsh likens them to "factories," where influencer-like writers work feverishly to keep their audiences, in some cases churning out 10,000 or even 20,000 words per day — making money for the platform but often little for themselves.
  • The popularity of novels about ethnic minority groups like Mongols, Tibetans and Kazakhs — but written by Han Chinese and rarely by the ethnic minorities themselves. It's a phenomenon that will sound familiar to Western readers currently grappling with issues of race and representation in art and media.
  • Crime writing, which under China's current order-obsessed regime means crime novels must "negotiate the twin forces of commercialism and propaganda, or the public's desire for entertainment and the state's desire to sanitize it," Walsh writes.
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