To the West, Chinese literature is a takeaway that comes in two flavours — the ancient classic that offers sage morsels of advice, such as the I Ching and Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and the weighty full-course Nobel-winning novel, often written by someone the Beijing authorities have put in the slammer. Chinese authors, in the western imagination, are either dead or incarcerated. Clearly though, a country of 1.4 billion people must consume more varied fare. In the past ten years, Chinese popular fiction has developed a weird and wacky texture all of its own, one resulting from a confluence of factors — the Cultural Revolution, the one-child policy and the internet. And just the fact that China is pretty weird in general.
Take Han Han, probably the nation’s most famous writer. Han published his first book, Triple Door, when he was 17. Relating the experiences of a third-year junior school student in Shanghai, it sold 20 million copies and is the best-selling novel in China in 20 years. But Han, now 29, is not just a novelist. He’s also a professional racing driver and China’s most popular blogger — indeed, by some accounts, the most popular blogger in the world. Han appears in many photos as a fey young man with hair perpetually skew-whiff, like the lead vocalist of a boy band.
But even his glossy public persona dims in comparison to that of the cross-dressing author Guo Jingming, Big Brother Guo to fans, whose mass-market fiction has been described by the New York Times as focusing on ‘the tortured psyches of his adolescent characters, who either nurse their melancholy by sitting alone for long hours under trees and on rooftops, or try to blunt it with drinking, fighting and karaoke’. Big Bro Guo’s photos feature him half-naked in the shower, or bedecked with Dolce & Gabbana accessories, or looking winsome in a crumpled bed. Bro Guo may have been accused of plagiarism, but that didn’t stop his novel Cry Me a River, about a pregnant high-school student, from selling a million copies in ten days. He has also released a music album called Lost.
Much of Chinese popular fiction is popstar fiction, the domain of a generation of youngsters who don’t know what it’s like to have brothers or sisters. Their plots exist in a kind of shiftless, wistful, self-centred never-never land, the sort of literary landscape you might get if previous generations had feared for their lives for producing certain kinds of art — and if everyone then took a great leap forward into wanton materialism. Anchored in nothing, they often twist into anything.
In Daffodils Took Carp and Went Away, 26-year-old Zhang Yueran’s hit novel, a bulimic girl falls in love with her stepfather, is mistreated by her mother and then carted off to boarding school. Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls follows the adventures of a country girl seeking a new life in the city, her future driven by her unusually large mammaries. There’s a constant searching — Nanpai Sanshu’s Grave Robber series traces the adventures of the grandson of a grave robber who discovers his granddad’s mysterious journal. And the ‘workplace novel’ is a genre in its own right — Du Lala’s Promotion Diary tells about a woman’s rise from secretary to human resources person at a Fortune 500 company, and has been made into a 32-part TV series. Fantasy, as you might expect, is strong — Bro Guo’s first book was set in the Ice Kingdom and told the story of a 350-year-old prince forced to kill his brother.
However, it’s not the content that’s most significant, but the platform. Much of China’s pulp fiction is no longer on pulp — an entire industry has emerged in mobile literature, where books are downloaded and read on smartphones. A crop of new authors now write uniquely for the mobile, China’s pictogram-based language being particularly suited for the text screen: the biggest phone publisher, Cloudary, started off by making phone games. The rights to film the popular mobile novel Ghost Blows Out the Light was sold for millions of yuan, according to C114 website. Then of course there’s web literature, tailored for the internet — a sub-industry now worth five billion yuan (£500 million) a year.
The business is brutal. A new pop-lit generation has popped up to usurp the likes of Han and Guo and, like child gymnasts, they appear to be getting younger and younger. If Han and Guo are of the post-1980s generation, these new writers are of the post-1990s, not so much Little Emperors as Precious Snowflakes, so-called because they’re too coddled to withstand much heat. Authors Tang Chao and Yang Daqing were around 13 when they first got published; Yang Yang — all of nine when he made his debut — has been compared to J.K. Rowling. His first book, The Magic Violin, is about a little boy who befriends magical objects after his father disappears.