To grasp the new spirit of this country, read this fresh, contrarian short fictionby Julia Lovell / February 22, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Hiding in the City No. 83” (2009) by artist Liu Bolin. He uses surrealism to reflect and criticise modern China, in a manner similar to the new generation of fiction writers. In these photos, Bolin “camouflages” himself, with the help of an assistant who paints him into the backdrop
Say what you like about Mao, he did make it remarkably easy to keep up with developments in Chinese fiction. Thanks to his proscriptions on creative freedom, fictional output fell precipitously during his reign. An average of eight, increasingly socialist realist novels were published each year between 1949 and 1966. That figure shrank further during the Cultural Revolution. Staying abreast of translations was simpler still: until the early 1980s, it was virtually impossible for a mainland Chinese writer to strike up an independent relationship with a western translator. Anglophone readers had to rely on translations of establishment authors published by Beijing’s Foreign Languages Press.
Those dull days are happily long gone. In the early 1980s, a new generation of novelists born in the 1950s emerged into the post-Mao thaw and transformed the imaginative landscapes of mainland writing. By around 1985, socialist realism no longer represented the mainstream. Wholesome epics featuring rosy-cheeked comrades and singing anvils had been sidelined by macabre, modernist tales of infant sociopaths, juvenile delinquents and Cultural Revolution cannibalism.
The literary scene became even more diverse in the next decade. As the catchphrase of the market economy-oriented 1990s became wang qian kan (“look towards the future,” which, in Chinese, neatly punned on the word for “future” and “money”), many writers joined in the capitalist free-for-all. With the literary market threatened by rival distractions (comics, television, computer games) and the government phasing out lifetime salaries for state-sponsored writers, serious novelists began churning out tales of sex and sensation. While conventional print publishing has expanded over the past two decades (between 2009 and 2010 alone, according to the literary critic and editor Bai Ye, the number of novels published grew by an estimated 150 per cent), the channels for reaching readers have also proliferated. The advent of internet fiction—now an enormously popular genre in China—has brought hope to millions of aspiring authors, some of whom regularly generate 10,000 words a day. Both on the internet and in print publishing, fast, cheap, popular genres dominate. Speed of delivery is a major point of pride for even China’s most critically acclaimed writers, who admit to shunting unedited first drafts into print.