Xu Xing originally gained fame as a writer during the 1980s, when he was a prominent member of the literary revival that followed the end of the Cultural Revolution. He emigrated for Germany in 1989, and didn't return for four years. He currently lives in Beijing and is working on a book about his experiences during the Cultural Revolution. He will spend most of 2008 as a writer-in-residence at the UCLA.
In the beginning...
"I'd heard of computers before I left China, but I'd never actually seen one. In Germany they had those 286s, running DOS – I got to be pretty good at DOS in Germany.
"When I went back to China 1993 I brought a computer with me; it had a black and white monitor; I thought it was such a prize… But I discovered that in the few years I'd been gone, computers had already become commonplace in China."
Recalling the early days of the Chinese internet, Xu Xing mentions the single domestic website he knew of, called Yīnghǎiwēi (赢海威), a Chinese-ification of the English term 'internet highway'. "Getting online was terribly slow and expensive. Most of the people online were doing at the expense of their company or government office. There were hardly any websites, and most everyone online knew each other."
It wasn't until 1995 or so that Xu Xing first began participating in literary discussion online. Those years saw explosive growth of the Chinese internet, and the entry of foreign tech companies into the Chinese-language web. "Around 1995 a friend told me to visit Sina.com," recalls Xu Xing, "and I started to realize what potential the internet had. Back then there was a literary BBS on Sina called Reading Salon (读书沙龙). I signed up under the name Xintianyou (信天游, a style of folk song from north-western China), and everything I posted was in the form of xintianyou lyrics. It was a big deal at the time, because no one knew who I was; I had great fun doing that."
Discussion on Reading Salon was lively and convivial until "in '96 or thereabouts, Sina suddenly installed a couple of moderators," says Xu Xing. "No one knew them; people said one of them was a model from Shanghai who'd used her contacts to get the position. They weren't government-appointed censors, they were just people who had weaseled into the position because it was prestigious." The spirited participants protested, and soon most migrated en masse to a new website.
One salon member, a publisher named Li Pai, had contacts at a cosmetics company called Sofitel, and arranged to host the new site on their servers. The new salon, begun around 1997, was called Reading Life (读书生活). "That pretty much killed Sina's Reading Salon," recalls Xu Xing. "It's still there today, but it never really recovered.
"We set up a system of democratically electing our moderators. But you know sites like that, everyone's always quarreling, and eventually the site fragmented into groups – a northeast gang, a Zhejiang gang – and then the gangs started to split off to separate websites. Many of the big literary sites, like Tianya, were founded by people who splintered off from Reading Life. Reading Life itself is mostly dead now."
Xu Xing uses the internet now mostly for getting book related news, and talking about literary matters with friends. "There are really no other venues for that kind of discussion," he says, "unless you're just having dinner with some opinionated friends. I read literary magazines only occasionally then; I don't read them at all now. I can get whatever news I need on the internet."
Xu Xing doesn't consider that the web has influenced his writing in any particular way, and rarely, if ever, posts his own fiction online. "I don't post things online, and I wouldn't really recommend other writers post, either. The main drawback is that feedback comes too quickly. In the first minute you've posted something, you'll have comments saying 'Oh gosh, this is the most wonderful thing I've ever read!' or others saying 'How dare you post this crap where other people can see it?'. It's very easy to lose your own judgment."
Writing, in his opinion, is a process that requires slow rumination and reflection. "If you're very strong you can insulate yourself from people's opinions, but most of us aren't that strong. Most of us will start doubting our own judgment."
As an older writer Xu Xing feels he's strong enough to resist the influence of online commentary, but says that he sees the mark of that influence on younger writers like Feng Tang or Murong Xuecun. "They post everything online, and I have to think that that influences their writing. I've told both of them to stop worrying so much about what people say about their writing, but I don't think they listen. Actually, I can understand it – I feel the draw of those reactions, too. Even if I don't lose my head over it, its very addictive."
In Xu Xing's opinion, the most positive thing about the internet is that it lets anyone write. "I often find things on the internet that I absolutely love," he says, "far better writing than what many professional writers produce. But the author might be someone with no literary background at all – maybe a computer programmer or an accountant. The author might have just been writing for fun, someone with no literary aspirations or even any real love for literature." Xu Xing appreciates the challenge this poses to traditional concepts of literature, and the semi-official status of well-known writers. Whether or not the off-hours writers ever publish or become famous, he expects the pressure to either force traditional writers to change their attitudes, or to eliminate them entirely.
Asked about the perceived decline in the literary taste of readers in general, Xu Xing seems supremely unconcerned. "I think it doesn't matter at all. Sure, there is a lot of garbage out there. Much of it is written just to attract readers and make money – the writers just stuff in as much sex and violence as possible. There are also plenty of people who just write trash, reams and reams of trash, not to make money, but because producing textual garbage has become a habit for them.
"But none of this bothers me. I will always be able to find the content that interests me. Readers all have different tastes, and I don't believe that the internet is going to affect that taste much one way or the other. Those who want real literature will always find it."