Zhao Song (Zhào Sōng, 赵松) is the administrator of the Heilan (黑蓝) literary website. Heilan, started in 2002 by the writer Chen Wei (陈卫), is one of the few such sites in China to remain open more than a year or so. Among other things it encompasses a forum, web publications, a monthly digital magazine, a yearly literary prize, and as of 2006 a traditional publishing arm. Zhao Song is 34 years old, and currently works for a modern art gallery in Shanghai.
Heilan first came into being in 1996, as a traditional paper literary magazine. It was started by Chen Wei (the other site administrator) in Nanjing, and only put out one issue before being closed down. “You know that period of time,” says Zhao, “the authorities were very anxious then. It was an unofficial publication, and even though there was no sensitive content, the fact that it was unlicensed was enough to get it shut down.”
Six years later, Heilan found its next incarnation as a website. It began life as a BBS forum, and within a year had added most of its present elements: the monthly magazine, digital publications, and the literary prize. The forum currently boasts 14,000+ members, though Zhao cautions that fake IP addresses probably mean the real number is about half that – respectable for a highbrow literary site, but nothing compared to the likes of Qidian. The monthly ‘publication’ (网刊, wǎngkān) draws its content from the site members, and gets anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand readers every month.
The publishing section was added last year. The Heilan administrators coordinate with traditional publishers, and are not responsible for much of the actual publication process. “We find publishers to cooperate with, they pay us a fee for the manuscript, and then they take it from there,” explains Zhao Song. Of the six books listed in the publishing section of the site, the first was done with the Guangxi Normal University Press, the rest with the Shanghai Century Publishing House. “It’s been very difficult to find publishers to work with,” says Zhao, explaining that most houses view the books as risky – both as ‘pure’ literary fiction, and something which originated on the internet. Their misgivings are purely financial, however; Zhao says they have not had any political or censorship issues. The venture has so far paid off: “The first series of books have all sold out, and everyone has made their money back. Actually, we were all a little surprised.” Zhao also adds, however, that those buying the books are almost certainly members of the site, and spreading the world beyond the existing circle has been a challenge.
Behind the Scenes
A common trope concerning Chinese literary websites is that they are run by small groups of authors only interested in reading each others’ works. To a certain extent, that’s true of Heilan as well. “We definitely all know each other,” says Zhao. “There are maybe twenty-something regular writers, people who would command respect on any literary site. Maybe ten or fifteen of those are really core members, writers we can depend on for the long term.”
The site attracts writers who like its tone, and also who appreciate the high quality of criticism they receive there. Zhao stresses that Heilan is different from other sites run by writers who are all friends. “Most of those readers and writers are all very young, under twenty-five or so,” he says. “Heilan has one of the widest age spreads out there – I think our oldest members are in their sixties. We’re more mature writers, and more mature readers.” As Zhao explains it, having writers with established tastes and styles has actually enabled them to branch out and be more accepting of different points of view. “Individually we are very distinct, very independent,” Zhao says, “and so we’re less prone to cliquishness or fashion.”
Literature in China
“The Chinese literary scene is suffering,” says Zhao. “The political upheavals of the past decades have broken our link with the past. We’re like orphans, in some regard. In the west there’s a very strong line of continuity in the development of literature, but in China we’ve lost our footing.” He characterizes the two decades of 1980-2000 as a period of recovery and restoration. “But now that we’re ready to move forward, where do we go? It’s time to reconnect to our past and our traditions, but reconnect how?” The May Fourth literary movement (begun in 1919) represented a renaissance, but it was ended before it really came to fruition. The 1980s saw a frenzy for foreign literature, but in Zhao’s opinion that was mostly just an expression of excitement at being allowed to read again. “People didn’t understand what it was they were reading – the context or background.”
Zhao respects China’s current literary giants – Mo Yan, Su Tong, etc – but doesn’t look to them to lead the way to China’s literary future. “Something like Mo Yan’s Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (生死疲劳) is great, but it would have been better if it had been published in 1990. Seeing it today… it’s just not something new.” Zhao thinks we’ll have to wait a bit longer to see the real revival. His prediction: “Give it another ten years or so. When it happens, it will be writers born in the 60s and 70s who lead the way.”
“The first step has been taken: there are vast quantities of material being produced now. The next step – quality rising up out of that – will take a little more time.”
Running a long-term, high-quality literary website isn’t easy, as evinced by the fact that there are hardly any of them out there. “A website is very, very easy to start,” says Zhao, “and incredibly difficult to maintain, especially over the course of several years.”
Among the obstacles currently facing Heilan… “Technical issues are a big problem,” says Zhao. “We’re writers, not programmers. The site is too static right now. We’d like to find ways to increase the level of interactivity, and we’re currently looking around the web for some good ideas.”
Furthermore… “It’s just really hard to find good writers. We go out actively looking for writers, and trying to lure them in to the site. We do most of our looking online, at other literary websites – we spent some time looking in traditional paper literary magazines, but were almost universally disappointed in the quality we found there. They almost all belong to the Writers Association, and that influence is visible in all of them.”
The question of drawing in new writers (and not losing the ones they’ve already got) has led to some plans for what comes next.
As Zhao explains it, the most important next step for Heilan is to develop their traditional publishing arm. “We need the legitimacy that comes with that,” he says. “If you’ve only got a website, there’s inevitably something flighty about it. We need the solidity that comes with paper publishing. Our main presence is the site – we’d never get rid of that – but the only way for us to really reach out to people beyond our current circle will be to publish more books.”
As he sees it, this may help with attracting and retaining talent, as well. “Writers look at your site and they try to decide how serious you are, whether it’s worth them throwing in their lot with you. We need more reasons for them to join us.”
Other aspects of the site are slowly developing as well: the Shanghai Century Publishing House has agreed to sponsor their yearly literary prize, to the tune of 10,000 RMB (about £700). They also hope to start giving a nominal payment for works published in the monthly digital magazine. “We don’t make any money off that,” says Zhao, “so those funds would have to come from some outside source.”
“Then maybe,” Zhao speculates, “in a year or two, we’ll think about restarting that literary magazine that got shut down in 1996.”