GLLI (22) - Popular genre fiction in China, from the monkey king to tomb robbing - by Heather Inwood

By Helen Wang, published

Part of: Global Literature in Libraries Initiative

What's big and exciting in Chinese literature? We asked Heather Inwood, who always seems to have her finger on the pulse! She's Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Chinese Literature and Culture at the University of Cambridge, and author of Verse Going Viral: China’s New Media Scenes (2014).

One of the biggest and most exciting developments in Chinese literature since the turn of the millennium has been the explosive growth of popular genre fiction, or in Chinese “leixing xiaoshuo.”

Genre writing is nothing new in China; literature has been divided into different categories (histories, biographies, philosophies, poetry and so on) for millennia, and successive generations of historians and scholars have taken great pleasure in coming up with new schema for classifying different types of writing.

Compared to other literary genres, however, fiction has always struggled to stand out due to a traditional suspicion of any text that bears its made-up status openly on its sleeve. It was fine to pretend to be factual history, but fiction was widely considered to be the lowliest form of writing, little more than “gossip of the alleys”, as one historian once put it.

This helps explain why writers of ghost stories attempted to convince people they had actually happened by referencing real people, places and dates. You can see this technique on display in the famous Qing dynasty collection Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling, who called himself a “historian of the strange”.

The status of fiction started to improve in the last two dynasties of imperial China, the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1912), although even then many of the most widely celebrated vernacular novels were originally written and published anonymously to avoid bringing shame upon their authors.

These epic works of late imperial popular fiction include Journey to the West (also known as Monkey, available in an unabridged English translation by Arthur C. Yu and W.J.F. Jenner and a shorter version by Arthur Waley), Romance of the Three Kingdoms (the most recent full translation of which is by Yu Sumei) and The Water Margin (also known as Outlaws of the Marsh, a precursor to modern martial arts fiction that has been published in separate English translations by Sidney Shapiro and J. H. Jackson).

Even today, these novels continue to inspire new waves of film, TV and computer game adaptations – it’s not unusual for students of Chinese to get their first taste of the thrills of Chinese history by playing, for example, the Japanese game franchise Dynasty Warriors, one of many games based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

In the dying decades of the Qing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, China was awash with different genres of popular fiction, some of which took those late imperial masterpieces as inspiration and subjected them to sequels, prequels and what you might consider an early form of “fan fiction.”

This was an especially popular thing to do to the great Qing novel Dream of the Red Chamber (also known as Dream of Red Mansions and Story of the Stone, available in English translations by David Hawkes and John Minford; and the husband and wife team of Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi). Even the well-known author Wu Jianren got in on the act with his 1905 novel New Story of the Stone (translated by Sterling Swallow), which transported the central protagonists to modern day Shanghai and Beijing to contend with real-life historical events.

Detective, romance, political and even an early stage of science fiction flourished in the final years of dynastic China and were such a hit with readers that reform-minded intellectuals like Liang Qichao felt compelled to warn of the “doom” that would ensue if people continued to immerse themselves in the fiction of “frivolous scholars and market-place merchants.”

During the Republican era (1912-1949), commercial publishing flourished and popular fiction enjoyed expanded readerships as literacy levels rose and new forms of publication emerged. The genre fiction of the time was disregarded by intellectuals as “Mandarin Ducks and Butterfly” fiction, implying it was all a bunch of old-fashioned romantic nonsense; a variety of these short stories can be found in Timothy Wong’s collection Stories for Saturday: Twentieth Century Chinese Popular Fiction. A much quieter period followed in the mid-twentieth century, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) slammed the door on the writing and publication of fiction that promoted “bourgeois” or “superstitious” themes and socialist realist writings ruled the roost.

Chinese-language genre fiction continued to thrive elsewhere instead, including in Hong Kong, where martial arts fiction reached new heights under the pen of Jin Yong (AKA Louis Cha). Jin Yong’s novels were published in hotly anticipated instalments in Hong Kong newspapers, boosting their circulation in the process: over half a century later, they are still among the most widely read, adapted and imitated Chinese fiction in the world. Jin Yong’s talent for portraying edge-of-the-seat fight scenes, unforgettable characters and fresh takes on Chinese history can be sampled in his last ever novel, The Deer and the Cauldron, published between 1969 and 1972 and translated into English by John Minford. And watch out for a new English edition of Jin Yong coming later this year in the form of Anna Holmwood’s translation of A Hero Born: Legend of the Condor Heroes Volume 1!

Since the last few decades of the twentieth century, popular genre fiction has returned to mainland China with a bang, part of an influx of popular culture that accompanied the economic reforms brought in by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. Jin Yong quickly made a comeback in China, as did the much loved Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), whose lyrical short stories of the 1930s and ‘40s had steered clear of political concerns to focus on the minutiae of male-female relationships and urban life in wartime Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Among Chang’s most well-known stories is Lust, Caution, translated into English by Julia Lovell and adapted into a major film of the same name by Ang Lee in 2007; many of her other works are also available in English translation. Since her death in Los Angeles in 1995, Chang’s worldwide renown has continued to grow, as indicated by the hullaballoo that surrounded the posthumous publication of her unfinished autobiographical novel Little Reunion (not yet available in English) in 2009.

One major factor in the renaissance of popular fiction in China since the 1980s has been the commercialisation of the nation’s publishing industry. Cut off from the state funding they had long enjoyed as part of the CCP’s official cultural bureaucracy, publishing houses have been forced to find new sources of money, and churning out bestsellers has turned out to be one of the best ways of staying financially profitable.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Wang Shuo became a household name with his irreverent urban novels like Please Don’t Call Me Human and Playing for Thrills, both available in English translation by Howard Goldblatt. Wang Xiaobo was another heavy hitter, whose hugely popular (and largely uncategorisable) fiction subverted the heavy, heady experiences of young people during China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) to reveal the undercurrents of satirical humour and sexual desire that lurked beneath the surface. A wonderful example can be found in his collection of three novellas, Wang in Love and Bondage, translated by Jason Sommer.

Other popular turn-of-the-century authors include Wei Hui and Mian Mian, who rose to fame (and notoriety) by writing gritty tales of sex, drugs and heartache from a female perspective. Their novels Shanghai Baby (translated into English by Bruce Humes) and Candy (in English translation by Andrea Lingenfelter) have been misleadingly labelled “beauty writing” or “chick lit” because they were written by young women and didn’t shy away from portraying female sexuality. This is far from Fifty Shades of Grey, however, and their novels were banned after their publication in China for writing a bit too frankly about the darker side of life for young Chinese city dwellers in the 1990s.

It wasn’t long after this that the internet started to take off in China a big way. By the mid-2000s, Chinese web companies had found a way to make money from readers’ endless appetite for popular fiction by charging them a small fee to subscribe to regular updates of their favourite novels, which are usually published a few thousand characters at a time and are followed by hundreds of comments from avid readers. Buzz is created through online interactions between authors and audiences and among the fan communities that spring up around individual novels and genres of fiction. As a result, it is sometimes hard to tell where the “original” work ends and fan fiction begins.

All this activity has turned some online authors into multimillionaires and ushered in a period some people are calling a golden age for Chinese genre fiction, online and off. It’s a trend that is still going strong: according to statistics, literature was the tenth most prevalent activity on the Chinese internet in 2016 and China ended the year with over 333 million online readers – a whopping 45.6% of China’s total online population. Although most of those readers are drawn towards popular genre fiction, the internet has helped bring about a boom for Chinese poetry as well, especially the kinds of writing that wouldn’t usually get past the censors to be published in print.

Authors and publishers of online popular fiction can make even more money by licensing novels for adaptation into TV dramas, films, computer games and other forms of popular culture. The development of franchise culture in China has got a lot of industry insiders excited and precipitated a flood of literature-to-screen adaptations over the past decade, even though the screen versions of popular novels often get ripped apart by viewers on review sites like (“they cast that actor in this role?! What were they thinking!!”).

So exactly what kinds of popular fiction are people in China reading nowadays? The short answer is: everything and anything. Genres that have been around for over a century are still going strong, whether it be romance, crime fiction, tales of political corruption or science fiction.

At the same time, a plethora of innovative new genres and genre mash-ups have come into being on the internet and gone on to shake up the world of print. They include rebirth fiction, immortal fiction, workplace fiction, web-game fiction, matriarchal fiction, farming fiction and many more besides: it can be exhausting just trying to keep up with the latest trends, and just as overwhelming attempting to finish a single book, which often run into several million Chinese characters in length (which partly explains why so few have been translated into English thus far!).

One exception to the current dearth of English translations of Chinese internet fiction is the category of “tomb robbing” (daomu) fiction, which can be thought of as a mix of Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider, The Mummy and a healthy dose of traditional Chinese ghost stories and supernatural beings. Xu Lei’s hugely successful series Grave Robber’s Chronicles can be read in one English translation by Kathy Mok, and other tomb robbing novels and translations are bound to follow.

The genre of Chinese popular fiction that has most captured the imagination of English-speaking readers so far is, however, science fiction, thanks in part to the success of Liu Cixin’s hard sci-fi and his Three Body series in particular: The Three-Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu, The Dark Forest, translated by Joel Martinson, and Death’s End, also translated by Ken Liu. Incorporating astrophysics, aliens, philosophy and catastrophic failures in global and interstellar diplomacy, the first book in this series won Liu Cixin the coveted Hugo Award for science fiction and fantasy in 2015, the first ever Asian novel to do so since the awards were launched in 1953. Even Barack Obama admits to being a fan!

A “softer” form of science fiction can be found in The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung, translated into English by Michael Duke. Written in 2009 and published in Hong Kong and Taiwan, this novel foretells a kind of dystopian “post-truth” future right around the corner in 2013 in which a month has gone missing from people’s memories and the Chinese population seems suspiciously optimistic about its country and leaders. Needless to say, you won’t find this novel on library or bookshop shelves in mainland China.

One of the latest works of speculative fiction to appear in English translation is Pathological by Wang Jinkang, translated by Jeremy Tiang. Mostly set in a recognisably post-SARS China, this novel spans several decades and deals with the aftermath of biological warfare and scientific experimentation gone wrong. It is completely unlike the hard science fiction of Liu Cixin, much less politically risqué than The Fat Years but still compelling precisely because, like Chan’s novel, its vision of the future is not so hard to envisage coming true.

Crime and spy fiction have also been going from strength to strength, benefitting from close ties between publishers and film and TV production companies. A series of forensic crime novels by Lei Mi can be found in English translation: Profiler, translated by Gabriel Ascher, Skinner’s Box, translated by Gaines Post, and The Blade of Silence, translated by Holger Nahm. Be warned: these novels are CSI-style gruesome and not for the fainthearted, drawing from the author’s own experiences as a professor of criminal psychology.

More CSI-style crime fiction can be found in the works of author Qin Ming, whose name appears in the popular TV drama adaptation of his novels currently being broadcast under the title “Forensic Examiner Qin Ming”. His novel Murder in Dragon City has been translated into English by Alex Woodend; its original Chinese title was The Eleventh Finger, featuring as it does the mystery of a corpse with eleven fingers.

Spy fiction has been most successful in the works of Mai Jia, whose novels Decoded and In the Dark have been translated into English by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne. This is cerebral stuff, with less of the fast-paced action you might expect from the spy novels of, say, John Le Carré. Instead, Mai Jia’s novels offer insights into wartime Chinese politics alongside psychologically complex characters and lots of complicated cryptography; this is definitely not a trashy kind of genre fiction, and Mai is both a prolific screenwriter and celebrated literary figure in China, suggesting that the lines between “genre” and “literary” fiction are not as clear-cut as they are often made out to be.

This has been an all-too-sketchy overview of some of the major trends in Chinese popular fiction since the late imperial period, by way of what is, rather than what is not yet available to read in English. It is still the case that serious literary (i.e. non-genre) fiction by award-winning novelists gets translated into English and publicised outside of China far more than the kinds of popular genres that attract the largest numbers of readers in China today. I hope this piece has, nonetheless, given librarians and readers alike some ideas about where to get started. Chinese genre fiction is a vast and still largely uncharted universe and offers one of the best possible ways of getting inside the popular Chinese psyche at different times across history, at the same time as providing a whole lot of fun!

Suggested further (academic) reading:

Jin Feng, Romancing the Internet: Producing and Consuming Chinese Web Romance. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

John Christopher Hamm, Paper Swordsmen: Jin Yong and the Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005.

Michel Hockx, Internet Literature in China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Heather Inwood, Verse Going Viral: China’s New Media Scenes. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014.

Shuyu Kong, Consuming Literature: Bestsellers and the Commercialization of Literary Production in Contemporary China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Perry Link, Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies: Popular Fiction in Early Twentieth-Century Chinese Cities. Berkley: University of California Press, 1981.

Carlos Rojas and Eileen Chow (eds), Rethinking Chinese Popular Culture: Cannibalizations of the Canon. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.

[GLLI - Global Literature in Libraries Intitiative]


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