When the Chinese author Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, the response was decidedly mixed. The Chinese government and state-run media outlets were euphoric. China Central Television interrupted its scripted evening news programme to report the honour within minutes of it being announced. Newspapers devoted special sections to discussing Mo’s work. One of the country’s top officials proclaimed the award an endorsement not only of the “flourishing progress of Chinese literature”, but also of the “overall strength of our state and its international influence”. The government announced plans to transform the author’s rural childhood home into a £70m “Mo Yan Culture Experience Zone”.
But a number of prominent intellectuals and Chinese dissidents, such as the artist Ai Weiwei, were horrified. They noted Mo’s silence on the fate of Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese writer and activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize two years earlier and was represented during the ceremony in Stockholm by an empty chair.
Mo was accused of compromising his artistic integrity by assenting to government restrictions, even speaking out in defence of censorship, which he had compared to airport security. Earlier that year, he had taken part in a controversial initiative, hand-copying Mao Zedong’s instructions from 1942 to Chinese writers. “I think the Nobel organisers have removed themselves from reality by awarding this prize,” said Ai, “I really don’t understand it.” Salman Rushdie called Mo a “patsy of the regime”.
Writing in the New York Review of Books, the Chinese literature scholar Perry Link argued that the central question was whether the prize should be given to a writer who was “inside the system” of a regime that imprisoned other writers. Should the award be based solely on the content and quality of Mo’s writing, or should it also reckon with the circumstances in which it was produced and Mo’s political choices? The controversy over Mo’s prize focused attention on the role of literature within dictatorships, and whether an author who in their work does not directly confront that system, or even accommodates himself to it, was inherently compromised.
This question is at the heart of Megan Walsh’s new book The Subplot: What China is Reading and Why It Matters, which challenges what Walsh calls the “intrusive and unrealistic political expectations” many Western readers have of Chinese authors, especially those readers “for whom ‘banned in China’ is too often the baseline for what is and isn’t worth reading”. The assumption tends to be, Walsh writes, “that those who don’t openly challenge China’s authoritarian system from within are apparatchiks, not artists”. But she explains that “most Chinese writers who continue to live and work in mainland China write neither what their government nor foreign readers want or expect”.
China’s publishing industry is regulated by the General Administration of Press and Publications, which is itself controlled by the Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Books are screened for references to “sensitive” topics, such as Tibet, Taiwan, and the Tiananmen massacre, and are meant to reinforce “core socialist values” such as “civility” and “harmony”. It means avoiding any content that might be seen to challenge the CCP’s authority. While some subjects are clearly forbidden, other restrictions are deliberately vague, with publishers punished for making the wrong decision by having their licence withdrawn, which encourages editors to be extremely cautious.
In 2002, Link famously compared the Chinese government’s approach to censorship to a “giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier”. For the most part, he wrote, “the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to… Its constant silent message is ‘you yourself decide’, after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments – all quite ‘naturally’.”
These days, the great snake is more active than it was when Link wrote his essay, but the rules are still opaque and designed to induce wariness and circumspection. Yet China’s literary landscape isn’t as bleak and monotonous as the country’s political leadership. As Walsh writes, “Modern Chinese fiction is a mixture of staggering invention, bravery and humanity, as well as soul-crushing submission and pragmatism – a confusing and intricate tapestry that offers a beguiling impression of Chinese society itself.”
In a concise and fast-paced 136 pages, Walsh guides the reader through the extraordinary literature that has emerged from those contradictory impulses, from the migrant-worker poetry movement to the alternative comic scene and what is being called a golden age of Chinese science fiction – a form that perhaps offers greater scope for creative freedom than more realist subjects.
But the most surprising aspect of the contemporary literature scene, particularly given the CCP’s mass surveillance, is China’s internet fiction boom, which amounts, Walsh writes, to the “largest self-generating industry of unregulated, free-market fiction in the world”. With writers producing as many as 30,000 words a day and online novels ranging into the hundreds of chapters and millions of words, the genre’s pay-per-view system incentivises length and clicks over quality, in a turbo-charged, high-tech version of Dickensian serialisation. The market is huge and growing, with an estimated 430 million active readers: almost a third of the population.
Here too, though, the threat of censorship is always present, with the publishing platforms required to be “rectified” and their content scanned by AI and human censors, meaning authors whose work is deemed problematic risk losing access to their novels and the huge audiences they have built up. Predictably, the government has established its own University of Online Fiction to cultivate authors for the online novel industry who will “fully implement the party’s educational policy”. Mo Yan has been designated its honorary president.
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The Subplot will make you want to read more Chinese fiction, though perhaps not of the online variety. But Walsh’s book also gives the reader an understanding of what is at stake as the country’s political life continues to tighten under Xi Jinping. As Walsh acknowledges, literature in China is already in trouble, with an increasing number of writers, publishers and intellectuals facing harassment or detention by the authorities, and artists banned from public platforms for having “incorrect political views”. Hong Kong, which had previously offered a thriving market for authors from mainland China to publish more politically sensitive material, has been stripped back to the barest glimmer of its former self, with booksellers arrested and “disappeared”, and any books that might offend the central government removed from the shelves.
“It will be a tragedy,” writes Walsh, “if, like Fang Fang, the ‘battlefield diarist’ in Wuhan [who chronicled the city’s 2020 coronavirus outbreak], Chinese authors are once again forced to sit on an unambiguous axis of dissident or patriot.” Both within China and without, we will all be the poorer for that loss.
Columbia Global Reports, 136pp, £11.99
This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain