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Diversity in the Stacks: Exploring Chinese Internet Literature

To more accurately reflect the diversity of literature in China, the Penn Libraries has made a special effort to add recent internet novels that have been published in print form to our collection.

Alt text: 8 books in a stack sitting on the floor in an aisle between bookshelves; the bottom 7 have Chinese titles. The book at the top has an English title: Leave Me Alone.

The Penn Libraries Chinese Studies Collection recently added printed editions of new award-winning internet literature published in mainland China, bringing literature created for social media and blogging platforms into our research collections for long-term reference and preservation. Building from the late 1990s and continuing powerfully through the present, Chinese authors have been publishing through major literary community sites and personal online venues. Today, more than 350 million readers use Chinese websites to read current works and engage in a broad literary community.

Chinese literature publishing has changed dramatically as the technologies of communication have evolved. As was the case across much of the world, access to the internet spread across Chinese society in the mid-1990’s, so much so that by 2010 many people in China became able to publish their thoughts and ideas directly online through web-based bulletin boards, individual web pages, and blogs. The subsequent rise of social media and the ubiquity of cell phones, the release of WeChat 微信 in 2011 (currently over 1.3 billion users) and the microblogging platform Weibo 微博 in 2009 (currently over 500 million users) veritably exploded the content that individual writers could disseminate. The many varieties of online connectedness have transformed how people in China read and publish. You can learn more about the history and impact of online life in China in The Power of the Internet in China by Penn’s own Guobin Yang.  

In 1997, the Ministry of Public Security began what we now call “The Great Firewall” of China, whereby a plethora of comprehensive regulations were established to control people’s access to information. The Chinese Communist Party continues these efforts to control all aspects of internet access to protect their interests, mostly through censorship. While many countries have internet laws, the CCP’s relentless monitoring has made publishing one’s materials a true gamble: and one that can lead to arrest.  
 
Chinese internet literature covers a very wide range of subjects and approaches. Some of it is experimental and much of it is genre fiction. The most popular authors and works in turn create demand for print editions, many of which appear with established literary publishers. This translation from electronic transmission to the analog medium robs these books of the special features that online publication makes possible but also shows the vibrant and hybrid character of contemporary Chinese literature.  

Authors now seen as leaders of mainstream Chinese literature, such as Murong Xuecun 慕容雪村, began their literary careers with online-only publications that only later took on lives as print books. Indeed, Murong Xuecun’s experience captures interesting issues surrounding Chinese internet literature. He published his first book, Chengdu, jin ye qing jiang wo yi wang 成都, 今夜请将我遗忘 (Leave me alone: A Novel of Chengdu), initially as serialized installments on a Guangzhou internet forum in 2002. Popular demand led to print publication, but due to censorship, a large part of the book was not included. The author, in turn, published the integral and uncensored text online on Qidian.com, one of the most popular Chinese novel websites, and this yielded another, complete print publication by the publisher Wan juan chu ban gong si 万卷出版公司. 

In addition to the instability among and interaction between digital and physical manifestation, there is a great deal of play at work in the creation and reception of these works. Quite frequently, other writers pick up and expand on recently published works in online forums in a manner reminiscent of late-imperial Chinese fiction where authors would borrow and elaborate on famous novels from prior eras. The sense of play at work in this literature is further visible in the pennames chosen by some of the authors; for example, one popular author publishes under the pseudonym Wo chi xihongshi 我吃西红柿 (I eat tomatoes).

As librarians, we must determine how to preserve works created in such varied formats, including those that are born-digital. In an article published in the Journal of East Asian Libraries in 2015, librarian C. David Hickey explains the preservation challenges posed by Chinese internet literature, which include concerns about copyright infringement and text corruption issues due to censorship. While comprehensive approaches to sustaining access to this literature for the long term will require cooperative solutions among librarians familiar with born-digital formats and their inherent challenges, the availability of printed editions of these books provide one way for Penn Libraries to preserve this important literature, which is crucial to our understanding of contemporary China and for future studies of Chinese literature.

In an effort to more accurately reflect the diversity of literature produced in China and to preserve access to these literary works for the long term, the Penn Libraries has made a special effort to add recent internet novels that have been published in print form to our Chinese collection. This cluster of award-winning books, originally published on the internet and produced in print between 2018 and 2020, infuses extra breadth and vitality into our holdings of current Chinese fiction, supplementing our ongoing efforts to collect a diverse and representative selection of literature currently published in China, a country with one of the largest literary outputs in the world.

These titles include spy thrillers, like Li Xiao’s 李枭 Wu feng di dai 无缝地带 (Seamless district) series; historical fiction like Jiu Tu’s 酒徒 Da Han Guangwu 大汉光武 (Guangwu of the Great Han Dynasty); and contemporary police sagas like the 818-chapter Chaoyang jing shi 朝阳警事 (Chaoyang Police Matters) by Zhuo Muxian 卓牧闲.

Penn has also been collecting scholarship on Chinese internet literature, including the major current study in English, Internet Literature in China by Michael Hockx, and recent Chinese-language scholarship like Wang luo shi dai de wen xue zhuan xiang 网络时代的文学转向 (The turn in Literature of the Internet Age) by Chen Dingjia 陈定家.  

This collecting effort makes available to readers at Penn and elsewhere emerging literature written in Chinese and provides Chinese studies scholars with important primary and secondary sources for their ongoing research. The breadth of our collecting efforts now will make possible wide-ranging and interdisciplinary research of the future. 

Authors

Date

October 18, 2023

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