Fiction in China only count for about 7 percent of books each year, but what fiction is being
read is an intriguing index of what is of interest to the reading public, particularly so when
the “market” is tightly regulated. Authors have to navigate forms of censorship that include
second-guessing what will be proscribed and who will be punished. Megan Walsh is a good
guide, immersed in contemporary Chinese literature, and The Subplot: What China is
Reading and Why it Matters (Columbia, 2022) effectively maps domains of ideology that are
so potent in China now.
Seven percent is still a big deal, however, and writers and readers find ways to work their
way around the ambiguities and gaps in censorship. There are popular niche outlets in the
major cities, for example, that will include copies of Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New
World, and sale of those books will be tolerated. One outlet Walsh describes is Nanjing’s
“Librairie Avant Garde” which is a converted underground car-park and bomb shelter.
I visited this shop times I was in Nanjing and was surprised to see the Orwell and Huxley
books on sale, guessing that they didn’t pose much of a threat because they were in English-
language editions. That was a factor. Also on sale were pastiche-product “cultural
revolution” items with pictures of Mao and cute radical slogans on them.
Walsh also uncovers a range of other “subplots” in Chinese fiction that are now facing repression. She discusses literature produced in Xinxiang which is under a lot of pressure, and LGBTQI+ literature in which producers and readers meet each other in online forums and are able to recognise each other by the use of the term “comrade”, an identity tag borrowed from radical times and now repurposed for radical purposes. The seven percent published fiction is tiny compared to what is flowering on the internet, and difficult to shut down. Online reading platforms currently host a staggering 24 million titles.
There are many kinds of fiction in China, but some forms of fiction are more tricky to write
than others. We know, for example, of the case of Liu Cixin, a very popular state-approved
science fiction author whose output is congenial to the Chinese state. There may indeed be
something about science fiction that is suited to ideology, and much United States based
sci-fi writing reproduces macho ‘frontier spirit’ thinking that wrestles with what Star Trek (in
an attempt to deal with this in a more progressive way, at times) termed the ‘Prime
Directive’ (the principle of non-interference in other civilizations). Even so, Walsh notes, the
harrowing account of scientists being beaten during the “cultural revolution” is buried away
in the body of the Chinese-language edition of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem rather
than, in the English translation, at the beginning of the book.
A tricky case in China is ‘crime fiction’, particularly those stories that are concerned with
uncovering unsolved cases or, as is the case in US-based noir detective pulp fiction, showing
how the detective is tangled up in as much criminal activity as the supposed evildoers.
Ernest Mandel discusses this kind of thing in his 1984 book Delightful Murder, a foray into
crime fiction that shows along the way how capitalism requires crime as an underlying
principle of its functioning as a society.
What to do in a society that claims to have either solved all crime – an implausible claim
that is often made by Chinese security forces – or at least to have a police force that is
competent and fair? A consequence is that the very term ‘crime fiction’ is not often used at
all, and in its place there is the genre of “law as literature” in which Zhou Meisen’s internet
novel In the Name of the People, for instance, was turned into a 2017 television show.
What this “law” novel and TV show is able to do is point the finger at inefficient policing all
the better to tighten things up. Walsh notes that many Chinese readers will appreciate this,
partly because they tend to be frightened of crime and quite willing to offer themselves up
to state surveillance, to the operations of what is sometimes referred to as the
“hanopticon” (a satirical take on Jeremy Bentham’s design at the dawn of capitalism in
England of a “panopticon” in which a central guard tower is able to watch the prison
population in back-lit cells).
This Chinese context is, Walsh reminds us, a surveillance culture, and one that is highly
automated, something we know from the use of “social credit” as a mechanism for
monitoring citizens and pulling them into line. Recent accounts of Chinese Communist Party
members dealing with the demand that they view educational videos about the churned out
volumes of Xi Jinping thought are indicative; watching these videos takes hours and hours,
and many CCP members resort to software (downloaded via illegal VPN-accessed websites)
that will “read” the texts more quickly.
Walsh reports that Artificial Intelligence software is useful not only for tracking the activities
of individuals but also assessing what they read and write. In one near-farcical example, the
Chinese state decided to use software called “AI Judge” to trawl through millions of pages of
text in order to determine what was the best fiction being produced in China. Chen Qiufan’s
story “The State of Trance” took the first prize, but then it turned out that Chen was himself
using similar “deep learning” software to write his stuff. The lesson is that there is nothing
algorithm-driven approaches to monitoring and evaluation like better than algorithm-driven
At a deeper level, of course, this is also draws attention to the process that writers have to
go through in China, noticing what is acceptable, and writing to order, writing material that
will conform to what the state will judge to be correct and praiseworthy. The Subplot traces
the looping of the ideology of the Chinese state into fiction and the way fiction faithfully,
with some exceptions, mirrors what is expected of it, this at the level of content and form of
Self-helping the nation
While fiction counts for so little quantitatively-speaking, ‘self-help’ counts for a lot, for
about a third of the market in China. What Megan Walsh does so well is to show us that the
fiction output she reviews also functions at an ideological level and also as a form of ‘self-
help’, advice about how to live in a society that is increasingly governed by a nationalist
ethos in which self-sufficiency of the nation feeds into what is required of each individual,
that they show themselves to be patriotic and at one with “socialism with Chinese
characteristics”. She neatly punctures the idea that this is socialism, and reveals a market-
place in ideas in which truth is blurred into fiction, and fiction operates as one of the forms
of truth of this society.
There are also, along the way in the detailed description of key popular books, and in the
suggestions for resources, pointers to useful websites in which we can ourselves sample and
track some of the themes that are covered in Walsh’s analysis. You will find contemporary
stories at the Paper Republic collection of Chinese literature in translation, at the
Clarkesworld science fiction and fantasy magazine site, and at the Unauthorized Star Wars
Lianhuanhua blog. This is a nicely-written book that gives us an interesting window into
China and what the Chinese are making of it.
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