"Why," Serafina Aquilino asks, "is Internet literature so popular in China, compared to other countries?" The answer may be found in the Chinese "unique literary production." Print, nothing less, is responsible for China's world leadership in e-Lit. An unexpected emergence that Aquilino describes in her "brief history" of e-Lit in China, from Cai Zhiheng’s The First Intimate Contact (1998) to the present rise of Chinese literary forums and literary websites.
From the late 1990s on, the Chinese Internet witnessed a massive growth in the number of its users. According to the statistics from the Chinese Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC), the number of Internet users in China, rose from mere 2 million users at the beginning of 1999, to 210 million by the end of 2007; it nearly doubled two years later, and reached 600 million by the summer of 2014.1“Statistical Report on Internet Development in China (July 2014)”, China Internet Network Information Center, July 2014, https://cnnic.com.cn/IDR/ReportDownloads/201411/P020141102574314897888.pdf (“Statistical Report on Internet Development in China”, 13-14). Together with the popularization of the use of Internet in China, the phenomenon of Internet Literature enjoyed widespread popularity in Chinese cyberspace. The popularity of online produced literature was further enhanced by the introduction of the literary websites, consumer-to-consumer self-publishing platforms, where registered users could publish their own works and readers could read them directly on their computer screens. In China, as the CNNIC reports, literary websites have been attracting over 40 percent of internet users since the early 2000s, reaching a peak of 45.8% in July 2014 (33). But, why is Internet literature so popular in China, compared to other countries? According to Shao Yanjun, the answer can be found in China’s unique literary production system.2Shao Yanjun, “Internet literature: a solely Chinese phenomenon?”, 2016. An English translation of the article, translated by Daniel Nieh, is available at: https://www.goethe.de/ins/cn/en/kul/mag/20742505.html Literary periodicals played a central role in the traditional literary system, working as a connection between the main producing and consuming groups. Since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, in fact, the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles and the China Writers Association constituted the core of literary production. These organizations, together with their local affiliates, contributed to the production and publication system, resulting in a web-like institutional structure determined by the central government and the above-mentioned arts organizations.
However, since the mid-1980s, when China’s cultural and literary scene underwent a shift toward marketisation, new fractures emerged in the relationship between the literary establishment and the literary market. The new cultural market drove the literary periodicals to the fringes, where they increasingly serve only enclaves of older readers, and they are no longer able to fulfill the functions of mainstream literature (Shao Yanjun). It is in this context that Internet literature first emerged on the Chinese literary web.
2. The development of Internet literature in China: a brief history
The production of the earliest Internet literature works in the Chinese language dates back to the early 1990s. The first Internet literature works in the Chinese language were published in the United States, where a group of Chinese students began publishing their writing on a list-serv (Zuccheri, 42), which later developed into the first electronic magazine in the Chinese language, China News Digest, established in 1991. The magazine included both original writings and re-publications of well-known conventional works, and it was originally distributed through list-servs and emails (Hockx, 30). A few years later, another Chinese student based in New York, Fang Zhouzi, launched the first Chinese-language electronic journal entirely devoted to literature, New Spinners of Words. Initially distributed via alt.chinese.txt, it obtained its Web domain (http://www.xys.org) in 1997 (30). Besides the publication of its contributors’ works, the pages of the website contained news and information on literary critics and academic debates in China, as well as a digital “library” organized by literary genres, a forum and a link to the literary award launched by the website (Zuccheri, 44-45). Two other influential online literature publications established in the United States are Olive Tree and Cute Tricks, both established in 1995 (30-31). The former was one of the first electronic magazines devoted to poetry, while the latter is said to have been the first Chinese-language literary publication to obtain its own domain and ISSN number, and is noticeable for focusing mainly on literature written by women and addressing a female public (31).
Although some Chinese-language online produced texts began circulating on the Chinese web and universities Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) from the second half of the 1990s, most studies on the development of Chinese Internet literature tend to trace the beginning of the phenomenon to 1998, when the first online popular novel – Cai Zhiheng’s The First Intimate Contact – was published in Chinese cyberspace. Yet, it is with the rise of literary forums and literary websites that Chinese Internet literature experienced the great surge in its popularity that still continues today.
2.1. Internet literature websites and online literary communities
Between the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, Under the Banyan Tree was the most popular website devoted to the publication of original literature in Chinese language. Established in 1998 by William Zhu, a young American Chinese working in an advertising company based in Shanghai, Banyan Tree was initially a simple home page, where everyone could freely publish their own writing. The home page featured a flashing icon that read “Click here to submit your work” (Kong 177-178) providing its users with easy and immediate access to publication. Within a few years, Banyan Tree managed to attract a huge number of contributors, becoming one of China’s largest and most well-known literary platforms. During the early stage of the development of Chinese web literature, Banyan Tree contributed to the success of some of the most popular Internet writers, who are now popular in the print industry as well – among whom Murong Xuecun and Anni Baobei are probably the most acclaimed.
At the turn of the millennium, following the success of the first online literary communities, similar websites mushroomed in Chinese cyberspace. Established in August 1999, Fragrant Red Sleeves3Fragrant Red Sleeves (Hongxiu tianxiang红袖添香). Website home page: http://www.hongxiu.com/ was one of the earliest and most influential websites. Despite its smaller audience, compared to bigger portals, it boasts a great submission system and a rather high average literary quality of its novels (Ouyang, 88-89). Fragrant Red Sleeves was the first website to offer a “work collection” system to its user. Jinjiang Literature City4Jinjiang Literature City (Jinjiang wenxue cheng 晋江文学城). The homepage of the website is accessible at < http://jjwxc.com/>. is arguably the most well-known literary platform devoted to female writers and readers. It was founded in 2003 by a woman, and it is mostly known for its romantic and danmei5Danmei fiction is a fiction genre which features romantic same-sex encounters between male protagonists, often accompanied with more or less explicit descriptions of sexual activity. For more about Danmei fiction see: Feng, Jin, Romancing the Internet: Producing and Consuming Chinese Web Romance. Leiden: Brill, 2013. fiction. Read Novels6Read novels (Xiaoshuo yuedu wang 小说阅读网), homepage: http://www.readnovel.com. (2004) features three main sub-sites, which target different audiences: “Male page,” containing mainly, but not exclusively, fantasy and martial arts fiction, “Female page,” devoted to love stories and urban fiction and “Campus page,” aimed at younger readers and university students(88-89).
While the popularity of Banyan Tree among Chinese online readers seems to have waned in the last few years, another website devoted to original literature, Starting Point7Starting Point, Qidian 起点, homepage: <www.qidian.com>., experienced growing success. Established by Bao Jianfeng in Shanghai in 2002, Starting Point was initially a community devoted to fantasy and martial arts novels. According to Ouyang Youquan, Bao Jianfeng’s novel, The Heroic Tale of the Magic Knight (2002), was the first online fantasy novel to be published in print. During the following years, the website experienced a noticeable growth in its popularity and expanded to other genres, eventually becoming the most visited literature-related website and arguably one of the largest literary communities among hundreds of similar portals on the Chinese web. In 2003, Starting Point introduced a “pay a fee for reading online” system, turning Internet literature production into an industry with an innovative profit model. After this step toward commercialization, the biggest Chinese online literary community became an example for other similar websites, which soon adopted the same business model. In 2004, Starting Point entered the top 100 of the most visited websites in China, and was still ranking at 110th over a decade later.8Alexa Statistics summary for qidian.com. Alexa is an American company providing a number of services for internet users and websites owners, including Internet traffic statistics. The last statistic refers to Starting Point ranking on Alexa during the first half of 2017. Alexa retired its services in 2022 http://www.alexa.com.
3. Genres and styles: Internet fiction through its evolution
In his work History of the Development of Internet Literature in China: a study of Internet Literature in Chinese Language (2007), Ouyang Youquan divided Chinese Internet writers into three “generations” or “periods,” corresponding to the stages of development of the online literary scene (39-53). Although Ouyang’s classification can be useful to provide a general idea of who the most influential writers are in the different stages of development of Chinese Internet literature, it fails to provide precise temporal references in dividing one period from another. Similarly, he does not attempt to identify any other common feature in the writing styles, writing context or historical circumstances that can bring the authors together, other than the year(s) of publication of their first work. Two major events had a profound influence on the way Internet literature is produced, consumed and spread throughout the Internet. The first of these events can be associated with the shift from a freely produced and published Internet literature to its marketization and the rise of the literary websites model, which provoked important changes within the online literary field. The second-more recent but not less important-development is linked to the intervention of the China Writers Association, which showed a growing interest in the development of the online literary scene over the last few years, and is gradually attempting to absorb the online literary production within its system.
While acknowledging these important developments, Ouyang’s classification can be improved by proposing a more well-defined subdivision into periods or stages of Internet literature development, which I would suggest as follows: a first group of Internet writers corresponding to the early stage of development of the online literary scene (1998-2002) covering the pioneers of the phenomenon of Internet literature and the web writers who published before the marketization of Internet literature and the accomplishment of the online literature business model. The beginning of the second period (2003-2009) coincides with the turn of Starting Point into a commercial enterprise-and the subsequent adoption of the same model by other important literary websites-and includes all the web writers who published online within this system. The third and last period (2010-2016) is marked by the active commitment of the literary establishment to online literary production, with the organization of activities aimed at the promotion of Internet literature, the establishment of the Internet Writers Associations and, eventually, the foundation of the Internet Literature University. This new classification incorporates Ouyang’s first and second period into a single stage - as the literary production and consumption context during their period of activity did not experience major changes distinguishing one group from the other- and adds a further period (2010-2016) which I identify as the third stage of Internet literature development, missing from Ouyang’s study.
3.1. The first period: the pioneers of Internet literature
The first generation of Internet writers (1997-2002) is easily identified as the pioneers of the phenomenon of Internet literature, whose works are discussed in every study concerning online literature produced in China. When literary texts started circulating online, during the late 1990s, the access to the web was available to a very small portion of the Chinese population, the Internet connection was slow and its cost quite high, making it impossible for writers to dedicate a lot of time to their writing. These constraints resulted in works characterized by short chapters and concise language, with frequent abbreviations and linguistic phenomena which would be later classified under the definition of “Chinese Internet language.”
The most typical genres of this period were the diary and short stories, which did not require a prolonged commitment by both the writers and their readers. The most famous work of Internet fiction published during the 1990s, Cai Zhiheng’s The First Intimate Contact (1998), is a sort of online diary, published on the BBS of the University of Chenggong in Taiwan (Zuccheri, 79), narrating the protagonist’s encounter with Flying Dance, a girl he met on a chat room. The chapters of the work depict their friendship that soon turns to love online, their first meeting and their short relationship. After a short time together, Flying Dance is diagnosed with a terminal disease. The novel ends with the letter she writes to Cai before she dies.
With his first work published online in 1997, Ning Caisheng is one of the earliest Internet writers to gain a considerable popularity in mainland China’s cyberspace. Together with Xing Yusen and Li Xunhuan, he was known as one of the “Three Internet literature chariots,” acknowledging the popularity of these writers as some of the most influential online writers in this first stage. Ning Caisheng mainly published four kinds of works: horror and ghosts stories, later gathered together in his collection Internet Ghosts Stories (1999-2002), love stories – such as his well-known works False Innocence (2001) and Destiny (2002), humor, fantastic and ridiculous stories, and informal essays, expressing the author’s emotions and thought on a variety of topics.
Despite being considered one of the first writers to gain recognition on the Internet, Lu Jinbo’s career as an online fiction writer did not last more than a few years. As he began publishing his writing online between 1997 and 1998 under the name of Li Xunhuan, his work Love lost between Internet and reality (2000), a novel narrating love stories born on the Internet, won him great popularity among online readers. In 2002, however, Li Xunhuan decided to leave literature writing behind and devote himself to the publishing industry. He started collaborating as an editor for Banyan Tree and was subsequently promoted to general director of the publishing house founded by the website. Thanks to his position within the publishing industry, Lu Jinbo’s name is still associated with Internet literature, as the publisher of some best-selling online published novels, including Murong Xuecun’s Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu (2002) and Anni Baobei’s Goodbye, Vivian (1998).
The last of the “three chariots,” Xin Yusen, published a few popular works online, before devoting himself to screen writing in early 2000’s. His most popular works include Living Like a Human (1998) and Online Hero (1998 -2000), both featuring online romance.
Arguably the most famous female writer on the online literary scene of the late 1990s, Anni Baobei started publishing her stories on Banyan Tree. The success of her work was soon noticed by the management of the website and recommended to a publishing house, which issued the first collection of Anni Baobei’s stories in print in 2000. Since the publication of her first collection in print, Anni Baobei became an established and extremely productive writer in the conventional print literature scene, comparable to Zhang Ailing in her popularity. Her romantic and dark tales depict loneliness, individuality and desire in contemporary urban life, with sex, death and suicide as recurrent themes. Her writing is reminiscent of the new wave of urban fiction that developed in China in the 1980s and 1990s (Berg 316-317) featuring narratives revolving around personal life in Chinese cities and a strong focus on private experience. The Internet, in her stories, is often used as a device to escape from the loneliness of everyday life.
The description of the protagonists’ “virtual life” as opposed to their “real life” is a recurring theme in late 1990s Internet fiction. The Internet and the relationships born online are often depicted in a fun and playful way, as opposed to the grief and boredom of “real life.”
Online encounters, real or imagined, are a recurrent theme in Anni Baobei’s stories: in one of her most popular works Goodbye Vivian (2001), the protagonist observes the people around him, trying to imagine what the girl he fell in love with online looks like. After meeting a girl with the same name, he becomes convinced she is the same girl he met online. Here, the positive feelings towards the Internet turn into a sort of addiction to - and later an obsession with - the emotions born from online friendship or love and the sense of mutual understanding it creates. The sense of loneliness caused by contemporary urban life emerges with a renewed strength from Anni Baobei’s work, while the solace offered by relationships originating online appears like nothing more than an illusion.
As the Internet gradually becomes a widespread everyday commodity, the enthusiasm for the new medium starts fading away and the Internet ceases being the main focus of online produced literature. However, at the turn of the millennium, the online literary scene continued to expand and, with it, the variety of topic and genres published in the online literary spaces.
Although the first examples of literary websites had already existed online for a few years, during this period the publication and consumption of Internet literature was entirely free and online writing was mostly a recreational activity for amateurs. The literary websites also offered opportunities for interaction between writers and readers. Arguably the most famous product of this interaction, Murong Xuecun’s Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu (2002) was born in this context and its readers had an important influence on the final version of the novel.
With the rise of the Internet literature business model, designed by Starting Point, new factors come into play and start to radically change the dynamics of online literature writing.
3.2. The second period: the marketization of online literary products
In the early 2000s, online published works tend to become longer, featuring more complex plots and a more refined style. At the same time, the trend of serializing long works online opens the door to the developments that will signal the beginning of the second period.
The second period of development of Internet literature (2003-2009) coincides with the transformation of Starting Point into a commercial enterprise. As the Internet starts becoming an everyday commodity for thousands of readers, the first websites devoted to online literature, such as Banyan Tree or Starting Point, introduce their unique business model. With the vanished limit of the high cost of Internet connection and a new remuneration system for the most popular Internet writers set up by the website, online published fiction becomes increasingly long, with the most popular novels serialized over a long period of time.
Opening the homepage of Starting Point, the reader is overwhelmed by the number of available works. Scrolling down, what first catches the user’s attention is the number of readers “following” the highlighted titles in a red, bold font. The message that the website seems to transmit to random users is “we have countless literary work readily available for you. However, among all of these titles, tens of thousands of users chose to read the following products.”
The expansion of the literary websites gave a great boost to the online literary production, on the one hand encouraging the writers to publish more and more often by providing a remuneration for their work, on the other, offering their readers a nearly boundless and easily accessible range of different works to choose from. As the new business model made its way in Chinese cyberspace, a number of new genres were added to the already established genres that made the success of early Internet fiction. While “realistic” sub-genres (diaries, romance, college life stories) are mostly organized under the common category of urban fiction, Starting Point offers a great variety of other genres – fantasy, history, martial arts, science fiction, to mention a few – each of which includes an array of sub-genres. New forms of fiction typical to the online literary field also started to develop, attracting a growing number of readers. This is the case of Tangram 同人 (fan fiction), dan mei 耽美 fiction (homoerotic romance) and online games. Out of the rich diversity offered by these websites, one of the newest genres produced online stands out for its popularity: Yishu chaoneng 异术超能 (supernatural ability) fiction, is a sub-genre of urban fiction usually featuring an ordinary individual’s urban life being dramatically transformed by accidentally acquiring supernatural abilities, mixing elements of fantasy and urban fiction.
In her thesis, Desire and Fantasy On-line: a Sociological and Psychoanalytical Approach to the Prosumption of Chinese Internet Fiction (2013), Shih-Chen Chao offers a detailed analysis of the most produced and consumed genres on Starting Point in the first years of activity of the website (roughly 2003 to 2010). She identifies urban fiction and Eastern fantasy fiction, respectively, as the most produced and the most consumed genres.
Besides Starting Point and other literary website ranking pages, another useful way to identify the most influential Internet writers in this second period is the Zhongguo Zuojia Fuhao Bang 中国作家富豪榜.9Writers Rich List, Zhongguo Zuojia Fuhao Bang 中国作家富豪榜. All the rankings are available at http://zuojiafuhaobang.com/. Usually translated into English as Writers Rich List, this ranking was launched in 2006 for the first time, as a way to identify the most influential Chinese contemporary writers, as well as tracing Chinese people reading habits and literary trends through the writers’ earnings. Although the name might be misleading, the Writers Rich List ranks China’s wealthiest authors in terms of royalties, derived from the publication-either in print or online-of their works. Although a few established Internet writers appear in the ranking from its first year of publication, it is after 2008 that Internet writers began occupying a significant portion of the list. In 2011, nine out of twenty of the authors listed in the Writers Rich List published their works online. Acknowledging the fact that almost half of the country’s wealthiest writers were gaining their royalties through the publication of online literature, a separate ranking, the Zhongguo Wangluo Zuojia Fuhao Bang 中国网络作家富豪榜 (Internet Writers Rich List) was published in 2012. The literary genres produced by the few first writers to enter the Writers Rich List confirm the trends of popular genres in the rankings of the major literary websites: urban or fantasy novels. Besides the most famous names such as Anni Baobei or Guo Jingming-who were already established writers within the print literature system by the time of the publication of the firstWriters Rich List -some popular entries in the first years of the publication of the wealth ranking are Cang Yue, a famous fantasy fiction writer from Zhejiang, and Liu Liu, whose popularity would further grow a few years later, thanks to the adaptation of her urban novel Dwelling Narrowness10Liu Liu, Dwelling Narrowness (Woju 蜗居). Although Dwelling Narrowness is no longer available on the website, where it was originally published, the whole text of the work is currently available at http://www.99reader.cn/files/article/html/2/2506/index¬.¬html. into an extremely popular TV series.
Although over the years the Writers Rich List appears to be mostly dominated by fantasy fiction writers, another genre-urban fiction-occupies a relevant portion of the rankings. Liu Xiahui’s work The Girl Next Door and the already mentioned Dwelling Narrowness are two of the few examples of urban fiction written by the authors listed in the Internet Writers Rich List. After the release of the TV series in 2009, Liu Liu’s works achieved an even greater popularity. Its frank representation of urban workers’ everyday lives attracted a consistent portion of the Chinese audience.11According to an article on the People’s Daily, 43.8% of urban readers have read or heard about Liu Liu’s novel. See: Zhao Enuo, Tang Ning, “Embracing reading, a ‘literary life’ full of feelings” (Yongbao yuedu, guoyou qinghuai de “wenxue shenghuo” 拥抱阅读，过有怀的”文学生活), 28 Apr 2016 http://www.chinawriter.com.cn/news/2016/2016-04-28/270955.html. While engaging with important themes, such as family and traditions, from a new perspective, the work offers an effective portrait of the contrasting points of view of the two protagonists-dealing with the challenges and increasing costs of life in Shanghai-and their parents, back in their village.
If the first stage of the development of Internet Literature featured a few major genres that characterized its début, this second stage is more characterized by its extremely diverse production, rather than a single or a few genres. If we try to identify a genre that can distinguish this period from the previous one, the massive growth experienced by fantasy fiction as a macro-genre is arguably the most relevant. However, due to the overall growth of the online literary scene, the literary websites and all the other popular genres published online,it would be reductive to consider fantasy fiction as the most representative genre of this stage.
A number of changes within the literature publishing context greatly influenced the development of all the fiction genres without distinction. In addition to this, literary websites have also become a boundless resource for screenwriters and producers in search of either new material for their products, or inspiration.
The marketisation of literary websites, although it ended the publication freedom experienced by early Internet writers, indeed provided a great contribution in turning Internet literature, once a sub-culture, into an influential part of the mainstreamculture. The growing attention this phenomenon attracted within the literary establishment can be regarded as a further proof of this process.
3.3. The third period: encountering the literary establishment
The third stage of the development of Internet literature (2010-2016) is marked by the active commitment of the literary establishment to online literary production. The most successful writers of this period have been involved in activities organized by the China Writers Association - including literary awards, discussion panels or events aimed at the promotion of online produced literature- or have joined the China Writers Association, either its national or a regional branch, or one of the recently established Internet Writers Associations.
It is worth noting here how, although the Association still oversees the most prestigious literary awards in China and its structure remains unchanged, being a member is no longer a condition for a successful writing career, and even the most established writers are now free to publish their writing elsewhere. If some may call for a need for decentralization in terms of literary publication and canon formation, it is my impression that such a process has already started, with the growth of a market-driven publication industry outside of the exclusive control of the literary establishment represented by the Association itself. However, recognition by the association is still associated with literary and artistic prominence.
The question of whether conventional literary criticism would be suitable for online-produced works has been widely discussed, however, the nature of Internet literature poses new challenges to literary critics12China Writers, “A preliminary discussion on the difficulties of an Internet literature criticism” (Shilun wangluo wenxue piping de kunjing 试论网络文学批评的困境), http://www.chinawriter.com.cn/news/2013/2013-10-15/177376.html, and scholars are yet to reach an agreement on new standards to be used for an evaluation of this relatively new literary phenomenon.
About a decade after the publication of the first online literature works, the great popularity achieved by some online writers attracted the attention of the literary establishment represented by the Chinese Writers Association. No longer a marginal phenomenon, Internet Literature was for the first time being regarded as an actual form of “proper literature”. As the online literary field was finally considered as worthy of attention by the professional association, traditionally seen as the main (and only) path to literary success, a few authors managed to shake off their reputation of amateur writers, only concerned with entertaining and amusing the general public with the publication of “bad quality” fiction. Acknowledging the growing popularity of Internet fiction, the China Writers Association began organizing a series of activities aimed at the study and the promotion of valuable online published literary work, in an attempt to refresh an “old fashioned” field, which was no longer able to reflect the interests of the general public. After discussing the regulation for the admission of Internet writers during their annual meeting in 2008, the Association finally opened its doors to their “colleagues” two years later, by admitting Tangjia Sanshao as a member of the Beijing Association in 2010.
Although the developing online literary scene had become a subject of great interest within the academic research around the turn of the century, the literary establishment and the academic world were unable to reach an agreement on whether online literature should be regarded as a literary phenomenon until much later. However, since the meeting that marked the opening of the China Writers Association to Internet literature, the establishment showed a growing interest toward the developing online literary scene, which is confirmed by the opening of important literary awards to the participation of online published works and the admission of thirteen Internet writers in 2013.
Tangjia Sanshao, the first Internet writer admitted to the Association, is an extremely productive writer, who had already published several works in print before his admission in 2010. Although the admission of a popular fantasy fiction writer can be regarded as an unexpected choice, given the preference of the Association for traditional genres, a certain recurrence of realistic fiction works can be seen in the choice of the authors selected for the activities sponsored by the Association in the following years.
A first example of this predilection can be seen in the short-listed works for the Lu Xun prize in 2010 and the Mao Dun award in 2011. In 2010, Wen Yu’s Caught in the Web (2007) was the only online-published work selected for the literary award. The following year, five out of the seven selected works for the Mao Dun award belonged to sub-genres of the broader “urban fiction” category, offering a portrait of different aspects of urban life.
The cooperation of the China Writers Association with Starting Point was inaugurated in 2013 with a joint symposium, aimed at the discussion of a few selected works of fiction published on the website. The selected works, six in total, were discussed and analyzed by established writers and members of the association, as well as literary critics and scholars. The discussion aimed at promoting a positive development for Internet literature, by providing some guidance to Internet writers for their professional and artistic growth. The works selected for the symposium present a slightly broader range of genres compared to the previously mentioned literary awards. Whilst Yuren Erdai’s So Pure, So Ambiguous (2008) and Liu’an Huaming’s Diary of an Unripe Woman (2008) belong to the established genre of urban fiction, Da Yan’s The Golden Pupil (2010) and Xu Gongzi Sheng’s The Master of Earth (2010) feature a combination of urban and fantasy fiction, introducing an atypical genre in the conventional literary.
In the same year, the China Writers Association announced the admission of thirteen Internet writers. Although the establishment initially showed some reluctance in recognising “unrealistic” and “non-educational” genres as works deserving of attention, the China Writers Association is gradually opening up to those genres that were born or gained their popularity online, including new genres, such as “time travelling” and “supernatural ability” fiction. This receptiveness to new genres became more distinct in 2014, when the Zhejiang Internet Writers association was established. The numerous authors admitted to the new organization produce a great variety of genres. Urban fiction still occupies a key role, but a growing portion is also occupied by fantasy genres and urban-fantasy hybrid genres. Fantasy fiction writers are particularly numerous in the Zhejiang branch, where fantasy genres seem to be greatly appreciated.
Another step towards the recognition of Internet literature as an increasingly influential part of the cultural mainstream is the establishment of the Internet Literature University. Founded in Shanghai at the end of 2013, the new institution undertakes the mission to guide the online literary field through its development.
4. The Internet Literature University
Toward the end of 2013, the Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts and Shanda Literature13Initially dedicated to the online gaming business, Shanda (also known as Cloudary) acquired original literature websites and three publishing houses in 1999, when Shanda literature was formally established. After the acquisition of the most popular literary websites, Shanda Literature claimed the 85% of the readers of Internet literature and was the world’s largest original content platform in Chinese language. Source: https://www.shanda.com/shanda-literature/. announced that a BA programme in the History of Internet Literature (Wangluo wenxue shi zhuanye网络文学史专业) would be offered starting from the following academic year. The BA programme included courses on literature and art theory studies, story-writing, TV drama, screen writing, publishing and film adapting, and copyright management and marketing.
Only a few months after the announcement-with the support of the Writers Association-the degree in History of Internet Literature turned into a much more ambitious project, and the first Internet Literature University was founded in November the same year. The mission of the new institution is to provide Internet writers with a professional training and foster the quality and the artistic value of their works, as well as increasing their awareness of marketing and copyright issues. The lectures would be held by established conventional and Internet writers, and the Nobel Prize author Mo Yan was appointed as its honorary president.14“Battle for legitimacy”, Global times http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/823767.shtml.
Mo Yan’s speech at the inauguration of the newly established Internet Literature University starts out by observing how a prejudice about something unfamiliar can often be changed by experience. Over the last decades, there has been some hostility between conventional and Internet Literature. This is because conventional writers are associated with “serious” literature, while Internet literature developed as a popular phenomenon. However, states the Nobel laureate, the boundaries between serious and popular literature are becoming increasingly blurred.While at its onset Internet literature roused some concern in both the literary establishment and the cultural industry, today choosing to enjoy a literary work online rather than in print can be merely a matter of practical needs: readers can consume Internet Literature on their daily commute, and still enjoy a good printed book in the evening. Today, the Internet and cultural production are inextricably connected and the role the new media are playing in contemporary culture can no longer be ignored. In order to understand and evaluate Chinese contemporary literature, Mo Yan points out, it is impossible to ignore online literary production.15Mo Yan’s speech is available at http://www.chinawriter.com.cn/2013/2013-11-01/179531.html. The translation is by the author of this paper.
Guided and administrated by the China Writers Association, the Internet Literature University underpins the core values promoted by the literary establishment, which sees literature as a tool for driving social change, channeling economic and ideological growth, and shaping the moral values of the new generations. The university’s mission of “inheriting thousands of years of Chinese culture” reflects hopes that the Internet might serve as more than a breeding ground for fiction genres designed for fast-food style consumption (Inwood, 436). The Internet Literature University is committed to the pursuit of literary value, fostering its students’ background knowledge and professionalism, while striving to create Internet literature works worthy of sitting in the annals of online literature, and to make a valuable contribution to contemporary literary production.
The programmes offered by the Internet Literature University are organized over a combination of online and classroom lectures. The network of the Internet Literature University includes five schools in different cities around the country and a platform for distance learning. The schools regularly organize seminars and conferences, held by important personalities in the Chinese literary scene or meant to examine a specific issue relevant to the training of future Internet writers.
The training courses are organized in three levels: the youth academy, for the newcomers to Internet literature; the elite college, aimed at improving the skills of existing online writers and a creative research institute, offering more advanced courses on literature and writing. Each level comprises a variety of lectures and activities, including fundamental courses in literature, introductory, intermediate and advanced training in literary writing skills, creative writing workshops, one-to-one tutorials, as well as lectures on the development of Internet literature. Besides the courses focused on literature, the training includes introductory courses to the writing profession and classes on the media, publishing industry, law, copyrights issues and plagiarism. Acknowledging the high permeability of the various sectors of the culture industry in the media age, the trainees are offered a well-rounded education providing fundamental insights in all the relevant fields.
The students are also offered the opportunity to gain experience through an internship with partner websites, publish their works and eventually sign a contract with an online publisher.
The teaching staff of the Internet literature University comprises a variety of professional figures with a wide range of expertise. While literary courses are held by established conventional and online writers, members of the China Writers Association and academic lecturers, the professional skills staff includes literary website directors, media experts, editors and TV and radio professionals.
The programmes offered by the university put a great emphasis on cultural inheritance and continuity with traditional culture as the foundation on which any new cultural trend should be built. Improving the students’ writing skills is one of the core learning objectives of the Internet Literature University, as the compulsory courses on literary writing demonstrate.16Course Centre, Internet Literature University http://daxue.17k.com/course-center.html. Translated by the author of this paper. Note: the original web page is no longer available. However, a short description can be found on the website of the universitier offering a degree in Internet literature, such as the Shangdong University: https://www.lit.sdu.edu.cn/szdw/wlwxyjzx.htm. Lectures aimed at making the students aware of copyright and plagiarism issues are recurring, arguably because of the complexity of identifying and persecuting similar violations online.
Although hypertext, interactive novels and coding works still account for a small percentage of digital literature in China, experimental and multimedia text occasionally serve as material for discussion as well. The Internet Literature University is fully state-supported and offers free courses for its students.
The development and popularization of the Internet had a profound impact on the evolution of contemporary China’s popular cultural and literary scene. As the Internet became a medium easily available to a significant part of the Chinese population, the online literary field came in contact with a number of other aspects of contemporary China’s cultural life and society, which in turn influenced the publication and consumption of Internet literature.
The reasons for the China Writers Association’s growing interest in the developing online literary field are varied and cannot be all necessarily ascribable to the recognition of the literary value of the selected works. Although the activities organized by the association claimed to have as their main objective the promotion of Internet literature, the establishment’s promptness in acting as a guide for the professional development of Internet writers can as well be seen as an attempt to regain some sort of control over literary production, by integrating a new digital literary field that developed entirely outside of the Association’s domain. Likewise, the frequent remarks on the promotion of the healthy development of Internet literature also unmask some concern about the contents of uncontrolled online published material, with violent and erotic content at the center of the attention. The Association’s concerns about the content of online published material directly relates to the social aims traditionally associated with literature in China: if literature has to provide a moral example to its readers, what is promoted as literature cannot be the carrier of negative values or obscene contents.
On the other hand, the establishment’s commitment made a great contribution to the development of Internet Literature’s own ecology. Once regarded as a popular grass-roots subculture, Internet literature today has its own production and publication system. The Internet Literature websites work in cooperation with the establishment, whilst maintaining their own identity and guiding their own production. The collaboration between the two fields resulted in an educational institution specifically dedicated to Internet writers. Whether we want to regard this co-optation as the result of the recognition of the artistic value of some pieces of online produced fiction, or as an attempt of the establishment to snatch some control over an increasingly popular phenomenon, winning a place within the official literary field can play some role in rescuing the most valuable Internet literature works from being submerged by the enormous amount of works published online, while providing a shortcut to print publication, and thus survival to the next generations.
Perhaps the most noticeable achievement of Internet literature websites in China is their ability to replicate a mass-production system for literary products bypassing most of their related material constraints. The contributors on the literary websites can submit their works directly through a submission system, eliminating the need for a paper support since the moment of its production, and with it, the necessity for a physical place designated for the storage and distribution of their products. The promotion and distribution of their products also happen mostly online. In fact, most of the literary platforms let their audience guide the demand for specific contents and thus the literary production, by developing specific marketing strategies tailored to their users’ interests and choices. Born independently from the conventional print industry, literary websites managed to establish their own production and distribution system which requires little more than the website itself and its contributors to function. Of course, we are well aware today that digital technologies are far from being immaterial, although the shift from user-owned supports to the “cloud” or streaming services can give users the illusion of an abstract realm detached from the physical world. However, the ability to reach a large audience online undeniably does remove the need for most of the material support writers need to publish in print. The dynamics of publication on literary websites are mostly driven by the reader’s response, while, at the same time developing specific market strategies tailored to users’ demand in order to enhance the sales. Distributing a few chapters for free in order to stimulate readers’ curiosity, and thus tempt them to purchase newly released installments or other similar works promptly suggested by the website, are some of their strategies. Although the great majority of Internet literature websites users are still concentrated in urban settings, the increase in the use of handheld digital devices, such as smartphone and tablets, may result in a growing interest in the online literary scene from audiences based in rural areas as well.17Guo Jinghua, “Electronic literature in China”. CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 16.5 (2014).
Companies behind the literary websites succeeded in creating an incredibly efficient system for the production and distribution of cultural products that requires relatively little need for maintenance. Although printed editions of the most successful Internet fiction works are often available for purchase on other distribution platforms such as Amazon (or its more popular Chinese rivals such as Taobao), the bulk of the consumption remains online.
It is also interesting to note how, in a country in which ideological control over cultural production is traditionally more rigid than in most Western societies, online writers and readers found their way around the existing system and gradually established an alternative, and relatively free, channel for literary production. Although the online literary scene is no longer completely independent from the conventional culture industry and the cultural bureaucracy represented by the China Writers Association, the development of the online literary scene still does push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable literature in China. So much so that the cultural establishment felt the need to actively cooperate with the emerging online scene.
The various stages presented in these pages show how Internet Literature evolved from being a marginal phenomenon to being gradually integrated within the literary system. Its initial success among Internet users caught the attention of a few farsighted entrepreneurs, who managed to turn it into a profit-making activity, sanctioning the success of a number of writers. The growing-and increasingly influential-online literary scene eventually attracted the interest of the literary establishment which is gradually trying to assimilate Internet Literature into its system. Lastly, the establishment of the Internet Literature University demonstrates how Internet Literature is being gradually accepted, if for some time only implicitly, as a part of the cultural mainstream. These dynamics, if seen as interconnected and consequential events, show how the two fields are gradually merging together and mutually contributing to each other’s development, while confirming the success of a new system for literary production and distribution, still unequaled in most of the Western countries.
- “Statistical Report on Internet Development in China (July 2014)”, China Internet Network Information Center, July 2014, https://cnnic.com.cn/IDR/ReportDownloads/201411/P020141102574314897888.pdf
- Shao Yanjun, “Internet literature: a solely Chinese phenomenon?”, 2016. An English translation of the article, translated by Daniel Nieh, is available at: https://www.goethe.de/ins/cn/en/kul/mag/20742505.html
- Fragrant Red Sleeves (Hongxiu tianxiang红袖添香). Website home page: http://www.hongxiu.com/
- Jinjiang Literature City (Jinjiang wenxue cheng 晋江文学城). The homepage of the website is accessible at < http://jjwxc.com/>.
- Danmei fiction is a fiction genre which features romantic same-sex encounters between male protagonists, often accompanied with more or less explicit descriptions of sexual activity. For more about Danmei fiction see: Feng, Jin, Romancing the Internet: Producing and Consuming Chinese Web Romance. Leiden: Brill, 2013.
- Read novels (Xiaoshuo yuedu wang 小说阅读网), homepage: http://www.readnovel.com.
- Starting Point, Qidian 起点, homepage: .
- Alexa Statistics summary for qidian.com. Alexa is an American company providing a number of services for internet users and websites owners, including Internet traffic statistics. The last statistic refers to Starting Point ranking on Alexa during the first half of 2017. Alexa retired its services in 2022 http://www.alexa.com.
- Writers Rich List, Zhongguo Zuojia Fuhao Bang 中国作家富豪榜. All the ranking are available at http://zuojiafuhaobang.com/.
- Liu Liu, Dwelling Narrowness (Woju 蜗居). Although Dwelling Narrowness is no longer available on the website, where it was originally published, the whole text of the work is currently available at http://www.99reader.cn/files/article/html/2/2506/index¬.¬html.
- According to an article on the People’s Daily, 43.8% of urban readers have read or heard about Liu Liu’s novel. See: Zhao Enuo, Tang Ning, “Embracing reading, a ‘literary life’ full of feelings” (Yongbao yuedu, guoyou qinghuai de “wenxue shenghuo” 拥抱阅读，过有怀的”文学生活), 28 Apr 2016 http://www.chinawriter.com.cn/news/2016/2016-04-28/270955.html.
- China Writers, “A preliminary discussion on the difficulties of an Internet literature criticism” (Shilun wangluo wenxue piping de kunjing 试论网络文学批评的困境), http://www.chinawriter.com.cn/news/2013/2013-10-15/177376.html
- Initially dedicated to the online gaming business, Shanda (also known as Cloudary) acquired original literature websites and three publishing houses in 1999, when Shanda literature was formally established. After the acquisition of the most popular literary websites, Shanda Literature claimed the 85% of the readers of Internet literature and was the world’s largest original content platform in Chinese language. Source: https://www.shanda.com/shanda-literature/.
- “Battle for legitimacy”, Global times http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/823767.shtml.
- Mo Yan’s speech is available at http://www.chinawriter.com.cn/2013/2013-11-01/179531.html The translation is by the author of this paper.
- Course Centre, Internet Literature University http://daxue.17k.com/course-center.html. Translated by the author of this paper. Note: the original web page is no longer available. However, a short descriprtion can be found on the website of the universitier offering a degree in Internet literature, such as the Shangdong University: https://www.lit.sdu.edu.cn/szdw/wlwxyjzx.htm
- Guo Jinghua, “Electronic literature in China”. CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 16.5 (2014).
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