Now Updated - Mapping China: Literature

Inside the National Library of China in Beijing

An Overview

Since the turn of the century, China has seen bookshops the size of department stores springing up everywhere, in which hordes of young people, standing or squatting, literally read the books to pieces. This image is not only indicative of China's burgeoning literary passion, but also illustrates how far its book industry has developed since the economic reforms of 1979.

At present some 200,000 titles are published annually, 1000 of which being new literary works. And besides traditional paper books, China is at the global forefront in the field of digital publishing, an area in which numerous innovative business models are being launched, from internet writing clubs to serial novels on your mobile phone. But also when it comes to content, Chinese literature has become more diverse and richer. Socialist realism might have been the dominant style some thirty years ago, today however you can find everything from underground poetry to the Da Vinci Code in literary shopping centers and internet web shops.

The reason why so much is being read in China is that its literature has traditionally always had close ties with society: mainstream Chinese novels are socially committed. For three thousand years, Chinese writers have seen themselves as mirroring the world about them, exposing all sorts of abuse. This can be achieved indirectly, through the historical novel, traditionally the medium most commonly practiced, or more directly through so-called ‘bureaucracy novels’, true bestsellers that are commonly based on actual scandals such as corruption cases.

The young generation, who form the largest readership group, create their own versions of these, such as fantasy novels featuring elements of kung fu, in which time-travelling heroes combat all kinds of evil. But also less commercial young authors, like Sheng Keyi and her male colleague Xu Zechen in their thirties, use literature to address the important social issues of today, such as the mass migration of workers from the country to the cities. In short, Chinese literature is at the very heart of daily life.

Notes

 

About the 'Mapper'

Mark Leenhouts (1969) is a translator and critic of Chinese literature. He is author of Aards maar bevlogen – Chinese literatuur van nu (Down-to-earth yet inspired: Chinese literature of the present; De Geus 2008, revised edition 2015). His latest translation is Belegerde vesting (Fortress Besieged) by Qian Zhongshu, and he is currently working on a co-translation of the Chinese classic Droom van de rode kamer (Dream of the Red Chamber).