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China is here

In response to all the recent talk about the 21st-century being the Chinese century, The Guardian has put together a fascinating two-part piece about the Chinese publishing industry.

The Chinese literary world is like a parallel universe, almost invisible to many in the west, complete with big hitters (Su Tong and Jia Pingwa), innovators (Xi Chuan and Che Qianzi), and bestselling superstars (Han Han and Annie Baobei), some of whom are earning more than £1m a year.

The first piece looks at the parallel worlds of state- and private-owned publishing houses; the phenomenon of the shu cheng “ massive bookstores that are like small book cities; the explosion of reading among young people; cell-phone lit; and a somewhat disturbing trend away from what we would call “literary fiction.”

This rush to the market has led to a “huge explosion” in genre fiction, according to [Beijing-based translator and journalist Eric ] Abrahamsen, with martial arts, sword and sorcery, romance and crime fiction very popular. “It’s sort of a release,” he says, “as if people are saying ‘finally we can sit down and read a romantic novel in the afternoon, rather than worrying’.” He is less optimistic about the prospects for literary fiction, suggesting that authors are “writing for a population that doesn’t want to think about their lives” and would rather just get on with making money. There is a small group of “very smart, very brave” writers trying to understand what’s happening to China in a period of change so rapid that “people are living differently now to how they were even six months ago”, but it is increasingly hard for them to find an audience for their work. “Almost nobody else is interested. The government’s implicit deal is ‘Don’t ask too many questions, just do your thing’,” he explains. “There are a lot of really disheartened writers who would like to put their heart and soul into writing, but who aren’t doing it because most people aren’t reading it.”

The second part of the series can be found here.