Earlier this month, one man’s story captured the imagination of millions of China’s netizens. Mr. Yue is 44, a former fisherman. He left home to look for his son, who disappeared after working as a chef in the capital. Yue left behind a paralyzed father, a mother with a broken arm, a wife and child, all of whom he supported in a grueling round of poorly paid shift work across Beijing. His was a schedule that allowed scarce meals, let alone sleep.
We know this because Yue’s life was exposed when he tested positive for Covid-19 and his travels through the city were tracked down. He was one of the shadow armies of migrant workers in China’s glittering cities, whose stories are largely unheard of.
Except now, as critic Megan Walsh reveals in The subplot, a brief but illuminating exploration of the reading habits of one-fifth of humanity, the prose and poetry of migrant workers like Yue is one of several new genres that have flourished in China’s digital spaces. The Chinese Internet may be a place of discomfort and censorship, but it is also, as Walsh explains, a creative space that has given migrant workers an unprecedented platform, beginning with the viral success of the 2017 domestic help diary , I’m Fan Yusu.
There are several other literary phenomena in this fascinating version. Yet another is the murderous world of Chinese web fiction, in which novels are ejected with penalty speed and in staggering volume on online fiction platforms, hoping to lure a film or TV deal. China’s online reading platforms, she notes, carry about 24 million fiction titles by writers who hammer out between 3,000 and 30,000 words a day. This disorderly energy apparently worries President Xi Jinping, not least because it bypasses the traditional gatekeepers of the Chinese Writers’ Association, who were earlier able to eradicate writers who might indicate problems for the Party.
Of course, there is still a more formal publishing world in which established writers try to make sense of the massive upheaval and disruption of the past 40 years. Authors like the 2012 Nobel Laureate You itbest known for his 1986 debut Red sorghumof Yan Liankeauthor of the novel Hard As Water and the memoirs Three Brotherscontinues to write – if not always to be published in the People’s Republic.
For many writers who have to navigate the uncertainties of shifting official red lines, science fiction provides a safe haven. It is a genre in which the disruption and disruptions between past and present, and between official narratives and reality, are addressed, and to explore otherwise dangerous themes such as social injustice.
Liu Cixina computer engineer and best-selling science fiction writer, finds real problems such as pollution and human greed on distant planets while in the story Regenerated bricksHan Song describes the recovery of the rubble of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which contains victims’ remains, in “intelligent bricks” for space colonization, thus populating distant planets with unfortunate ghosts.
It’s a fair guess that most readers of The subplot will never read most of the literature that Walsh describes. Yet she argues convincingly that the foreign reader who wants to understand Chinese society should explore the fictional worlds that are past what she calls the “broad brush political and economic narratives of the public domain.” And for those who would like to explore a little more, Walsh has put together a further reading list.
The world she explores is a powerful panorama of multiple genres that include the rural nostalgia of “cottagecore”, espionage fiction, crime stories and fantasy martial arts heroes. Few of them – despite official admonition – seem to sing the praises of the Party, preferring to grapple with the massive social and personal disruptions of recent times.
Despite this bustling landscape, however, voices are still lacking: Uyghur and Tibetan writers and intellectuals have almost disappeared from the public sphere – some have become silent, others have literally disappeared. Han writers write versions of China’s “minorities”, but their own stories await a future settlement.
The subplot: What China Reads and Why It Matters by Megan Walsh, Columbia Global Reports $ 16, 136 pages
Isabel Hilton is the founder of the China Dialogue Trust
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