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Rethinking attributes of Chinese online literature

TANG ZHESHENG | 2021-12-30 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

FILE PHOTOS: Jade Dynasty (Left); The Legend of the Swordsman of Shushan (Middle); Fate in Tears and Laughter (Right) 

It has been many years since online literature first appeared in China, and now it is time for us to consider making it a discipline. In recent years, there have been various views on the attributes of Chinese online literature, and many scholars have differentiated and analyzed these different points of view. 

Traditional light literature 
Chinese online literature is a kind of popular literature rooted in traditional Chinese literature as part of a continuum of modern and contemporary popular literature in China. 
Its source can be dated back to the Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1279–1368) dynasties, during which the oral tradition rose to an art form and was further developed. Sanguo Zhi Tongsu Yanyi (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms) by Luo Guanzhong (c. 1330–c.1400) was the first novel to use the term tongsu (popilar). Chinese popular literature has established itself as a Chinese literature genre, with its own aesthetic paradigm: categories, chapters, and narratives. Online literature has inherited the aesthetic paradigm of traditional popular literature, featuring popularity, categories, storytelling,  and the like. Structurally, chapters have become dominant, and usually classical elements of traditional popular literature, and modern and contemporary literature, have been employed to create the plots. Chinese online literature is a continuum and innovative development of modern and contemporary popular literature in China, which is specifically manifested in the following aspects. 
First, the openness of culture is demonstrated. Modern and contemporary popular literature, as a continuity of traditional popular literature, has inherited values in our traditional culture, while accepting the influence of foreign culture and New Culture which became popular during the May Fourth Movement in the early 20th century. As a result, numerous classics have appeared, advancing with the times with distinctive Chinese characteristics, such as novels created by Zhang Henshui and Jin Yong. Nowadays, online literature which arises and grows in cyberspace will surely see more remarkable cultural integration. So deeply steeped in Chinese culture, and also impacted by foreign culture, online literature has become a part of popular culture.
Second, a strong media impact is featured. Modern and contemporary popular literature in China was born in the age of printing. Newspapers and periodicals make up its media communications and also affect their expressive styles. Thus, it is not an overstatement to say that modern and contemporary popular literature is literature of “newspapers and periodicals.” Chinese online literature is a product of cyber media. In terms of media impact, modern and contemporary literature has a lot in common with interonline literature, for they are both created and published on modern media platforms. 
Third, efforts to maximize readership are shown. Modern and contemporary popular literature, and online literature in China, are both aimed at reading and popularity maximization. They both make use of marketing to promote the dissemination of literary works. Editors, authors, and readers collaborating. Platforms, texts, and readers are a mechanism. Marketing helps create many classics in modern, contemporary literature, and online literature. 
Fourth, cross-media adaptation is exemplified. It was quite common for people to attach importance to book-to-film mass media integration as early as the 1920s, when the Mandarin Duck and Butterfly School was popular, contributing to China’s glorious “commercial movies” at that time. The most classic one would be Burning Paradise in Hell adapted from Pingjiang Buxiaosheng’s Legend of Yung Ching. In China’s contemporary popular literature, the most classic examples would be movies and TV plays adapted from Jin Yong’s novels. As popular culture developed, cross-media adaptation became an inevitable derivative thanks to the consumption attributes of popular literature. Movies, TV dramas, and cyber media are developing rapidly, presenting a steady stream of new forms. Various marketing operations in Chinese online literature have helped countless classics emerge. This new type of popular literature has arisen as new mass media develops, is advancing with the development of society and ever-updating mass media, and new genres may someday replace online literature just as online literature has surpassed modern and the contemporary literature of newspapers and periodicals. No matter how online literature will develop and change, as long as its basic features remain unchanged, it could be considered an innovative development of Chinese popular literature. 
Innovative inheritance 
It is more convincing to analyze Chinese online literature’s inheritance of modern and contemporary popular literature from the perspective of narrative genres and modes. Since the 1920s, new genres and narrative modes have been created in the field of modern and contemporary popular literature, which continues the tradition of popular literature. Modern and contemporary popular literature in China has six major categories including: social novels, martial arts novels, detective novels, historical novels, romance novels, and science fiction. Online literature continues to move forward with the above-mentioned six categories. 
For example, internet fantasy fiction can be regarded as a combination of modern and contemporary martial arts novels and tales of the strange, while online suspense novels are an integration of modern and contemporary detective novels and crime fiction. Online literature has drawn upon the romance of writers like Zhang Henshui and Qiong Yao. However, romantic sentiment is no longer a moral criterion or life’s ultimate ideal, but exists only as a youthful thread in the expression of personal emotions and the pursuit of life goals. Historical settings, figures, and events are also a source of creativity for online historical novels. However, historical facts, an element once regarded as essential to historical novels, are somehow suspended in online historical novels. 
Online fiction, as a latecomer, is well-positioned to make flexible use of the “typical plot” of traditional popular novels. For example, the prologue of Zhuxian (Jade Dynasty), a famous internet novel in China, introduces the main text by explaining the world’s mystical principles, a common technique used in the opening of traditional Chinese popular fictions, such as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and The Journey to the West. In the first two chapters of Zhuxian, a mischievous and clever child, Zhang Xiaofan, grapples with two elderly Taoists of equivalent skills. This narrative pattern is relatively similar to the opening of Jin Yong’s novel, The Legend of Condor Hero, indicating Jin Yong’s possible influence. The novel’s description of the aura and strange martial arts skills displayed in the fight between the two Taoists is somewhat similar to The Legend of the Swordsman of Shushan by Huanzhu Louzhu. 
Of course, it is undeniable that online literature has its distinctive features. For example, the opening of Zhuxian reads: “Time: Unknown, or perhaps long, long ago. Location: the vast land of China.” The novel’s introductory description does not pay much attention to time and place. Instead, it tells the reader that the work is a virtual story. This is a common writing technique in online literature. 
Academic significance 
For Chinese online literature, the identification of its popular literary attributes is not only a way to “identify with one’s ancestors,” but also a way to gain a deeper understanding of its characteristics. For example, the “interactivity” of online literature has long been used by author Zhang Henshui and Yan Duhe, editor of Xinwen Bao newspaper [published between 1893 and 1949], except that they interacted via letters from the readers. The ending of Zhang Henshui’s masterpiece, Fate in Tears and Laughter, is in fact the result of participation from many readers. This approach was used repeatedly in later modern popular literature, such as Qin Shouou’s Autumn Begonia
The business model of “paid subscriptions” is not unique to online literature either. The novels of Jin Yong, when published in newspapers, adopted the model of allowing fans to “pay to read earlier.” 
As for the online intellectual property (IP) model used in online literature, great writers of modern popular literature such as Bao Tianxiao, Zhou Shoujuan, Xu Zhenya, and Zhang Henshui, were indeed early experts in this regard. 
Of course, this does not detract from the uniqueness of online literature. The uniqueness of online literature lies in two aspects. First, it reflects a wider global cultural vision, with smoother interactions in the creation process, higher relevancy and integrity of IP application and operation, literature genres splitting into  smaller branches, and adaptation to the ever-changing tastes of readers. Secondly, the creation mechanism itself is unique, or more precisely, the role of virtual space’s. Online literature writers have reformed and transcended the perspective of subjectivity-objectivity, time-space, and causation in traditional literature. 
Chinese online literature is a new type of popular literature that emerged in the 1990s, after online digital platforms in cyberspace opened. This statement about its timeline is not meant to obliterate online literature’s distinctive characteristics, or to deliberately complicate discussions about the origins of China’s online literature, for it is truly difficult to say which online publication is China’s first online literature. It is still worth debating whether we are discussing net novels or essays. 
As we scientifically construct China’s online literature evaluation system, a prerequisite is to confirm that it can be attributed to popular literature. The scientific accuracy of the evaluation system is first reflected in understanding the nature of the object of criticism. Without identification of online literature’s nature, it is impossible to speak about an evaluation basis. No literary phenomenon emerges out of the void. To clarify that Chinese online literature is attributed to popular literature will also clarify its inheritance in the history of literature. 
Consequently, the corresponding mechanisms of culture, creation, market, and dissemination of popular literature, are naturally applicable to online literature, and the critical standard is also consistent. The scientific accuracy of the evaluation system should also be reflected in the ability to effectively analyze and determine online literature’s uniqueness. Online literature is an innovative inheritance of popular literature. Only by clarifying the relationship between them, can the evaluation system of popular literature be further developed and have greater applicability. 
The study of Chinese online literature is indeed entering a period of disciplinary construction. Disciplinary construction is a systematic project which requires in-depth theoretical thinking. It is not simply confined to analysis of phenomena. The study and evaluation of online literature should not only focus on “network” media, but also confirm its position in the development of Chinese literature from the perspective of the inheritance and evolution of literary history. In this way, the disciplinary construction of Chinese online literature can be logical and visionary, to produce compelling academic results. 
Tang Zhesheng is a professor from the Department of Chinese Literature at Soochow University. 
Edited by WENG RONG