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Michel Hockx, Internet Literature in China,

New York, Columbia University Press, 2015, 251 pp.
Shuang Xu
Translated by Jonathan Hall
p. 71-72

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1Internet Literature in China is the fruit of Michel Hockx’s work over the last decade. In this volume the author examines the new literary form in the broad context of Chinese “postsocialism,” which he characterises as a “condition of ideological contradiction and uncertainty” (p. 13). His observations are based on his reflections, which combine literary and social questions. He asks how Internet literature brings about innovations in Chinese printed literature, as well as in the electronic literature that is already well developed in the West. And how does its publication manage to defy the government censorship system as it transgresses its boundaries? The author sets out to probe the phenomenon of Internet literature in order to examine the process of social transformation in China, and to offer “a general overview, useful not only for specialists but also for general readers interested in present-day China and its culture” (p. x).

2The work opens with an overall presentation of the development of Internet literature in China (Chapter 1). The birth of this new literature in the 1990s is compared with the profusion of literary magazines at the beginning of the twentieth century. According to Hockx, these two phenomena have some common features: literary innovation linked to new technologies, the formation of new communities around literary production, and the coexistence of differing literary tastes and divergent linguistic and cultural registers. He believes that Internet literature is in the process of establishing its own norms and values, which are not identical to those of its printed counterparts. The chapter ends with a study of the first literary website in China, “Under the Banyan Tree,” which throws light on the methods of producing online publications, and on the actual practices of a literary community based on digital interactions. He also follows the trajectories of different online writers to bring out a new form of literary canonisation, and the potential for creating new literary genres.

3The second chapter takes a closer look at literary innovation in the work of three active Internet authors. Chen Cun (b. 1954) was one of the first recognised writers in printed literature to enter the digital scene in the late 1990s. He still follows this avant-garde experimental path in his own online forum, the “Minority Vegetable Garden” (xiaozhong caiyuan小眾菜園), where he publishes matters that are taboo in printed literature, such as “Random Notes on Sex” (xing biji 性筆記), and where he attempts to break free from the stifling conventions in fiction in favour of a more direct form of written expression. Moreover, his forum includes a selective literary circle, modelled on the tradition of Tao Yuanming (365-427). The second writer, Wen Huajian (b. 1972), is the author of the first novel in the form of a microblog (weibo xiaoshuo 微博小), a new literary genre that later developed under the name of “micro-fiction” (wei xiaoshuo 微小). In terms of both form and content, his writings probe the boundaries between serious and obscene literature, as well as those separating fiction, virtual reality, and the real world. The third example, Han Han (b. 1982), has revived the genre of the satirical essay (zawen 雜文) characteristic of Lu Xun’s style, thanks to the social criticism in his blogs. The powerful media impact of his frontal attacks on the established publishing system has enabled a defence of authors’ rights against piracy in the case of certain digital publications. He also explores the possible use of mobile phone apps in order to widen the field of independent literary publication.

4The following chapter focuses on online fiction and the censorship policy aimed at moral and political offenses. Taking the Qidian 起點 website as his example, Hockx begins with a description of its general organisation. He emphasises that its economic model is closely linked to the interactions between author, reader, web administrator, and editor. He points out that creating a website involves re-interpreting certain literary ideas, such as the term wenxue 文學(literature) or qihuan 奇幻(fantasy). The chapter goes on to consider state control over the online fiction read by millions of readers outside the system of printed publications. Hockx broaches this issue by opting for the “obscene and pornographic” fiction that presents a threat to current legislation. His study of two websites, Feilu 飛路and Heilan 黑籃, lays out in detail some of their strategies for bypassing censorship measures.

5The final chapter studies Internet poetry from different angles: aesthetic development, moral transgression, and the re-appropriation of poetry’s social function. His study of two influential websites for poetry in China, Poemlife (shi shenghuo 詩生活) and Chinapoet (Zhongguo shiwang 中國詩網), reveals the appearance of poetic creations in the classical style. The author stresses that the hybrid combination of modern and classical styles calls for the creation of a new critical discourse to respond to this poetic innovation. Moreover, the originally “dissident” Jintian 今天 website seems to have won acceptance in China thanks to the creation of new transnational spaces. His case study of the avant-garde group xiabanshen下半身 (lower body) returns to the question of moral transgression. The separate careers of two women poets – one having achieved canonical status (Yin Lichuan) and the other being permanently censored (Datui) – raises the question of the boundary between literariness (p. 162) and obscenity. The chapter ends with a study of the formal innovations of online poetry: the animated textual morphs (p. 168), the Chinese version of electronic poetry, the English sinographic poetry (p. 175), and the visual poetry of Dajuin Yao.

6The volume includes copious endnotes classified according to chapter, a bibliography, a traditional index, and an explanation of how to use online sources. In addition, owing to the ephemeral nature of some of the documents, the reader is given access to an archive of digital references in the Zotero Group Library. The book is easily consulted and very practical to use. My only regret is the absence of a glossary and of Chinese characters for proper names.

7To the best of my knowledge, Michel Hockx’s book is the first Western study to provide a global introduction to online literature in China. In this respect it complements two other recently published works: Jin Feng’s study of romantic novels (Romancing the Internet: Producing and Consuming Chinese Web Romance, Leyden, Brill, 2013) and Heather Inwood’s work on poetry (Verse Going Viral: China’s New Media Scenes, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2014). Hockx’s book is extremely informative, and it also provides the first methodological steps towards a study of Internet literature in China. In sum, this is an important contribution, not only to Chinese studies but also to the study of digital literature elsewhere in the world.

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References

Bibliographical reference

Shuang Xu, « Michel Hockx, Internet Literature in China, », China Perspectives, 2016/1 | 2016, 71-72.

Electronic reference

Shuang Xu, « Michel Hockx, Internet Literature in China, », China Perspectives [Online], 2016/1 | 2016, Online since 01 March 2016, connection on 19 August 2017. URL : http://chinaperspectives.revues.org/6944

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About the author

Shuang Xu

Shuang Xu is an associate professor at Paris Diderot University, East Asian Languages and Civilisations Department, and researcher at the Centre de recherche sur les civilisations de l’Asie orientale (UMR 8155) (shuang.xu@univ-paris-diderot.fr).

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