RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
One thing the Internet has done in China, it's freed many young writers to post their literary efforts online. Under the communist party, authors had to penetrate a maze of loyal party members to get a book published. In this final in our series about the Internet's impact on Chinese arts and culture, NPR's Laura Sydell talks about novels.
LAURA SYDELL: Back in the days when Mao Tse Tung was still running China, literature was supposed to be in the service of workers, peasants, and soldiers. But there was underground literature that people passed around in bound notebooks.
Dr. PERRY LINK (Professor of East Asian Studies, Princeton University): It was very dangerous to copy them and to pass them around. You could get in trouble if you got caught with them.
SYDELL: That's Princeton University East Asian Studies Professor, Perry Link. If you're thinking that those notebooks were filled with the writings of a Chinese Solzhenitsyn criticizing the Communist Party, you would be wrong.
Dr. LINK: They were almost all this kind of entertainment fiction - triangular love stories and detective stories and things like that.
SYDELL: People wanted that kind of pulp fiction, but what made it through the government sensors and into book stores was often dry and boring, and always had to have a message about the improvement of communist society.
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SYDELL: But now writer Fu Tian, that's her pen name, is not thinking about how to make a better China. The pale afternoon sun filters through a dusty window in her Shanghai apartment. It lights up her mischievous face as she types. All she wants is to entertain her readers. Fu, whose real name is Zhang Shuyu, writes historical fiction. Her latest book is filled with romance and palace intrigue.
Ms. FU TIAN (Author): (Through Translator) The story is based on Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history. In my book, there is a little girl who is like one of the daughters of the female emperor. In real history, the princess did not succeed in getting power, but in this novel she does.
SYDELL: Here's a short segment from the beginning of her book.
Ms. TIAN: (Through Translator) Although the carriage was moving smoothly, Su Cui felt restless inside. It was the first time she had ever left her hometown. She had spent the previous eight years of her life in a small town, living with her aunt and uncle. The couple had shown her a picture of her father, saying that he was a well-known warrior. They didn't tell her anything about her mother. But a few days ago, a visitor came in a hurry and said that her mother wanted her to go to the capital city.
SYDELL: Fu has been writing novels exclusively for the Internet for over a year. She now has thousands of loyal readers. They come to find her stories on a Web site called Xidian. It's so successful that 70 people now work at its offices. Sitting in rows and rows of cubicles, editors sort through the thousands of submissions posted on the site every month. They're trying to figure out what's going to be popular and move it up to the front page. Fu Tian is so popular, she gets health benefits at a base salary from Xidian. Wu Wang Xao, one of the sites founders, says Xidian gets about 200 million page views a day, and is one of China's most popular literary sights.
Mr. WU WANG XAO (Founder of Xidian): (Chinese spoken)
SYDELL: He says Fu Tian is could be drew to the attention of readers and editors because she is funny and fun. Her fans must pay two cents to reach each new installment of her novels and Fu gets a cut. Manager Xao admits this model doesn't always lead to the most literary fiction. He says, on the Internet, writing is focused on plot, writers end chapters on cliffhangers to keep people's attention, and there isn't much focus on grammar and style. Jo Lusby, the general manager of Penguin Books in China, thinks online lit is in its infancy and is likely to get better as it matures.
Ms. JO LUSBY (General Manager of Penguin Books): I think it's very young. I think the writers themselves are extremely young. This is young people writing for young people.
SYDELL: And there's some good news for those people who like actual books made of paper. Fu Tian and her Internet colleagues still want to see their writing in print and publishers are looking to the internet to find young talent. I take a visit with FU to Shanghai City of Books. It takes up six stories of a high rise downtown.
So where is your favorite section of the book store?
Ms. TIAN (Through translator): Let me look for it.
SYDELL: Fu Tian has been coming here since she was a teenager. As she strolls through the aisles, the books that catch her eye are often by other Internet writers.
Ms. TIAN: (Through Translator): "The Ghost Blows Out the Light," that used to be the greatest hit on Xidian Web site and it's being made into a movie.
SYDELL: Do you hope that happens to you, that it gets made into a movie?
Ms. TIAN: (Through Translator) Of course.
SYDELL: Fu's very excited that she will have a this real live paper book you can buy in a bookstore coming out this fall. While she's elated by the freedom and the opportunity that the Internet is bringing to her and other young Chinese writers, she admits there are limits.
Ms. TIAN: (Through translator) We have greater freedom than the writers who work in the traditional publishing system. But it is still not like you can write about anything.
SYDELL: Like, meaning what, not anything?
Ms. TIAN: (Through translator) You need to do positive things, if we can put it this way.
SYDELL: Fu cannot write about political topics such as Taiwan or Tibet. She and other young writers on the Internet can be as entertaining as they want with their cliffhangers, romances, and historical fantasies. They just can't write about anything too serious or politically sensitive. For them, the internet is the great entertainment highway.
MONTAGNE: And that's NPR's Laura Sydell, who has recently returned from China. And Laura joins us now. And okay. I'm just hearing entertaining, that's okay, but you can't talk politics. What does this add up to, the communist government allowing more artistic freedom now than in the past?
SYDELL: The communist government is allowing more artistic freedom, because I think in part, the government wants to promote creativity. But I came away from China with really mixed feelings about how much the Internet was really opening up the culture. Certainly it's been a wonderful thing for many creative people. They can be entertaining in a way they couldn't in the past, but when it comes to certain topics, they're still intimidated.
MONTAGNE: This although could change over time because it isn't really possible to control the Internet. I mean it's too big. You've pointed out in one of your earlier stories that the Chinese government hasn't been able to stop something they would like to stop, which is pirated music and movies, because they come through on the Internet.
SYDELL: Right, but they work a lot harder to clamp down on the political topics. You know, the four biggies: Taiwan, Tibet, Tiananmen Square or Falun Gong. If you post something about that, the likelihood is it's going to get taken down. And it's a big open question as to whether or not artists will ever be able to get political.
MONTAGNE: Two hundred million Chinese online now, but it's just a fraction of the population of China. How fast is access growing?
SYDELL: Well, I think one thing that it's important to understand is that 200 million or so Chinese are the elite. These are the people who are benefiting most from the economic changes in China, and so therefore, right now, these are the people who are really least likely to really protest politically. These are the people who want to write entertaining novels because they're thinking about their next job. As to how fast it will grow, that's not really clear. It is growing fast and we'll see what kind of impact that actually has on the content as more of this population gets online.
MONTAGNE: Laura, thank you.
SYDELL: You're quite welcome
MONTAGNE: NPR's Laura Sydell, she's been talking to us over the past days about her exploration of the impact of the Internet on the arts and culture in China.
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MONTAGNE: And if you go to npr.org you can hear the earlier stories in this series.
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