Chinese imagination amplified in online literature

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-08-23


FILE PHOTO: Screenshots of popular e-book app Weixin Dushu, or WeChat Read, a product of China’s most popular chat app WeChat

As one of China’s most popular cultural trends in the internet era, online literature has proven to have a life of its own, with unlimited creativity. Literature is known to carry a nation’s most extensive ethnic experiences and to archive deep cultural memories. Online literature, as the inheritor of these literary traditions and a form of new media, not only takes on the legacy of national literature, but also creates new content. It is an immediate and accurate snapshot of social life, while also leaving space for creativity. This literary trend represents the current wave of youth culture, moving into a future powered in equal parts by virtual technology and curiosity. Whether describing an alternative world or a concrete daily reality, web novels are telling the story of China using a global perspective.

Interaction-oriented new literature

At present, interactive online literature refers to interactions between authors and readers, platform operators and managers, fanfiction authors and literary adaptors. Interpersonal interactions affect the form of expression, style, and reading experience of online literature. Interactions can also change a text’s scope of influence and life cycle.

From the development perspective, web novels in China have experienced three main growth stages: forum posts, website serials, and “traffic texts.” Though their popularity ebbs and flows at different times, interpersonal interactions are indispensable for all of them.

Online interpersonal interactions are realized through a secondary oral culture. From communication and written interactions centered on text, to the emotional pleasure of sending rewards to urge favorite authors to update their material, to personal identification with characters or even the author himself/herself, through the history of the development of online literature, increased interpersonal communication clearly has a strong impact on creation. Secondary oral culture makes the reading and review of web novels greater than the sum of its parts, as the evaluation process initiates and mobilizes interpersonal interactions.

The internet is famous for its multimedia functions, which not only includes older communication systems such as print, radio, and television, but also blurs the boundary between literature and art with hyperlinks, associations, and cross-media narration, facilitating broader interactions between different media interfaces. The internalization of web novel interactions has profoundly changed literature’s symbolism. Text is no longer limited to conveying a one-dimensional meaning, but has become a multi-media “screen language” with both form and sound.

Online literature can trigger interactions that are powerfully general or direct, leading online narratives to break through the limits of digital interfaces. Literature is not only based on spoken or written language, but has a variety of symbolic systems. Starting with language, online literature has the ability to internalize movies and games, turning them into stories, providing an opportunity for different literary forms to truly blend through multiple interfaces and form interactive narratives. We often say that the rise of new media may end literature, but in fact, these interactions across multiple interfaces have expanded the original territory of text.

Online interactions drive the transformation of literary subjects, activities, and ideas. Previously, we have seen an emergence of an interactivity-centered view of literature.

In online literature, as literary “works” move from a ready-to-read state to a dynamic one, the boundary between author and reader blurs, forming intersubjective reading and writing groups. Reception and feedback, previously at the back-end of literary activities, have been moved to the front, and the diachronic sequence of writing, and then later reading and reviewing, has been transformed into synchronic creation with writing and reviewing happening at the same time. In a way, it changes the requirements of who can be an author, as writing is now open to anyone who is not satisfied with what they have read. This introduces a new group, the “reader-writers.”

In bridging elite discourse with common vernacular, serious themes and popular techniques, literary self-discipline and heteronomy, web novels fully demonstrate the power of interaction. Through the multipronged promotion of a secondary oral culture, the barrier between author and reader is removed, steering literary activities away from traditional print. Interface interaction is tied to the rise of digital media, the source for the new online literature. It is a cross-border use of literary code, representing the expansion of a new style and literary language, and a de facto narrative reform.

In the past, written literature and digital text were strictly defined, outlining a clear boundary in forms of artistic language. Today, from its birth, Chinese online literature has empowered new media for the public, emphasizing the innovation of interpersonal and interface interactions, a uniquely Chinese experience.

Multi-dimensional imagination

Wild imagination is another feature of Chinese online literature, which draws from three sources: Chinese history, foreign culture, and media experience. This kind of imagination runs through ancient and modern times, covers both China and foreign countries, and is also highly personal. The collision of traditional and modern, Western and Chinese, printed and digital culture have fed the rich imagination of the online fiction world.

Online literature is full of stories inspired by Chinese history. History is rich and inclusive, and full of unsolved puzzles. Online writing recreates classic texts, Taoist thoughts, and martial arts novels, draws evidence from historical records, cultural relics, and legends, and combines this history with the needs of modern readers to create an ancient Oriental fantasy.

Xianxia (immortals and knights), xuanhuan (supernatural and fantasy), xiuzhen (Taoist alchemy), alternative histories, time travel, and other sub-genres all stem from the imaginative stories from the past, and they rely on popular word associations to create aesthetic meaning and a seemingly personalized emotional world for young readers.

At the same time, the internet accelerates global cultural exchanges, making online literature a reservoir of the world’s cultural resources. It now presents literary and artistic images from different civilizations through the unique lens of personalized Chinese perspectives.

Whether borrowing elements from Japanese anime or Western fantasy, the imagination of Chinese online literature has always centered on the individual, on friendship, and love, telling stories with a universal appeal. Not only that, Chinese online literature is now going global, feeding inspiration back to the world with creative experiences and new economic models.

In terms of profitability, literary websites have developed a phase-based payment industry model that monetizes attention, emotional appeal, and traffic to provide first-hand data for the non-real economy and the digital economy. In its production mode, writers make use of chapter introductions and end discussions to fully engage readers and thus make literary and artistic production a collective act. In terms of industrial collaboration, the combination of low-cost creative texts and the needs of audiences post media transformation has greatly improved productivity in the cultural and creative field.

Online literature not only benefits from great writers and classic works, but also is strengthened by new media technology, computer logic, and the open spirit of the internet. ‘New media’ equips online writers with more room for imagination, especially when compared to earlier publication models. The imagination generated by digital media cultivates a collective unconsciousness and potential literary norms for the authors and readers of online literature. The imagination incubated by the new media experience endows online novels with new ways of writing.

Cyber world

Online literature appears to be full of fantasies and daydreams, but it also reflects social reality. Chinese online literature is how the younger generation sees society, records it, and reflects its changes. The writing is synchronized with the rise of China’s cyber world, mirroring the changing social structure and mentality of the times.

As an immediate impression of China’s contemporary social culture, the themes in online novels evolve rapidly. From tales of “urban strongmen” to “creative heroes” to “digital newcomers,” these legends are shaped by a shared generational structure, social psychology, and the real concerns of everyday people.

In the 1990s, when the internet appeared to be an overwhelming, world-altering force, popular web novels drafted impressive visions of “urban strongmen.” As China engineered greater information networks, internet cafes became the main venue for online reading, so the primary audience was teenagers who played video games while casually reading novels. Online fiction that had a strong sense of realism gradually fell out of favor, because this new generation of readers no longer preferred literary works which critically reflected reality, as previous generations did. Instead, they wanted an escape, and so the writing focus shifted from capable middle-aged urban strongmen to young, plucky, but inexperienced heroes from a supernatural world.

Online literature not only presents social reality in the traditional sense, but also depicts virtual reality. More importantly, it elevates a new social consciousness — virtual reality is no longer a “heterotopia” outside of reality, but is based in everyday life. For the generation of digital natives, simulacra and simulation are increasingly creating a sense of reality, leading internet users to seamlessly connect the virtual with reality.

Online literature transforms abstract internet rules into concrete experiences, building immersion through the repetition of routines. This steady repetition has eliminated the boundaries of virtual experiences, transforming online media from novelties to a part of daily life, from individual fandoms to public topics, this makes the cyber world an increasingly clear form of literary narration.

There are now various schools of online literature, such as wuxianliu (long-form, serialized novels), suishenliu (spontaneous time travel novels), xitongwen (episodic writing in a video game setting with tasks to complete, experience to gain, and levels to climb). These schools truly convey the reality of the cyber world. Through the “strongman,” “hero,” “the chosen one,” and the “supernatural,” different types of stories in the cyber world and the social reality they reflect on explain, communicate, and bridge the physical world, the literary world, and the cyber world, thus creating a deeply media-immersed cyber universe.

Online literature originates from reality, but gains strength from imagination. Today, web novels that describe the daily habits of the Chinese public provide a concrete and current example of the characteristics of people’s lives, making them an important platform for retelling the Chinese story overseas. Online literature is more than a simple fantasy, it tells an original Chinese story based on local experiences and our changing times.


Xu Miaomiao is from the Research Institute of Arts Aesthetic Education at Capital Normal University.

Editor:Yu Hui

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