Does the nomination of two mainland authors for the Man Booker herald a western awakening to contemporary Chinese writing?

CULTURAL EVOLUTION

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore 

Last week marked a milestone for China: for the first time two Chinese authors made the finalists’ list for the prestigious Man Booker International Prize. Su Tong (celebrated for Wives and Concubines, the novella later made into the Zhang Yimou film Raise the Red Lantern) and Wang Anyi (The Song of Everlasting Sorrow) are up against giants such as Philip Pullman and Philip Roth for the £60,000 (HK$748,000) prize, to be announced in May.

So is Chinese literature – long considered untranslatable and marred by cultural isolation and censorship – flourishing?

“It might be a little exaggerated to consider my nomination as the coming of Chinese fiction’s moment,” Su Tong, 48, says from his home in Nanjing. “It only tells us the Western world is finally starting to pay more attention to Chinese literature.”

“It’s very much about China opening up – all eyes of the West are on China,” agrees Marysia Juszczakiewicz, founder of the Hong Kong-based Peony Literary Agency and Su Tong’s agent. Still, the Booker nominations mark a year when China is giddy from celebration: last month Bi Feiyu won Asia’s largest literary prize, the Man Asian, for his Cultural Revolution novel Three Sisters - he is the third Chinese author to win the award since the inaugural event in 2007.

Publishing on the mainland is booming as smaller, more independent publishing houses spring up to challenge the torpid, state-run corporations. But while authors including Su Tong and Bi represent a solid Chinese canon – the select few who have international profiles – there is also a movement of younger, savvier writers, un-translated and largely unrecognised in the West, who are challenging readers with fresh voices.

These include Chinese-household names such as Han Han – the rally-racing celebrity sensation whose writing epitomises the hedonistic “me” generation of the post-1980s and whose blog, used in part to criticise the stultifying state literary bodies such as the Writers’ Association, has millions of hits. Zhang Yueran, 28, a contemporary of Han Han’s and another famous “post-80s generation” writer who edits a popular cultural magazine, Li, believes it is easier for young authors today to cross cultural boundaries. “Unlike authors of the previous generation, we don’t use dialects,” she says. “And we involve fewer folktales from the Chinese countryside in our novels.”

Zhang published her first novel aged just 14. The publishing industry then, she says, was less commercial. Today, authors are expected to promote themselves as brands, ready to communicate through blogs, talks and TV appearances. Part of the upside of the up-to-the-minute marketable trends taking over publishing is the internet boom, where writers – eager to escape censorship and the guarded editing of mainland publishers – post their works on popular literary websites such as Rongshuxia.

“When I first entered the arena of Chinese literature, there was a clear boundary set between mainstream literature and marginalised literature – for example, those circulating on the internet,” says Zhang. “Today, internet literature is published and recognised.”

Authors such as Murong Xuecun – who spearheaded the publishing internet craze 10 years ago by serialising his wildly successful take on contemporary China, Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu, online – are breaking free from the Cultural Revolution memoirs and “scar literature” that have defined so many past important works.

One positive development is a flurry of new genres that are competing in an increasingly nuanced industry. Jo Lusby, head of Penguin Group (China), says “we are beginning to see genre publishing for the very first time. There’s a lot more thrillers coming out, crime fiction, chick lit, quality literary fiction and contemporary urban fiction, rather than just Cultural Revolution or rural-urban migration stories”.

Despite this, problems abound and censorship continues. With no official guidelines on what is or isn’t allowed, many authors self-censor to maximise the chances of publication. And editors – who carry the brunt of the punishment – are overly cautious. For best-selling author Feng Tang the problems go further to a general cultural malaise. “The current brightest are not writing,” he says. “They are making money and earning fortunes.”

Meet five of the top Chinese writers of today:

Feng Tang 
Feng Tang, 40, is a novelist, poet, essayist and GQ columnist who writes with scorching honesty about the pains and highs of youth. Feng brings the bitter taste of up-to-the-minute reality to his work: he trained as a doctor before getting a degree in business and rose to become a partner at management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Today he is head of strategy for a leading Fortune 500 conglomerate in Hong Kong. The Beijing-born author – who writes under a pen name to protect his day job – is well-loved for his explorations of the alienation of adolescence. His books have furious plots and a matter-of-fact tenor – pitched in a brazen, colloquial language and school-yard slang – rarely seen in the more “serious” tomes of Chinese literature. Give Me a Girl When I’m 18 - part of a trio of novels that explore youth in the status-obsessed China of the 1980s and 90s – has been likened to a Chinese The Catcher in the Rye. His works deal with the smaller angst of growing up – from boys swapping porn mags at school to their make-shift attempts to sell counterfeit brands. Feng Tang has not been translated into English but is ambitious: his newest work, Oneness (as yet unpublished), is set in the imperial Tang dynasty and he has plans to write a short story or novel spanning each of China’s empires. One to watch.

Han Song 
Following severe crackdowns during the Cultural Revolution, science fiction is experiencing a renaissance – and Han Song, 46, is leading the way. Song – who works as a Xinhua reporter – entered the scene after winning a student competition run by Taiwan’s Mirage magazine in 1982; he has since won the Galaxy Award for fiction six times. The author merges sci-fi with uncomfortable – often terrifying – realities. His works comment as much on society today as they delve into a fantastical future. Issues touched upon include China’s rapid economic growth, its rampant nationalism and bubbling tensions with foreign countries. Typical is 2066: Red Star Over America, in which the Middle Kingdom is a world superpower aiming to spread civilisation to a decaying America through the ancient board-game Go. And in My Homeland Does Not Dream, China meets its astronomic GDP targets by drugging its population to work double shifts, one awake and the other asleep. Song admits most of his work is un-publishable on the mainland and sits dormant in his computer. But his influence on young sci-fi fans is very much alive.

Murong Xuecun
Murong Xuecun was a car salesman when, a decade ago, he burst into the public consciousness with his book Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu. The novel, which was first serialised online, attracted more than 150,000 hits and has since had an estimated readership of five million. Leave Me Alone favours a pared-down style that departs from the sometimes flowery writing of the Chinese canon. The novel follows three friends as they indulge in drink, drugs and prostitutes in corrupt Chengdu. Murong, 37, now writes full-time and is well-known among the younger population. Leave Me Alone is his only book so far to be published in English. His latest work – a non-fiction account of 23 days spent infiltrating an illegal pyramid scheme on the mainland – won him the “special action award” from People’s Literature magazine. When the panel prevented the author from giving a speech he’d prepared on the absurdity of censorship at the awards, he delivered it instead at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong. A daring novelist and outspoken critic.

Sheng Keyi
Sheng Keyi is a well-known literary voice and prize-winner in China who has just been signed onto Penguin’s China List. Northern Girls - published in 2004 and expected out in English in 2012 – tracks the fate of a young buxom country girl, Qian Xiaohong, who migrates from her Hunan village to the bright lights of Shenzhen. Sheng herself is a migrant worker who emigrated from Hunan to spend seven years in Shenzhen before quitting the city to pursue writing. As a member of the 70s generation, she straddles the Cultural Revolution writers and the children of the post 1980s who grew up with the economic freedom of China’s opening up and reform. Sheng, 37, does not shy away from the more blunt aspects of life in the countryside – from the way Qian is judged due to the large size of her breasts, to forced sterilisations. Unafraid to deal with female sexuality and its sometimes darker consequences, Sheng recently compared the many abortions of migrant girls in Shenzhen to “a whole other city that has gone down the sewers in the hospitals”. Her works, likewise, are candid and un-sentimental explorations into a new China, often couched in deeply lyrical language.

Chan Koon-chung The Fat Years was the most talked-about Chinese book of last year and its author Chan Koon-chung is making waves worldwide. In the futuristic novel, set in 2013, China has successfully surfaced from a global financial crisis and its people are content. But cracks appear when clues about a “missing month” begin to emerge; the populace, it turns out, has been drugged by the regime into losing their memories during a vicious crackdown. Shanghai-born Chan, 59, was raised in Hong Kong where he worked as a reporter before founding the monthly magazine City and moving on to invest in and manage a range of media businesses on the mainland. Today, Chan lives in Beijing where his novel (out in English in July and already sold in more than nine languages worldwide) remains unpublished; despite this, it has sold thousands of copies in Hong Kong and Taiwan; an online version is available on the mainland. Chan is a veteran writer who has already published 18 books. The Fat Years is likely to be his international breakout – and a novel that is predicted to keep Chinese literature firmly in the spotlight.

Additional reporting by Nian Dong and Ge Jingwei