2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 189

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Community, Genre, and Power in Web-Based Popular Chinese Fiction

Organizer: Jin Feng, Grinnell College, USA

Chair: Haili Kong, Swarthmore College, USA

Discussant: Haili Kong, Swarthmore College, USA

The Internet is changing Chinese culture and society in profound ways. This can be seen not only in China’s status as the world’s largest broadband market, but also in the dynamic cultural negotiations waged daily on the Web. Web-based literature is growing in popularity, with a penetration rate of 42.6% of Chinese Internet users in 2010. Despite the productive nature of Chinese Internet culture, however, English-language scholarship has focused mostly on issues of state censorship, while Chinese-language research shows more interest in theoretical discussion than users’ experiences. This panel seeks to fill this scholarly gap by bringing genre production, community-making, and cultural capital into creative conjunction. The three papers each deal with an individual genre of Web fiction: popular romance, hybrid fantasy, and “Grave Robbing” fiction, adopting different approaches to initiate discussion on the state of Web-based literature in China today. Feng investigates how Chinese women appropriate existing pop culture products to create videos while reading Web romance, a practice that enables the literary community to generate cultural power and a “campy” humor. Zheng reveals Novoland, a Chinese-style fantasy system established by a group of young Web writers, to be a series of open-ended exchanges surrounding texts and media that replace the traditional writer-reader relationship with the looser interactions of a participatory online community. Inwood traces the formation and manipulation of new genres of Web-based Chinese fiction, scrutinizing the interplay between producers and consumers of popular literature, their media environments, and deeper socioeconomic trends at play.

Seeking Mr. Right: Appropriation and Power in Web-based Chinese Popular Romance
Jin Feng, Grinnell College, USA

The Internet has not only provided new tools, but also challenged the traditional definition of author and reader, and reconfigured their relationship by enabling more immediate, interactive, and egalitarian exchanges than print media. Consequently, web-based popular romance has become both a fluid process of perpetual reinvention and an integral part of the multimedia online environment. I use Yayabay, a US-based Chinese-language website that publishes popular romances, to examine how Chinese women utilize strategies of rewriting on the Web to create cultural capital and political power for themselves. I focus especially on how they appropriate existing visual products, such as still images and clips from popular TV soap operas, to various ends. Readers create cartoons and movie clips to accompany their romance reading. These artifacts make it possible for them to envision their ideal hero and heroine, illustrate reader interpretations, parody the original work, satirize related social phenomena, and generate a “campy” humor shared by the whole community. As their discussion and visualization of the ideal hero show, these women “recycle” existing visual images to reconstruct ideal masculinity and construct their own gender identity vis-à-vis this Other, both defying and embracing patriarchal ideologies and societal norms. Appropriation from existing cultural products, a trend prevalent in Chinese Web literature, reveals the active and complex ways that Chinese women engage with web-based popular romance. It serves as a window on the ways that contemporary Chinese women create their own gender identity and cultural power.

The Consumption of Fantasy in the Chinese Internet Age: Novoland and Its Creative Community
Xiqing Zheng, University of Washington, China

Novoland (Jiuzhou) is a Chinese-styled fantasy system based on a Dungeons and Dragons-type alternate universe. It was established in the early 2000s by a group of young writers, most of whom found fame online. In this paper, I analyze Novoland as an interactive online textual community, a model that supplants the traditional author-reader relationship of print-based literature. I argue that the creation and consumption processes of Novoland participants present them with an online experience characterized by fragmentation and interactivity, and blur the boundaries between authors and readers, texts and contexts. Novoland is a hybrid of diverse popular genres, including martial arts, romance, Western fantasy, Japanese animation, and science fiction, but which can still be categorized within the broader fantasy (qihuan) genre of popular Chinese fiction. It is also an open-source and open-ended system that welcomes the direct participation of young writers, professional or amateur, to help fill in the historical details of Novoland’s alternate universe. Online discussions are often finalized and canonized by magazines published in paper format, though the text still bears marks of the Internet age. This community also demonstrates its interactive nature in its role as a gossip-center, where the relationship among authors becomes entertainment-oriented and a source of online fan products. By examining debates that took place among different factions of the Novoland community, I show how the imagination and consumption of information outside of a particular fictional world is becoming a popular source of entertainment for Chinese Internet users.

Of Ghouls and Graves: The Genrification of Chinese Fiction on the Internet
Heather Inwood, Ohio State University, USA

One striking feature of Web-based Chinese literature is the prevalence of categorization, including the speed with which new genres are identified and become part of everyday discourse. From the label “Internet fiction” to narrower categories distinguished by setting (e.g. office or battlefield), atmosphere (suspense or romance), subject matter (time-travel or crime), or authorial gender, genres are an unavoidable part of reading and writing literature online. This paper explores the formation and expression of popular fiction genres from the perspective of later trends in genre theory that understand genre to be a discursive practice rather than a textual attribute, constituted by interaction between social groups, activity systems and media. Prior scholarship on Chinese Internet literature has mostly focused on the activities of online communities, attributing style and subject matter choices to preexisting social identities and cultural preferences. I take a contrasting approach, and look at how commercial considerations, website design, and the novelty effect of online popular culture impact the ways literary genres are created and consumed. Focusing on the example of “grave robbing fiction” (daomu xiaoshuo), I argue that genres are strategically employed in navigating readers online and offline, delineating sociocultural trends, and marketing Internet fiction. Their prevalence also reflects tendencies in the classification of popular literature traceable to the Republican era. Examining manipulations of genre in relation to recent popular Chinese fiction can shed light upon the interplay between producers and consumers of culture, their media environments, and deeper socioeconomic trends at work in China today.