China soft power flowing through online literature

The promotion of the concept of Tianxia, much more complicated than what could emerge from its direct translation as “world”, or “China”, or also as the friendly “all under heaven”, has returned back in vogue since the last central political reshuffle together with the motto China Dream. While the former is well rooted in Chinese literature and culture, the latter seems to be thought with the aim to come closest to the youth trends through the use of a fresh and more westernized language.

On one hand we can notice the new awareness of Chinese people concerning the role that their country should play on a global level, a kind of self-discovery before partly denied and now rebuilt by the State in order to maintain social order and give personal gratification. Being proud, in these terms, helps to balance the powers in a society where people well know the limits and their social place, but at the same time do not act as a passive recipient.

On the other hand there are “the four seas”, i.e. the world outside China [and its foreign domains]. And it is exactly here that China is making major efforts for what relates the construction of a new image as benevolent country (without forgetting of course the economic issues). Every means will be then well accepted or at least tolerated by the central government and the academic world behind it, if they can help both in improving the diplomatic relations with the neighboring countries and in increasing the esteem towards the Chinese people at the popular level. Going beyond historical prejudices and cultural stereotypes is in fact a task that should not be undervalued in foreign politics.

The Chinese culture in toto represents itself an icon of longevity and elegance; albeit with many unclear points, also recently during the last LiangHui in March, 2015 it has been claimed the importance of a prominent renaissance of the Chinese traditional culture not only on a national scale but also abroad. The purpose is to enhance the literary reputation of China (书香中国, shuxiang Zhongguo), even if this sort of culturalism could eventually lead to make errors of assessment.

The example comes from the CCTV evening news broadcast on April, 1 2015 that reported the news concerning the spread among young Vietnamese of a intense interest in Chinese online literature, so called 网络文学热 wangluo wenxue re. Trying to trace the history of this relatively new literary genre, we should go back around fifteen years, when the first netizens began to publish some stories and novels day by day on some Chinese blogs, with the peculiarity that these persons were not professional writers (some of them became it later in the wake of the success). The writing was therefore simple, fresh and young while coining new terms, and mostly devoid of the beloved Chinese literary artifices, just as the content, varied and suitable for a young audience. The use of internet as medium then represented a real revolution in contemporary Chinese literature.

The fist online writer is Li Jie, alias Anni Baobei in 1998. Among the more recent ones, must be quoted for example “Dulala”, the story of a career girl (2007), and “Zangdi Mima”, on the mysterious and fascinating Tibetan region (2008), but many other stories have been published on the most diverse subjects (included a revision of The Godfather). While the audience and the business around the online literature were increasing, the mainstream praise of this new trend arrived only in 2011 with the official acceptance of online writers at the State-approved Mao Dun Literature Prize.

Now, considering also the public request made by the Ministry of Education to the Chinese online writers last January concerning the improvement in quality, it seems that despite the critical evaluation given to the genre by the orthodox academic sphere, the wangluo wenxue is nethertheless becoming a possible keystone to the embellishment of the China image. In fact, the CCTV news reporting the new fever for Chinese novels mentioned some classic books like “Dream of the Red Chamber”, but paid much more attention to the spread of the online literature as that is actually the real focus of literary interests in the Vietnamese youth.

The phenomenon could indeed pave the way to a panacea for some cultural misunderstandings especially with regard to young people who can change their minds easier than adults. The Chinese can boast of such literary spread abroad and fill self-satisfaction through a common achievement, while the young Vietnamese can discover to have behavioural similarities with their “neighbours”. They can emphatize with the protagonists of these stories in which are well described the feelings and aspirations of the younger generations, especially if already embedded in the Asiatic context that is becoming more and more emancipated from the economic point of view.

The relations between the two countries have been deteriorating since Beijing declared sovereignty over some islands in the South China Sea (Paracel Islands), opening a dispute with Vietnam that led also to public anti-Chinese demonstrations and various problems to Chinese businessmen in the country. Although officially the two governments have later reiterated their strong friendship and mutual support, however, the Vietnamese common opinion still remains firm in its distrast of China.

In this little comforting political scenario where China “kindly” imposes its role as Asian leader, all those subtle influences deriving from the use of soft power are extremely useful in the Chinese vision of a long-term project that in this ultimate application should reflect the correct balance among all the countries under heaven. Despite criticisms the Chinese online literature has incredibly proved its value: the academia will maybe keep on despising it, but a least the central government has implicitly recognized its social power and wittily diverted this force inside the project of a Greater China.

Source: CCTV evening news, 01-04-2015. A special acknowledgement to Prof. Gu Wen, Department of Chinese Studies, Heidelberg University, for his seminar on Chinese online literature (winter 2010).