Chinese readers and online writing

Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Julien Leyre

headshot of Julien Leyre
Julien Leyre

Co-director of the Marco Polo Festival of Digital Literature Julien Leyre shares his thoughts on Chinese readers and online writing. In August 2016, Julien will be presenting a half-day seminar on Reading and Writing Across Languages, as well as a half-day All-You-Can-Translate Workshop. Both sessions are presented as a part of the Chinese Writers Festival.

Tell us how the Marco Polo Festival of Digital Literature came about.

The Festival is a direct product of my work with Marco Polo Project. The Marco Polo Project is an organisation that explores innovative models to bring Chinese voices to Western readers, in particular through collaborative translation. Our website offers a diverse selection of new writing from China, which users can directly translate online – and we’ve been running offline translation events for over a year now. Engagement with live audiences is an increasingly important part of our activities.

A key inspiration for the Festival was the fantastic work done by Lisa Dempster around digital writing and digital audience engagement. Inspired by her work, I thought, maybe, we could facilitate a direct conversation between some of the Chinese writers we’re translating, and local Australian writers using the internet as part of their practice.

Also, this festival addresses a desire to try and bring together a diverse audience. Melbourne is a fantastic literary city, with great diversity, and a lot of innovation. But most events and festivals I’ve attended have been very white, very anglo and extremely monolingual – which all organisers noted, and wanted to change. I guess the Marco Polo Festival is an attempt at bridging this gap, and trialling a model for a more multilingual and more cross-cultural form of audience engagement. The very broad and generous support we received form many other organisations, particularly Melbourne Writers Festival, but also key Australian partners and sponsors La Trobe Centre for Creative Arts, City of Melbourne, Victorian Multicultural Commission, Australia-China Council, Language Connection, Asialink, Electron Workshop, Chin Communications, and now Writers Victoria, shows a real collective desire to work on increasing audience diversity.

What kinds of online writing have a strong readership in China?

The Chinese web is a huge ocean, with islands of memes and cat pics floating next to romance, sci-fi and martial arts series. Online writing comes in all forms and genres. Novels are very popular, and Chinese fiction readers have certainly shifted to digital. The most successful author, Tangjia Sanshao, wrote a fantasy series online. His most successful novel got over fifty-five million clicks. Interestingly, most novels are published in “serial” form – and readers access this new development right away, paying small sums each time. Other genres are equally popular. A poet called Yisha circulated poems on weibo, one a day for a year, and ended up with millions of followers. Then there’s all sorts of essays, from political analysis to philosophy, or even personal pieces about place, experience. You can find some of those on the Marco Polo Project website.

What proportion of Chinese internet users are reading in English?

It’s very hard to say – but it’s not really significant. I guess there’s a deep-seated, unconscious belief among monolingual English speakers that other languages are anecdotal, and shouldn’t really exist. Maybe Chinese people are just all going to start writing and reading English online, as soon as better language education kicks in. Isn’t anything cultural that matters produced in Brooklyn anyway? There’s no real accessible data that I know of tracking the languages that people read online, but the decline of English as a proportion of overall internet content since the beginning of the web is manifest. The web is increasingly multilingual, and people are increasingly writing and reading in their own language. Besides, why would Chinese internet users read English? When’s the last time you read something in Mandarin on the net?

Is censorship an issue when writing for online Chinese audiences?

Censorship does exist in China, and it affects what circulates online. But censorship is not exactly the systematic blanket we tend to imagine. There was a study done a few years ago by Harvard researchers, about what does and does not get censored in China. What they found was that calls for collective action were very quickly shut down – but relatively critical arguments were not. Besides, the Chinese censorship machine is decentralised and chaotic, and it changes constantly. You can make reasonable predictions, but you never actually know exactly what will and will not get censored. So for writers and publishing platforms, it’s more about risk management – will you bother writing a piece that is very likely to get censored? Will you bother publishing it, and take the risk of the government shutting off access to your whole platform for a while?

For those of us who can’t read Mandarin: what web content are we missing out on?

Heaps! Lesbian Harry-Potter fan-fiction, martial arts series, or insights into the life of Chinese officials. But more than missing out on ‘content’, I think there’s a more subtle consequence of not accessing Mandarin writing (directly or in translation). As China rises, we’re eager to learn about the country. But most of what we know is mediated by Western journalists, bloggers and essayists. These writers are, generally speaking, sensitive, informed and intelligent. Some are even able to put aside their prejudice, and give a reasonably open interpretation of the Chinese situation. But because we’re only listening to Western voices, only seeing China through Western eyes – I believe we forget that Chinese people also reflect on their own situation, in diverse manners, using all sorts of intellectual tools. And as we forget that, the risk is great that we more radically forget Chinese people’s and Chinese writers' capacity to experience their own lives and situation in a complex, original, and subjective manner. This is a much bigger concern than just missing out on a few stories.

About Julien Leyre

Julien Leyre is a French-Australian writer and educator. After studying Humanities and Classics, he published a novel and short stories in Paris while teaching linguistics and translation at the Sorbonne. In 2011 he founded Marco Polo Project, an organisation exploring new models to build cross-cultural empathy and self-awareness. He is an industry fellow with Monash University Centre for Translation.