Chen Cun And Internet Literature

By Michel Hockx

The following is an excerpt from Internet Literature in China by Michel Hockx (Columbia University Press 2015)


Chen Cun is probably the most prominent Chinese author to have taken an active interest in Internet literature almost from its inception. Despite his claim that he never published any literary work online, the fact that his last major printed work (the novel Fresh Flowers And) came out more than a decade ago and that he writes online almost daily makes it clear where his current literary preoccupations lie. Not only has he published writings on the web with increasing frequency since the late 1990s but he has also been involved in managing successful literary websites, especially Under the Banyan Tree, as we have seen in the previous chapter. Moreover, as also alluded to in the previous chapter of the book, he was almost single-handedly responsible for the eruption of a nationwide debate about web literature in 2001. The debate was sparked by a post that Chen Cun submitted on July 3 of that year to the forum that he moderated for the Banyan Tree site. The full text of this now famous post is translated below.

” Web Literature Past Its Prime

Submitted by Chen Cun, 2001–07–03, 17:34:53

I go online and I visit Under the Banyan Tree because I want to see what web literature is really like. I have high hopes for it. But web literature these days is starting to make me reconsider. If the highest achievement of web literature is to publish traditional books offline, if that is what qualifies you as a writer and allows you to brag, then is there still a web literature? Its freedom, its ran-domness, and its nonutilitarian nature have already been polluted. Although I understand these changes, it is still not what I hope to see. Web literature is already past its prime. The period of what Laozi called “utter innocence” [chizi zhi xin] has vanished so quickly!”

This statement is of a more fundamental avant-garde quality than any of the text-intrinsic gestures that we have seen so far. Chen accused web literature authors of selling out to the establishment and to the market rather than remaining faithful to what should be considered the autonomous principles of their practice: freedom, randomness, and nonutilitarianism. He feared that the niche created by web literature would be submerged into the larger literary field at the expense of some of its unique qualities.

This is an often-heard complaint among those who were active in Internet culture in the early stages of its development, and it is by no means exclusive to the Chinese situation, but in 2001 Chen was perhaps the first prominent online personality to voice it so explicitly. According to commentators at the time, Chen’s post instantly provoked debate, including thousands of hits and responses on the forum itself, where the site’s CEO, William Zhu, came out in strong opposition to Chen’s statements. This eventually led to Banyan Tree’s deciding it no longer required Chen’s services as chief artistic officer. In a piece by Chen titled “Zhuyuan Rong-shu Xia” (Wishing Banyan Tree Well), published on the site on October 25, 2001, and still available in the Banyan Tree online archive, he appears to be saying good-bye to the site, under the guise of commemorating its fourth anniversary. The closing lines of the piece represent a somewhat veiled restatement of his basic argument against commercialization:

“Four years down the line, Banyan Tree now has a different look than before. The pressures of commercialization and the realities of existence have brought about its first major changes and new opportunities. This is how trees are different from plants. Trees will survive any setbacks only if they have a tough, weather-beaten trunk. Then they will show off their luscious vitality through layer upon layer of new green foliage.

I wish Banyan Tree many more years.”

Chen Cun was almost single-handedly responsible for the eruption of a nationwide debate about web literature in 2001.

Chen signed the piece with his name, job title, and the full name of the website (Chen Cun, Art Director, Under the Banyan Tree, the global website for original Chinese-language works). I believe it is not too far-fetched to presume that he did this in order to emphasize his belief that Banyan Tree should promote artistry and originality. As mentioned in chapter 1 of the book, Chen Cun’s personal space on the site eventually disappeared in 2002. Throughout this period, Banyan Tree vastly increased its contracts with print publishers, and the site was eventually sold to the Bertelsmann conglomerate in 2003. Chen Cun himself started a new online literary venture in 2004 by establishing a separate and restricted space for himself and like-minded web authors: a forum named Xiaozhong Caiyuan (Minority Vegetable Garden).

Minority Vegetable Garden was an online discussion forum with Chen Cun as main moderator. The website hosting the forum until very recently was 99 Wangshang Shucheng (99 Online Book City, This is an online bookshop as well as a print publisher and book distributor founded in March 2004 by a limited company supported by both state-owned cultural entities (People’s Literature Publishing House and Xinhua Bookstore) and private individuals, including the famous author and scholar Yu Qiuyu, who functions as honorary chairman of the company’s board of directors. It is a typical example of the kind of partnerships between the state and private sector that constitute the “second channel” in Chinese publishing as described by Shuyu Kong (see chapter 1). Chen Cun was employed by the website as an art director and general manager overseeing all discussion forums on the site, including Minority Vegetable Garden, thus he was more than just a forum moderator, who, typically, is not paid. In August 2013, a forum for which he was responsible was closed down by the authorities after some posts offering to sell weapons had been detected. Chen subsequently offered his resignation, and most of the past content of Minority Vegetable Garden is, as a consequence, not available on the live web at this writing (March 2014), although Chen is trying to reestablish the site elsewhere. References to URLs in the discussion that follows are to archived snapshots of pages I saw when doing my research.

Although 99 Online Book City is a commercial site following the Bertelsmann model of linking online literary production to distribution and sales of printed works (i.e., the model Chen Cun was opposed to when he worked for Banyan Tree), it is evident that Chen learned from previous experience and made sure that the space he was in charge of presented itself as a noncommercial niche. In a manifesto-like opening statement, originally posted to the forum on September 15, 2004, Chen explained the name and the aims of the forum. The term xiaozhong, here somewhat inadequately translated as “minority,” was meant to be opposed to dazhong (“mass” or “masses”). Chen explained that he and his fellow “vegetable farmers” (cainong, the term used for the regular contributors to the forum) had no intention of selling anything on a mass scale and would be happy to do their own farming and produce some “organic food.” The forum would accept contributions only from invited contributors. Chen stated that initially there would be roughly one hundred of his “friends” involved. After that, he explained, others wanting to join the forum would be able to do so only if they were introduced by a registered “farmer” and had submitted writing samples to Chen Cun for consideration. Anyone would be free to enter the forum and read the contributions. As moderator, Chen Cun would have full editorial control over all contributions.

Chen’s opening statement showed his awareness of the fact that the closed nature of the forum went against some of the principles of web writing that he previously espoused, namely freedom and tolerance. He defended his new stance by claiming that setting up a few hurdles for potential contributors was meant merely to keep out those who were not serious or who roamed forums to stir up trouble. He also argued that there were plenty of other places for such people to go and that the principle of tolerance should allow for his little “patch” to exist. He ended the “manifesto” with an explicit reference to the principles of randomness and nonutilitarianism, using a familiar and heavily laden term: “Going online is just to do something interesting [tao ge you qu]. He-he, let’s sow some vegetables!”

By using the term qu and by references in the text to writers such as the premodern poet Tao Yuanming (365–427), as well as by suggesting the notion of “cultivating one’s own garden,” Chen Cun’s manifesto connected with a long-standing tradition of nonutilitarian writing in Chinese literature, including modern examples such as the prose writing of Zhou Zuoren (1885–1967), whose “poetics of quwei” is discussed at length in research by Susan Daruvala.

Some of those same “friends” who were among the early contributors to Minority Vegetable Garden also had their works published in another space controlled by Chen Cun created around this time: the section called “Wangluo xianfeng” (The Web’s Avant-Garde) in the print journal. If the founding of Minority Vegetable Garden indicated that Chen was willing to work with commercial publishers as long as he could have his own “niche,” the appearance of “The Web’s Avant-Garde” in a highly established literary journal indicated that by this time Chen was no longer opposed in principle to web-based work crossing over into print, as long as it was associated with serious literature and, more especially, with the literary avant-garde. “The Web’s Avant-Garde” continued to appear in the journal October throughout 2005 and then disappeared for no clear reason.

In Chen Cun’s case, the search for qu in literature, the occupation of niche spaces, and the promotion of the avant-garde spirit are all linked to what appears to be his increasingly fundamental resistance to fiction as the central genre of modern Chinese literature.

In Chen Cun’s case, the search for qu in literature, the occupation of niche spaces, and the promotion of the avant-garde spirit are all linked to what appears to be his increasingly fundamental resistance to fiction as the central genre of modern Chinese literature. As early as 1987, in his essay “Fei xiaoshuo lun” (Not on Fiction), Chen Cun wrote, If you’ve read lots of fiction, you discover that its biggest shortcoming is that it’s uninteresting [wuqu]. Speaking in a roundabout way is uninteresting. Taking mankind as your only subject is uninteresting. It really is unnatural, from beginning to end. Of course, an unnatural form may well be a good or useful form, but it is not necessarily an interesting form. So-called good fiction is what idle people write for idle people to read. And nowadays, those idle of body and mind are indeed fewer and fewer.

It is statements like these that tie together Chen Cun’s late 1970s critique of establishment writers, his 1980s concerns about form and about using animals as subjects, and his interest in web literature. What Chen Cun strives for is an unrestrained writing practice that is as much as possible devoid of formal (“unnatural”) restrictions imposed by establishment or market culture, or indeed by human culture in general, and that is, at the same time, in tune with the fast pace of modern life. This, I argue, is avant-garde in the wider, more fundamental sense, and for Chen Cun this has, by and large, been a consistent stance ever since he started writing. It is also a stance that is easiest to adopt in online writing, which is generally short, fast-paced, and, at least in theory, less prone to outside restrictions or at least more likely to provide spaces and niches for all kinds of unorthodox experiments that would not easily make it into the print-based system.

Excerpt from Internet Literature in China, by Michel Hockx. Copyright © 2015. Columbia University Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

About the Author

Michel Hockx is professor of Chinese at SOAS, University of London, and founding director of the SOAS China Institute. He studied Chinese language and literature at Leiden University in The Netherlands and at Liaoning University and Peking University in China. His research looks at modern and contemporary Chinese literary communities and the way they organize themselves, their relation to the state, and the technologies they employ to distribute their work. He is the author of Questions of Style: Literary Societies and Literary Journals in Modern China, 1911-1937 and A Snowy Morning: Eight Chinese Poets on the Road to Modernity. His latest book is Internet Literature in China.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of All China Review.