China’s Post-‘80s Literature Spins a Sexy Tale

Jul 11, 2010

Meet the biggest names in China’s contemporary literary scene, from Chun Shu to Han Han.


TIME Magazine's China Edition cover for February 2004 shows female author Chun Shu

Photo source: Time, Inc.


TIME Magazine’s China Edition cover for 2 February 2004 shows the female author Chun Shu (春树, or Spring Tree), nicknamed Beijing Doll 北京娃娃, who wrote a bestseller describing her sexual experiences after dropping out of school. This may not sound like a promising start to a discussion of New Chinese Literature, but is nevertheless a fairly informative one. The openness and freedom of Chinese society has a rather limited base. It might suit the TIME reporters to call Chun Shu a “radical”, but by and large, the new literature is concerned with personal issues – navel-gazing rather than expressions of broader cultural ideas.

The predecessor of Chun Shu’s particular literary genus was the Pretty Women Literature 美女文学 from the previous decade, of which the best known representative was Wei Hui 卫慧, author of Shanghai Babe 上海宝贝. Chun Shu represented a new twist in the road forward, since she could hardly be considered an example of the soft, pretty babe. One might say that readers had by her time seen enough good-looking girls’ sexual exploits and wanted a change, so that she, less pretty but more edgy, turned out to be the right person for the right time. In fact, a new name, Body Writing 身体写作, had to be invented for the genus to replace the no longer so applicable name of Pretty Woman Literature.

One might say that readers had by her time seen enough good-looking girls’ sexual exploits and wanted a change…

It would however be unfair to give the impression that New Chinese Literature is all about sex; far from it, in fact only a small part, for which the readers were mostly young adults. Adults are, however, very busy making a living in today’s open Chinese economy and have relatively little time to read books, and what little time available is more likely to be spent on sensational stuff, which explains the dominance of Pretty Woman Literature.

On the other hand, teenagers and young college students now constitute a much larger book-reading audience: they have more time than the adults and, benefitting from the new economy, they also have more pocket money than youths used to have. These readers, and the authors who cater to them, were born after 1980, hence the expression Post ‘80s Generation.

The births of this generation occurred well after the Cultural Revolution had receded into history. By the time they began to mature, it was already the era of the open economy, with money playing the dominant social role that ideology used to fulfil. With neither traditions (the Humpty-Dumpty, shattered by social changes, could not be put back together afterwards even though political trends might have passed) nor ideologies to guide them, the generation finds it hard to look beyond oneself, and their literature is expectantly self-focused.

Of the authors three names stand out, Han Han 韩寒, Guo Jingming 郭敬明 and Zhang Yueran 张悦然, all of them getting their writing career start as winners of the New Concept 新概念 Writing Contest organized by the Mengya (萌芽, or Seedling) Magazine of Shanghai, a periodical catering to youth literature. Han and Guo both wrote bestsellers but have both been embroiled in controversy. Guo was accused of plagiarism involving some Japanese picture story books and a couple of Chinese authors, with one lawsuit resulting in an award of RMB$200,000 to the plaintiff. However, he continued to keep his hold on his fans and his enterprises prospered despite the negative events.

Han, after finishing just a couple of books, became a professional racing car driver, and recently was engaged in discussions on a number of social controversies such as house demolition to make way for new construction; he even went on a mercy mission to Sichuan in 2008 after the earthquake there, though it is far from clear whether he was just interested in the publicity such events generate, or has genuine social concerns – in other words, was he taking a “stand” or just a “posture”? His speaking out on such issues, however, does have the impact of getting his followers, who would otherwise not be interested, to pay some attention.

The senior literature circles have a much more positive image of Zhang Yueran, who happens to have been a struggling undergrad student in my own work place, the Computer Science department of National University of Singapore, from 2002 to 2006 (during 2006 she was just finishing a few final courses part time and lived mostly in Beijing), and I got to know her briefly towards the end of 2005. I have written a few discussions of her in my blog (, in Chinese), and am translating several of her essays and stories.

While Zhang is very different from Chun Shu, she is also into the same cultural trends; some of her books are half text and half pictures of herself, while promotional material and journalists’ reports refer to her as the Jade Girl Authoress 玉女作家, a cleaner and more innocent version of the Pretty Woman Authoress.


This post was originally published on See China in March 2010. Yuen Chung-kwong also blogs at sinazen.