Author：Verbena C. W，Elaine Yang
Along with the spread of the internet, the writing bar has been greatly lowered, and every hobbyist with a literary aspiration can “publish” their works on literature websites and in forums, display their words in public spaces for people to read, and interact with readers for the first time. Unlike the Amazon model, China’s digital publishing originated quite early on. Internet users are used to using PC terminals to upload and read literature rather than using hand-held devices. According to a study, there are currently as many as 227 million online readers in China, making up about 47% of the total number of internet users. As many as 20 million people have published their works online using various methods, and there are a total of 2 million registered internet authors. As many as 100,000 people have earned money from online writing, and there are more than 30,000 professional or semi-professional authors. More than 10,000 make an annual income in the millions.
China’s digital publishing has its origins in the late 1990s. The earliest authors were overseas Chinese and students studying abroad. Missing their native homes, they serialised their works on bulletin board systems, writing down their feelings in the form of literature. Later, a Taiwanese novel popped up out of thin air, forever changing the situation. That was “Flying Dance” by Chih-Heng Tsai. This novel was the first to use online dating as its subject matter; its writing style was fresh and funny, and the death of its heroine in the end drew tears from the eyes of countless readers. Soon after, the book was published by Knowledge Publishing House, and after being published, more than 1448 copies were sold in just one branch of Shanghai Book City. After that, talented young writers began to write even more romantic stories in the same style and using the serial model, hoping one day to attract the eye of someone in the traditional publishing industry. From that time on, the term “online literature” became a uniquely Chinese literary term, and three criteria needed to be met for it to count as online literature: it used the internet as a medium; it wrote online stories; and both author and readers were internet users.
In 1997, the personal webpage created by Chinese-born American national Zhu Weilian evolved into “Under the Banyan Tree,” a global network for original Chinese works, and in the great sea of the internet, online literature now had a small bit of independent space. Afterward, Under the Banyan Tree gathered together a group of original writers who were highly influential in China’s literary world. By October 2006 it already had 4.5 million registered users, with daily website traffic of more than 7 million visits and maintaining a global website traffic rank of around 400. It has around 5,000 contributors daily, becoming a heaven for all literature lovers who had been excluded from traditional paper book publishing houses. And the little-known literary youths on Under the Banyan Tree at the time have now all become giants in the Chinese literary and publishing worlds.
You can’t talk about Under the Banyan Tree without mentioning Lu Jinbo. He is both a latter-day Under the Banyan Tree expert as well as being in the first generation of Chinese internet authors. He did business with Bertelsmann for over 6 years, and in the end returned to paper book publishing. Especially the Wan Rong Books he founded has published more than 200 million books and has been called a gold medalist of the publishing world, having signed contracts with virtually all of China’s top-notch authors: Han Han, Wang Shuo, Baby Anne, Murong Xuecun, Rao Xueman, Guo Ni…. And these fledgling young authors were all given their big chance of a lifetime by being published by Lu Jinbo.
Lu Jinbo back then was still a literary, well-rounded young man. With “Li Xunhuan” as his pen name (which originated from the name of the protagonist in Hong Kong wuxia / martial arts writer Gu Long’s “The Sentimental Swordsman”), he leaped actively into literary forums. The writing in his representative work, “Love Lost between the Internet and Reality,” was delicate, and was much loved by early female literary internet users. But he said he did not have enough literary talent, and could not imagine the bleakness of being in his thirties and still doing that, so he put down the pen and joined the world of commerce.
Nowadays he wears stylish blue Burberry shirts and makes appearances on all sorts of television shows wearing the hat of artist businessman or senior manager, and people have even mistaken him for a television show host. Though he is a businessman, he looks down on the materialism of today’s online literature in China, saying only the online literature from back in the day had an “elite” flavor to it. Lu Jinbo reminisces, saying, “When I got online, only outstanding youths with ideas used the internet. Now it’s all a bunch of angry youths, sexually repressed thugs, and students with part-time jobs…. Some of them tote the Party line, some are barbarians and none of them have any knowledge whatsoever.”