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Xiaoying Zhou

Chinese Author Reinvents the Novel Through Social Media

Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, not online at the moment

What would the Monkey King have tweeted on his Weibo microblogging account if there were Internet back in the Tang Dynasty? Would he boast about his transfiguring skills, which would possibly put even Professor Minerva McGonagall to shame? Would he put on airs, tweet about his wonderful journeys and try to attract as many followers as possible?

Thanks to a microblogger named “Mr. Ponder” (@琢磨先生), now we can imagine the answers. The so-called Mr. Ponder has brought a new approach to fiction into speedy vogue on China’s Twitter, Sina Weibo. Once more, Chinese netizens are demonstrating their genius for creating new forms of online speech.

A new, but rich, legacy

Those familiar with Chinese social media likely already recognize the metaphorical significance of the grass-mud horse or the river crab. Instead of writing “f*** your mom,” and facing likely censorship, Chinese netizens simply resort to its much cuter homonym, the “grass-mud horse.” Scared of the claws of river crabs? You should be, since that’s what netizens use when their writing gets censored online. “River crab” sounds the same as “harmonious” in Chinese, a euphemism for “censored.” During the recent June 4 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, it was common for a user to write, “Woah, talked about that thing and my post just got river-crabbed.”

The grass mud horse eating a river crab. Nope, not trying to say anything.

As Chinese journalist Michael Anti explained in his recent TED speech, Behind the Great Firewall of China, this cat-and-mouse game between China’s netizens and censors is the defining feature of China’s Internet—and, perhaps paradoxically, the source of much of its remarkable creativity. Nowhere else can we witness such a plethora of thriving online slang. The China Digital Times’ Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon database overflows with examples. Behind each term there is a story; of women getting raped by government officials, of police officers inducing drivers to violate the law, or of an inmate mysteriously dropping dead while playing hide-and-seek in jail.

A new approach to fiction 

But the ingenuity of Chinese netizens goes far beyond the creation of mere words and phrases. 

It’s a bit like “Harry Potter on Facebook,” a hilarious send-up in which characters from the popular book series exchange comments via the social networking platform. After Mr. Ponder posted fictitious Weibo exchanges featuring China’s Four Great Classical Novels—Romance of the Three Kingdoms (@三国微博), Journey to the West (@西游记微博), Water Margin (@水浒微博), and Dream of the Red Chamber (@红楼微博) — Mr. Ponder’s follower number surged to over 200,000 almost overnight.

Some of Mr. Ponder’s fiction cleverly integrates original works with contemporary trends in China’s social media. For example, in Journey to the West, hero and Monkey King Sun Wukong meets his evil twin brother, who claims to be the true Monkey King. Enraged, Sun challenges his brother to a duel. This anecdote echoes into today: Last month, Tea Leaf Nation contributor Rebecca Liao described a recent trend in which celebrities caught in online squabbles challenge each other to real-life duels. Meanwhile, most users of Weibo have encountered bogus celebrity accounts.

Together, China’s past and its present produce this comical tweet from the Monkey King: 

How people get into fights these days

Sun Wukong: If you are Sun Wukong, who am I?

Sun Houzi: I am Sun Wukong, please follow me.

Comment 1: Duel!

Comment 2: Duel!

Comment 3: Duel!

Comment 6: Duel! We’re just watching for fun, so we don’t mind if things get out of hand!

Ponder’s other works touch on social issues in today’s China. Writing as Song Jiang, the hero of a novel based on the revolutionary leader in the Song Dynasty: “I think it should be clear to everyone why we had to move to Liangshan Marsh, huh?” [Liangshan Marsh was the home base of the revolutionary freedom fighters.] A sweeping emerges in online comments: “Housing is too expensive!”

The rent is too darn high!

Other imaginary Weibos exchanges have popped up online in the wake of Mr. Ponder’s success. Popular TV shows are parodied. The Legend of Zhenhuan, for example, tells the story of a young girl called Zhenhuan who accidentally stumbles her way into the harem politics in the Qing Dynasty, matures, sophisticates, and finally becomes the mother of the future emperor. Many Chinese young women are obsessed with the show, together with Zhenhuan’s ancient, peculiar, yet elegant way of speaking. And therefore these adapted “Zhenhuan tweets” reek of obsolete honorifics and terms that sound quite affected today. Famous wuxia author Jin Yong created many a memorable works about the lives of kung-fu masters. In one such “Jin Yong tweet,” Zhang Wuji (张无忌), the handsome hero in one of Jin’s most famous novels, the Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber (倚天屠龙记), posts pictures of himself with his numerous female admirers, which attracts much attention on the imaginary Weibo platform. Characters created by Chinese author Lu Xun find their modern incarnations as netizens integrate them with fresh current affairs in the format of tweets. Xianglin, a poor countryside woman, finds her modern sister Feng Jianmei. Feng was forced to abort her seven-month fetus recently, but after her husband revealed online the cruelties of local authorities, her family was scorned and ousted by the villagers

The emergence and popularity of these fictional Weibos, among its many brilliant predecessors, signals clearly the real frontline of the evolution of this ancient language. Many Chinese authors such as Murong Xuecun (慕容雪村) and Anni Baby (安妮宝贝) first made their name with their online literary hits. Three Bodies, a latest online fiction written by Liu Cixin, gets many young Chinese excited. The future of Chinese literature seems to lie exactly online as new approaches to fiction continue to be explored and developed. 

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Xiaoying Zhou

Xiaoying Zhou is a student at Yale University.
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  • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

    Great piece. It’s really interesting to note this shift in the publishing world: that many contemporary bestselling authors have their start in the online world (in both the east and west).

  • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

    Great piece. It’s really interesting to note this shift in the publishing world: that many contemporary bestselling authors have their start in the online world (in both the east and west).