In this environment of intense censorship and fractured cultural infrastructure, writers must be flexible, willing to forgo old forms and move fluidly among genres if they want to continue making meaningful work. Journalists become serial entrepreneurs who dream up new ways of creating to fill the lacunae they see. When one project becomes infeasible, they move on to another.
Zhang Wenmin, a veteran journalist who writes under the name Jiang Xue, became known for her coverage of a 2002 civil rights case in which four policemen showed up at a newlywed couple’s home because they were watching porn. Among many colleagues, there had been the consensus that no matter what, they had to try to say a little more, Zhang recalls. Sensing increasing pressure, she quit institutional journalism in 2015 to become a self-publishing blogger. With long, straight hair, Zhang dresses simply. In contrast to the steely insistence on common sense in her writing, there is a vulnerable shyness in her physical presence. “I’ve never been cool,” she joked softly, her arms draped in front of her body. On WeChat, she wrote stories about dissidents, something no news outlet would allow, she said, because it’s like violating a tiantiao — a statute sent from heaven. She was uninvited from journalism events. She lost her Weibo and WeChat accounts, becoming virtually invisible. “Friends and family think I went too far,” Zhang said. When her city, Xi’an, went into lockdown, a friend offered her own WeChat account to publish Zhang’s journals. They went viral but also drew attacks. “The worsening media environment in the last 10 years makes people see things upside down,” she said. “When you do the most normal thing, it appears abnormal.”
Elsewhere, an even more bottom-up kind of writing community appeared. Its participants are assisted by affordable technology — three-quarters of the Chinese population are smartphone owners — allowing a wider swath of people to publish more varieties of writing. While Hao’s generation of writers was predominantly middle class and upwardly mobile, the spread of internet-enabled technology has allowed working-class people without degrees to pursue literature. On social media platforms like Kuaishou, where users post short video clips, factory workers, masseuses and truck drivers started to compose poems. In 2017, a 44-year-old single mother, Fan Yusu, became a literary star almost overnight after her autobiographical essay, “I Am Fan Yusu,” went viral on WeChat. Beginning with a striking line — “My life is a hard-to-read book: Destiny bound me poorly” — it narrates her rural youth and eventual employment by an uber-rich Beijing businessman who hires her to take care of the child he shares with a mistress. Six days a week, she leaves her own daughters behind and attends to the love child. She started writing in her free time because, she thought, “to live, you have to do something besides eating.”
The journalist and editor Yang Ying has been a champion for overlooked stories and the platforms that host them. She has managed to build a successful career despite cycles of setback and rebirth: A former reporter for a business weekly, she left that magazine in 2014 after growing dissatisfied with conventional media. Along with a couple of other editors, she started a popular digital outlet whose name translates to Curiosity Daily that covered subjects like the Shanghai Pride Parade, a Texan who moved into a dumpster for a year to explore sustainable living and the work of the Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda, who once commented that creators should keep influence of the state at bay. After the authorities suspended the outlet twice for “illegally building a news gathering and editing team,” the outfit dissolved in 2019. Yang persisted, following that project with a digital magazine called Xiaoniao, or Little Birds, in which she published literary writing on subjects that could no longer be explored in journalism. “Literature is our last refuge,” Yang told me.
“In stories, people can communicate with one another,” Zhang Jieping, a journalist turned media entrepreneur and founder of the fellowship Zaichang, or “On the Scene,” told me. “Their joys and sadness become relatable. With today’s news outlets, it’s increasingly hard to achieve that.” As journalism institutions collapsed, Zhang built Zaichang to create a community and a ladder for aspiring journalists to learn to tell such stories. Editors like Yang and Zhang want to correct that dearth of connection by normalizing what Yang called “everyday messiness” — topics that the state considers counterproductive, like disappearing traditional villages and the rising diagnosis of anxiety in the aftermath of disasters. In Xi’s China, though, publishing this work means courting unwanted attention. During Shanghai’s Covid lockdown, Xiaoniao published a special edition that collected haunting real stories, including one about a young woman who evaded the rules to cross the city to see her critically ill father. Soon, Yang was treated to tea by her local police. Apparently swamped with tea appointments, they asked her to remove the entire issue from the publication’s mobile app. She complied.