Chinese Literature Online

The Importance of Archiving ‘Born-Digital’ Books in a Print-Censored Culture

In July of last year, Brixton, U.K.-based novelist Zelda Rhiando won the inaugural Kidwell-e Ebook Award. The award was billed as “the world’s first international e-book award.” It may have been the first time that e-writers in English from all over the world had been invited to compete for an award, but for e-writers in Chinese such awards have been around for well over a decade. This might sound surprising, since the Chinese Internet is most frequently in the news in the West for the way in which it is censored, i.e. for what does not appear on it. What people often forget, however, is that the environment for print publishing in China is much more restricted and much more heavily censored. Therefore, those with literary interests and ambitions have gone online in huge numbers. Reading and writing literature is consistently ranked among the top reasons1 why Chinese people spend time online.

I have been following the development of Chinese Internet literature almost since its inception and I currently am finalizing a book on the subject, titled Internet Literature in China. (That scholars of literature feel compelled to publish their research outcomes on topics like this in the form of printed books shows how poorly attuned the humanities world still is to the new technologies.)

Doing research on Internet literature is substantially different from doing research on printed literature, most importantly because born-digital literary texts are not stable. Printed novels may come in different editions, but generally the assumption of literature scholars who do research on the same novel is that they have all read the same text.

For Internet literature there can be no such assumption, because “the text” often evolves over time and usually looks different depending on user interaction. It looks different depending on when you visited it and what you did with it. So one of the methods I employ is to present my interpretations of such texts at different moments in time. For traditional literature scholars, this is unusual: they don’t normally tell you in their research “when I read this text in 2011, I interpreted it like this, but when I read it again in 2012, I interpreted it like that.” Using this method relies on the availability of the material, and on the possibility to preserve it so that other scholars can reproduce my readings. And that is where web archives come in.

As far as I know, there is no Chinese equivalent of the U.K. Web Archive. In the area of preservation of born-digital material, China is very far behind the U.K. (instead it devotes huge resources to the digitization and preservation of its printed cultural heritage).

Some literary websites in China have their own archives. In the case of popular genre fiction sites these archives can be huge, and they can be searchable by author, genre, popularity (number of hits or comments), and so on. Genre fiction (romance fiction, martial arts fiction, erotic fiction, and so on) is hugely popular on the Chinese Internet, because of the relatively few legal restrictions compared to print publishing. Readers subscribe to novels they like and they then receive regular new installments, often on a daily basis. However, no matter how large the archives, there usually tends to be a cut-off point after which works are taken offline.

When I first started my research in 2002, I was blissfully unaware of such potential problems. As a result, roughly ninety percent of the URLs mentioned in the footnotes to my first scholarly articles on the topic are no longer accessible. Fortunately, when I began to rework some of my earlier articles for my book, I found that the Internet Archive had preserved a substantial number of the links, so in many cases my footnotes now refer to the Internet Archive. Although the Internet Archive does not preserve images and other visual material (which can play an important role in online literature), having the texts as I saw them in 2002 is definitely better than having nothing at all, and will convince my fellow scholars that I am not just making them all up.

During my later research, I took care to save pages, and, sometimes, entire sites or parts of sites, to ensure preservation of what I had seen. But archiving material on my computer does not make it any more accessible to others. That is why I use the services of the Digital Archive for Chinese Studies (DACHS)—which has one server in Heidelberg, and one in Leiden—where scholars in my field can store copies of online material they refer to in footnotes to publications. DACHS also has another important function: it preserves copies of online material from China that is in danger of disappearing, because it is political or ephemeral, or both. DACHS also invites scholars to introduce such materials and place them in context, as in Nicolai Volland’s collection of online documents pertaining to “Control of the Media in the People’s Republic of China,” or Michael Day’s annotated collection of downloads of Chinese avant-garde poetry websites.

In order for online Chinese-language literature to be preserved, its cultural value needs to be appreciated not just by foreign enthusiasts, but more generally by scholars and critics in China itself. The first decade or so of Chinese writing on the Internet will probably never be restored in any detail, but a relatively complete picture might still emerge if existing partial archives were merged. Meanwhile, I hope that new archiving options for later material will become available soon.

  1. China Internet Network Information Center, Statistical Report on Internet Development in China, p. 50, (January, 2013).