A woman leaps for a photo shoot at a scenic spot near Kangding, western China. May 2017. Colum Murphy.

China’s Love Affair With Narrative Nonfiction Underpins Chinarrative

A latecomer to the global narrative journalism party, China is fast making up for lost time.

A group of around 40 reporters and writers gathered in Shanghai last December to spend a weekend discussing the art and craft of nonfiction writing.

To get a coveted spot at the seminar, which was organized by the journalism school at Fudan University, the participants had to beat out hundreds of other applicants.

The passion this group displayed toward this form of writing mirrors the rising popularity of the genre among writers, publishers and readers in China.

This trend forms an important backdrop to Chinarrative’s development. In addition to showcasing the best of current nonfiction writing from Chinese writers, we also want to play a part in shaping the next generation of nonfiction writers.

Our medium-term goal includes offering in-person and online storytelling training to Chinese people who want to tell their stories in English. We believe a key part in helping shape such stories involves the introduction of the best in American and international nonfiction writing — reportage, essays, memoir — to audiences in China.

Chinarrative will carefully select examples of compelling narrative writing in English, translate them into Chinese and distribute them to audiences in that country through WeChat, a messaging app owned by Tencent, and through syndication to other publications. Chinarrative is already in talks with one award-winning provider of such stories in the United States and will announce more details in the coming months.

Nonfiction’s special place in China

But first we think it important to understand what’s behind the popularity of nonfiction in China. What factors help explain its rise? What might be the implications for the future of storytelling from China? Are there lessons to be gleaned that can guide Chinarrative?

Wei Xing, a prominent figure in Chinese media and my former boss at Sixth Tone, considers nonfiction writing as basically a Western construct.

“In China we didn’t really have this type of writing before,” says Wei.

Wei, who also runs Chinanonfiction.com, a passion project where he curates on a regular basis a list of the best of the genre, points to the 1990s and Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo) and Freezing Point (Bingdian Zhoukan) as among the Chinese publications who took the first steps to break out of the staid storytelling typical of China’s state-owned print media by producing long-form features.

Chinese versions of fashion magazines aimed at male readers such as Esquire, GQ and Elle Man, would also see the potential of the format to add richer stories to their more typical fashion focused fare, he adds.

Later, the emergence of books and articles by foreign writers such as American writer and New Yorker reporter Peter Hessler captured the imagination, first of those in media, followed by the broader Chinese reading public.

“Chinese audiences liked Hessler’s work because the China he described is totally different from the accounts that are found in Chinese media,” says Wei.

Character-driven stories replete with vivid, detailed descriptions and engaging pace for which nonfiction stories are typically known only partly explain the draw of the format. In a country where censorship is a fact of life, narrative nonfiction stories of common people doing uncommon things work to help Chinese readers better understand their own country.

In more recent years, nonfiction also got a boost from tech innovation with the emergence of “public accounts” on WeChat. These allow the sharing of content to a defined group of subscribers. The proliferation of smartphones served to expedite this practice.

Such developments allowed for nonprofessional writers to get involved, which led to the publication of a greater number of personal essays and true stories on platforms designed to house them such as Truman Story.

Dutch journalist and researcher Tabitha Speelman cites the story of Fan Yusu as a good example. (Speelman was, for a brief period, my colleague at The Wall Street Journal.)

In her essay, migrant worker Fan details her childhood and the challenges she faced, including abuse by her alcoholic husband, as she tries to make a life in the capital. The story was an immediate hit — garnering 100,000 views in its first day — after it appeared on Noon Story, a public account on WeChat that features nonfiction storytelling in Chinese. (The story has since been taken offline.)

Speelman publishes a monthly bilingual English-Chinese newsletter, Changpian, or Longform, that curates and comments on the best of longer writing in Chinese from traditional media and online platforms like WeChat. She considers the standard of writing and reporting of the Chinese stories on nonfiction platforms to be generally “pretty professional,” but not without differences.

“In a lot of Chinese writing, the phrasing is less sharp [than in English]. This is especially true when the subject matter relates to politics,” says Speelman.

Robust business models remain elusive

The growing popularity doesn’t mean media operations devoted to nonfiction are rolling in cash. Not all ventures have been commercially successful, including ONE Lab, a nonfiction publication started by prominent writer Han Han. The now defunct ONE Lab struggled under cost pressures after hiring a team of well-known writers and, in a nod to The New Yorker perhaps, a fact checker.

Some nonfiction platforms had hoped that they would be able to sell some of their published stories to movie makers. But successful examples of that remain rare. An exception is a story of gruesome murder on the high seas, the original telling of which appeared in the Chinese edition of Esquire and quickly went viral. Last month, Truman Story announced that the movie rights for a nonfiction piece featured on its platform fetched around $160,000.

A Chinese netizen browses the website of China Literature. Oct. 25, 2017. — Imagine China.

The there’s China Literature, an online library also owned by Tencent, which raised $1.1 billion when it listed on the Hong Kong exchange in November 2017. “Smartphones may be killing print in China, but they’re revolutionizing literature,” Bloomberg columnist Adam Minter wrote at the time.

While some nonfiction outlets are pursuing the advertising model, none of the outlets dedicated purely to nonfiction appear to be charging readers for content, at least not yet.

For now, the main readers of long-form are intellectuals, media people, educators and students, says Wei. Speelman says she was surprised to discover that around half of the subscribers to her newsletter are Chinese people in China.

Selected popular nonfiction platforms in China. Active followers in parenthesis. As at end of April 2018. Source: New Rank

  • Truman Story (1,067,489)
  • Renwu (916,892)
  • GQ Lab (628,698)
  • Meirirenwu (442,363)
  • The Livings (143,419)
  • Freezing Point (107,386)
  • Noon Story (97,136)
  • Guyu Project (33,980)
  • Sandwich (China30s.com) (32,234)

Wei says foreign nonfiction translation could gain popularity among Chinese — provided the topic is carefully chosen. For example, he says Chinese are curious about life abroad, including politics, foreign affairs and social issues.

“Right now, Chinese mainstream media can explain to Chinese readers what’s happening in overseas countries, but they can’t explain the why,” says Wei. “That’s an opportunity.”

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