From Soundbites to Deep Dives: The Rise of Chinese Nonfiction
As part of the Sixth Tone China Writing Contest, Sixth Tone is publishing interviews with contest judges in which they share their personal takes on the contest’s theme of “generations” and the value of nonfiction writing. To learn more about the contest, click here.
In 2017, the Dutch journalist Tabitha Speelman, then based in Beijing, started the Changpian newsletter. Her goal? To introduce China’s burgeoning nonfiction writing scene to readers around the world. An avid reader of Chinese media, she selected stories from a mix of traditional outlets and emerging WeMedia platforms. The idea was to reach beyond the soundbites that dominated international coverage of China and instead immerse China-watchers in longer narratives about human-interest topics and day-to-day life in the country.
Unlike English-language nonfiction, which is a far broader genre, Chinese nonfiction is a descendant of the country’s decades-old tradition of literary reporting. Speelman started Changpian at a time when this longform reporting tradition was being revived and repurposed for the social media era. Readers devoured real and dramatic stories from around China on platforms like microblogging site Weibo and messaging app WeChat, and major outlets soon started launching new sections dedicated to longform nonfiction writing.
Over the ensuing five years, Speelman’s newsletter has traced the evolution of China’s nonfiction scene. In her view, one of the most interesting elements of the genre has been the way it has elevated the voices of amateur writers and others from outside the traditional media industry. From housekeepers to white-collar workers, miners to retirees, Chinese of all backgrounds are eager to share their stories, and nonfiction is giving them a platform to do so.
In an interview with Sixth Tone conducted over Zoom, Speelman, who is currently pursuing a PhD in Chinese Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands, shared her thoughts and observations on the nonfiction boom and China’s new generation of literary reporting. When Chinese voices successfully break through into international media, she says, it is usually through immersive narratives, rather than straight news, in pieces that “emphasize universal feelings … combined with very unique Chinese stories.”
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: When you look at the theme of “generations” in the Chinese context, what immediately comes to mind?
Tabitha Speelman: For me, it is the Chinese categorization of generations by decades — for instance, I myself could be categorized as a ’80-hou, or person born in the 1980s — and how these generations are often linked to big societal changes. There are also clashes between these generations. Intergenerational communication across these lines and different generations’ pressures and expectations are a big theme in Chinese society. It’s a universal theme, but because of the speed of some of the changes in China and the big internal differences, it’s a theme that really stands out there.
Younger Chinese generations do differ in interesting ways from their predecessors, as well as their foreign counterparts. They grew up at a time when China is becoming increasingly powerful and important in the world, and that has changed their view of the world. But I’m actually surprised to see how similar they sometimes are to their peers elsewhere. I was talking to some young Chinese students in the Hague, some of whom had recently arrived from China, and the topics they cared about — social work, journalism, gender, and other identity issues — are also very relevant to my students at Leiden University. I’m quite interested in how that similarity comes about, despite the communication barriers and societal differences.
I myself also feel I share some lived experience with other ’80-hou. We remember life before the internet and came of age on an overlapping — often U.S.-dominated — media diet. Without losing sight of the significant differences across and within national borders, it seems that for people of my generation, it has been easier to connect to their Chinese peers, and vice versa, than for previous generations.
Sixth Tone: What kind of stories do you hope to read in this year’s Sixth Tone China Writing Contest?
Tabitha Speelman: I’ve been wanting to read some intergenerational stories, and I just hope that someone can do a story for this contest about people of different generations living under the same roof. China has a long tradition of that. Now, many of my friends born in the 1980s have their parents live with them for several years to help with childcare. And I’m really curious about how they experience that. It would be great to hear narratives from both sides of the generational divide — the young parents and the old grandparents — about how they manage the household and how they learn about each other in new ways. In general, more stories about or by members of older generations would be great.
People are writing in English for this contest. Writing in your second or third language can be a really interesting creative exercise. The added difficulty can be frustrating but also make you think harder about the essence of the story you want to tell.
Sixth Tone: What kind of generation-themed China stories do you hope to see less of?
Tabitha Speelman: I hope to see less of the sort of ready-made stories that claim to explain a generation, like “Who are the post-1990 generation?” or “Who are the post-1995 generation?” Often, these stories have a tendency to stigmatize, to say things like, “These youngsters, they’re always getting worse these days, more selfish, less filial, too online.” I don’t think that’s a particularly useful way to understand what drives people. It’s more interesting to look individually at these groups.
Sixth Tone: What are some clichés you’ve identified in coverage of China?
Tabitha Speelman: Any story that sees China as a monolith, portrays China as a country that’s somehow separate from the rest of the world, or sees China as a very special, exceptional place that deserves its own category. These narratives are prominent abroad, but you also hear them in China. They’re often linked to politics, a way of boxing China in. But China is quite a large and complex part of the world. You have to open that box and look at the internal debates and everything else that’s in there.
Sixth Tone: Why do you think nonfiction writing took off in China in the past few years?
Tabitha Speelman: In my observation, it really took off around 2014-2015. There was an interesting combination of some money coming in; a growing interest in IP development, such as TV and film adaptations; and a shift away from other types of journalism like investigative journalism. Some very talented journalists moved from traditional media into fiction — Li Jingrui, for instance — but others moved into nonfiction, like the NoonStory team.
Meanwhile, it turned out there was also just quite a big interest from the audience to read more about Chinese societal developments and the kind of ordinary changes that don’t often get covered by traditional media.
Sixth Tone: Your newsletter Changpian does a wonderful job of introducing foreign readers to longform Chinese writing. What initially led you to become interested in this field, and how did you go about compiling the newsletter?
Tabitha Speelman: First of all, I love reading as a way to understand the world, so it made sense to try to do that in China too. The more interesting reason is that there was more and more attention being paid to China by international news organizations, and I thought it would be a very good thing if people tried to understand Chinese society in more of its diversity and pay more attention to its culture and social media. Chinese voices were emerging in foreign media, but these reports were usually very short, focused on news themes, and largely limited to soundbites from social media. But I loved to read Chinese nonfiction and liked the feeling of staying with a piece for longer and being immersed in someone’s narrative. That kind of immersion often emphasizes universal feelings, but in this case, these feelings are combined with very uniquely Chinese stories. Since I really enjoyed reading those stories, I thought others might as well.
As for compiling the newsletter, I have a broad interest and tend to hoard too many things. So I just saved all these different stories that were either shared by acquaintances who I think have good taste or published by the WeChat public accounts that I follow. Or, maybe the story doesn’t come from a particularly professional account but focuses on a very interesting topic. I tried to first make a big selection and then go through the tabs to decide which are the ones that are really worth reading in their entirety.
Sixth Tone: Who has caught your attention in the Chinese nonfiction landscape?
Tabitha Speelman: I read famous writers like Yuan Ling, Guo Yujie, and Du Qiang. But what’s been really cool about this wave of Chinese nonfiction is that many media platforms, such as TrumanStory, SandwiChina, and theLivings, are editing and helping ordinary people write their own stories. While there are storytelling nights and podcasts here in Europe as well, and first-person narratives seem popular worldwide, I can’t quite think of any equivalent to these online platforms. I’m not sure why that is, but when I reported a story on this trend, a lot of people would point out that there is so much happening in China right now that is worth recording, and that many people feel this is not being done enough. I’d agree that their stories are very much worth reading.
Interviewers: Xue Yongle, Fu Beimeng, and Xie Anran; editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: CSA-Printstock/iStock/VCG, reedited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)