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A New Genre in Chinese Fiction

In recent years, a new genre of fiction known as the Officialdom novel has become increasingly popular in China. Fans claim that the novels offer rich entertainment while providing valuable insights into the byzantine system of manners and etiquette that is the key to success at white-collar jobs in China, but the trend might signal a much more significant shift in the culture—one that goes beyond matters of literary taste.

Wang Yuewen is widely credited with writing the first successful Officialdom novel, Painting, in 1998. "I gradually learned that it was hard to gain promotion with talent or hard work," the former bureaucrat said in an interview with China Daily, the country's largest online English-language news service. So he turned to writing fiction that draws from his personal experience navigating the complicated machinations of the Communist government and government-controlled industries.

Since then the genre has blossomed. Over a hundred Officialdom novels were published in the first three months of this year, nearly surpassing the total number published in 2008. In addition to offering insights into Chinese government, the genre has provided new careers for Chinese bureaucrats who are either disenchanted with the strict Confucian systems functioning in their workplaces or who have been disgraced by bad choices or bad alliances.

Wang Xiaofang was a high-ranking official in northeastern China whose boss, the mayor of a large industrial city, was arrested for corruption and eventually sentenced to death. Clouded by his affiliation with the condemned mayor, Wang's career was in shambles until he chucked it and turned to writing. He has since published six novels based on his experiences and sold hundreds of thousands of copies, according to reports in the Economic Observer. "My years of experience in the official circle laid a solid foundation for my literary creations," Wang said in an interview with the Southern People's Weekly.

Although such themes have a long history in Chinese literature (novels that contain insights into the official workings of the country are as old as Dream of the Red Chamber, the eighteenth-century classic by Cao Xueqin about the rise and fall of a Qing dynasty family), critics point out that contemporary Officialdom novels utilize the simple prose and highly structured plots common to romance or detective fiction. The genre follows a common outline: A lone, morally upstanding, male protagonist struggles against corrupt bosses but inevitably wins the battle in the end—and finds a beautiful woman along the way.

From a literary point of view this is a minor transformation in trends and style, but for China watchers intrigued by the country's continuing march toward freedom of expression and individual rights, it's an interesting milestone. Disgraced officials and disenchanted bureaucrats would not have been permitted by censors to discuss their experiences or voice their disappointment, even in fictionalized form, twenty years ago.

While the novelists are careful not to reveal facts that can be linked to living figures and never go so far as to criticize Chinese politics on a macro scale, the mild disapproval voiced by official literary critics suggests that the genre is pushing boundaries. Despite the continuing attempts of the Communist government to police its populace and protect itself, the efforts of some individuals to create a more transparent culture are gaining traction.

Stephen Morison Jr. is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. He lives in Beijing.

“In addition to offering insights into Chinese government, the genre has provided new careers for Chinese bureaucrats who are either disenchanted with the strict Confucian systems functioning in their workplaces or who have been disgraced by bad choices or bad alliances.”

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A New Genre in Chinese Fiction (September/October 2009)
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