A Critical Review of Chinese Online Literature Development: From Individual Expression to Organized Production


Based on previous literature and three years of virtual ethnography experience in online community, this paper reviews the development process of Chinese online literature with the production form change of online literature works as a clue, and discusses how online literature in mainland China have evolved from individualized creative work into cultural industry product with complex nature, how the free writers have become digital labor, how the ontological concept of online literature has been established in the identity political struggle in the field of literature and market, and how the relevant academic discussion following the economic and cultural phenomenon of online literature has gradually matured with its industrialization. This critical review tries to regard the change of production form and labor as a comprehensive process, in which technology, economy, politics, culture and other factors are organically linked.

In the political and economic environment of the 1990s, the Internet technology, the improvement of human-computer interface and the construction of supporting network infrastructure laid the material foundation for the emergence of online literature. The policy of Internet's commercialization provided institutional guarantee for it. The gathering and text uploading of related cultural communities online directly gave birth to the so-called 'online literature'. Such a process has happened twice, respectively in the two important time points­——'born in North America' and 'entered China mainland'. After the second time point, Chinese online literature went through three stages: Failed in commercial operation; Established successful commercial operation mode; Extending industrialization. During this period, the core clue of the online literature development history is the change of the concept definition and production form. 'Online literature' was proposed by the corresponding cultural community (which is also the community of economic interests) as a concept opposite to 'traditional literature', and it was strengthened in the subsequent market-oriented development and the supplementary interpretation of academic groups. The production form change is one of the bases for the successful industrialization of online literature. Because of the success, the production platform of online literature can play a dual role. They not only produce online novels as commodities, but also provide the novels for the downstream of cultural industry chain as raw materials. The success of industrialization is accompanied by the expansion of cultural communities. The continuous growth of market and community leads to the government's policy intervention focusing on content supervision, and the relevant academic discussion hotspot also changes from the ontology concept to the production mechanism and producers.

It is necessary to make a comprehensive and critical review of Chinese network literature development. This work can remind people how the online literature industry has been shaped into the current state in the dynamic history of multiple factors. The production mechanism of online literature is not an innate structure. We should be alert to the market or academic discourse that tries to legitimize and intensify the status quo of workers in the Post-Fordism environment.

Key words: online literature; history; organized production; technology; political economics; cultural community