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Why are novellas so popular in China?

Novellas, Contemporary Chinese Literature, and My Writing

Chen Jingrong
Photo by Robert Scoble/Flickr


By Xu Zechen

Translated by Xu Shiyan

Fiction author Xu Zechen is also an editor of China’s most prestigious literary magazine, People’s Literature. In this tour-de-force essay, he points to the novella as the most popular genre of contemporary Chinese fiction, and reveals how and why China has taken this genre and made it its own, from its influential birth in the form of Lu Xun’s novella Ah Q on through to its present popularity.

The Novella in Contemporary Chinese Literature

Since the moment contemporary literature gazed outward to the world beyond Chinese literature, novellas became something of an embarrassing genre. Modern fiction originated in the West, where it is dominated by either novels or short stories—there is really nothing in between. Even when novellas are often used to vaguely suggest a genre in the West, the idea seems but a pale shadow of more popular genres. Therefore, when people talk about integrating Chinese literature with the world, China’s robust production of novellas is received with a lack of confidence and appears as though it might be a temporary fluke. A bastard has seemed to pop up suddenly in the clan of fiction; it may be inappropriate to exclude it but it also seems too illegitimate to include. The West makes the rules, and there really isn’t such a thing as a novella in the West. Such influence is why the term “novella” was not publicly used in China until around the 1880s, when Lu Xun 鲁迅 wrote the first novella in the history of modern Chinese fiction. It was a hundred years later, in the early 1980s, when the first national prize for novellas was awarded to fifteen novellas published between 1977 and 1980. This was the first official prize ever awarded in the novella category. Among the winners were At Middle Age (Ren dao zhongnian 人到中年) by Chen Rong 谌容, Legend of Tianyun Mountain (Tianyunshan Chuanqi 天云山传奇) by Lu Yanzhou 鲁彦周, The Story of the Criminal Li Tongzhong (Fanren Li Tongzhong de gushi 犯人李铜钟的故事) by Zhang Yigong 张一弓, Butterfly (Hudie 蝴蝶) by Wang Meng 王蒙, and Magnolia Beneath the Wall (Daqiang xia de baiyulan 大墙下的白玉兰) by Cong Weixi 从维熙, all of which have exerted great influence upon contemporary Chinese literature.

In fact, since the publication of The True Story of Ah Q (A Q zhengzhuan 阿 Q 正传), writers in China have continuously written novellas over the last sixty years. Some works can now claim to be masterpieces of the genre, from Border Town (Biancheng 边城) by Shen Congwen 沈从文, The Field of Life and Death (Shengsi chang 生死场) by Xiao Hong 萧红, Countryside in August (Bayue de xiangcun 八月的乡村) by Xiao Jun 萧军, Cold Nights (Hanye 寒夜) and A Garden of Repose (Qiyuan 憩园) by Ba Jin 巴金, to The Gold Cangue (Jinsuo ji 金锁记) and Love in a Fallen City ( Qingcheng zhi lian 倾城之恋) by Eileen Chang 张爱玲, and Prequel of Tiemu (Tiemu qianzhuan 铁木前传) by Sun Li 孙犁.

If we follow the Western convention of separating fiction into only long novels and short stories, I suppose this is acceptable—after all, it is nothing serious, only a category. But if we really want to seriously explore the artistic laws of fiction as they relate to length, it is reasonable to try to better articulate the differences between them. When fiction was divided only into “long” and “short,” no one knew where the boundary was. Now, however, most readers have settled on a boundary: fiction fewer than 20,000 words is called a “short story,” fiction more than 100,000 words is called a “novel,” and, naturally, fiction between 20,000 and 100,000 words becomes a “novella.” Such regulations were formalized for the first and second Lu Xun Literature Prizes, but the lengths have since been increased: short stories are allowed up to 30,000 words, novels have 130,000 words or more, and novellas still claim the space between. This flexible boundary does not seem scientific or serious enough; defining a genre in terms of the length is like proving baldness by counting the hairs left—the ambiguity is contained in the proposition itself. It is not necessary to argue whether the parameters of these terms are scientific or not. It is more important to study the artistic characteristics that are presented, and can be presented, by fiction of such intermediate length—within the novella.

Thus, let’s examine the characteristics of the novella to see whether they distinguish it from the short story and the novel enough to establish it as an independent genre.

When fiction was only categorized as long or short, a mature writer had a clear idea of the path along which to coordinate the theme, the length, and the core of the story, and would then choose the proper genre: novel or short story. While Tolstoy was plotting War and Peace, there must have been a grand story in his mind, a world of details that simply could not have fit within the confines of a short story. Likewise, Thomas Mann, in writing Death in Venice, could not have imagined what it would have been like if he had written it at the length of Dr. Faustus. The theme, the story, and the narrative have to be well matched to the appropriate length.

If we believe the length of the story is closely connected with these factors, then we must notice that just as there are differences between the novel and the short story, there are also differences between novels of different length and between short stories of different length. These differences lie not just in the number of words, but are something more fundamental.

The genre of the novella has developed quite well in contemporary Chinese literature, has grown as robust as a towering tree. If you ask scholars in this field, they are sure to tell you that among the various genres of fiction in New Era Literature, the one that has the biggest achievements is neither the short story nor the novel, but the novella, not only in terms of the large number of them being created, but also in terms of general achievement, as well as an extensive reading market and great influence.

I have no scientific statistics to prove exactly how many novellas have been published in the New Era, but, judging from literary magazines, the novella should be the leading genre. I am an editor for People’s Literature, generally regarded as the most prestigeous national journal, the oldest continually published literature magazine in China. The People’s Republic of China was founded on October 1, 1949; People’s Literature was started on October 25, 1949. Apart from a few literary magazines that only publish poetry or specialized prose, all the comprehensive magazines in China mainly publish fiction. Only the bimonthly or some monthly magazines (such as People’s Literature) have enough space and capability to publish novels; all the other magazines mainly publish shorter works of fiction, among which novellas are the most common genre, occupying the greatest number of and the most important pages. The readership and market for novellas far exceed that of short stories.

Some of the well-known magazines in China that publish fiction are Fiction Monthly, Fiction Selection, and Chinese Literature Selection. They publish both novellas and short stories, with far more pages for the former. Three magazines are specifically devoted to novellas—Novella Selection, Beijing Literature · Novella Monthly, and Fiction Monthly · Novella Supplement—while there is only one magazine devoted solely to collecting short stories—Short Story · Selection, which was never popular and seems to have disappeared in recent years. The reason behind the phenomenal success of the novella is its huge market, which has in part helped novellas become the genre that has been awarded more fiction prizes than any other genre in China.

In a short story, you can be innovative, artistic, and free, while in a novel of hundreds of thousands of words, it is impossible . . . to write without the basis of a good story. . . . It is not that difficult to understand the popularity of the novella: it is less time-consuming than the novel yet contains more narrative than the short story.

The market is never irrational. Novellas are popular because they can satisfy readers’ huge appetite for stories. As a writer reading and editing magazines in China, I am always curious about the relationship between life and the current market. Everyone is talking about the fast pace of life; everyone is working hard to make a living, complaining of having no time to read. If everyone is too busy to have enough time to read, one would expect people to read short stories instead. It takes only ten or twenty minutes to read a short story, and so there should be a large market for short stories. However, short story collections sell so poorly that publishers have to gather up all their courage to publish them; in contrast, very long novels sell well, and publishers are very excited to find and publish good novels. It is weird, but it is true. It is because in novels we can find stories that genuinely satisfy our imagination. In a short story, you can be innovative, artistic, and free, while in a novel of hundreds of thousands of words, it is impossible for you to write without the basis of a good story. Ordinary readers’ interest in novels is based on their trust in narrative, and they are born with a hunger for these stories and the ability to digest them. In this sense, it is not that difficult to understand the popularity of the novella: it is less time-consuming than the novel yet contains more narrative than the short story. Why wouldn’t it be popular with modern readers?

There really are great narratives to be fond in novellas, for, without a decent story, it is impossible to support the length of 30,000 to 130,000 words. It contains a story, but it is not as long or as tiring as the novel. Suppose you are reading a novella—by the time the boredom and fatigue kicks in, you have already reached its end. Because it is relatively short and concise, its artistic essence is similar to that of a short story, but it not only satisfies your appetite for a longer story, it also provides a more potent aesthetic delight. In short, novellas offer readers a graceful and elegant form; thus the huge reading market is eager for more novellas.

This trend can also be seen in popular film and television adaptations of novellas. As anyone who is familiar with contemporary Chinese film and TV knows, most popular movies are adapted from novellas. Because novella-length narratives are similar in scope to that of a full-length film, and because screenwriters can easily grasp the entire scale of a novella, film adaptations generally have a shot at success. My friends in the movie and TV industries read no less than literary professionals like me, but they basically limit themselves to novellas in looking for works that can be adapted from magazines and literary collections.

Of course, at present when literature is being marginalized and depreciated, the comforting prosperity of the novella should not be attributed only to the market; writers are also making considerable contributions to the genre. To a writer, a novella is easier to handle than other forms. The grand structure and great length of the novel, as well as the prolonged process of plotting, preparing, and writing, are not pleasant labors for every writer. Short stories are the crown jewels of fiction, as they undertake the heavy burden of broadening and challenging the boundaries of fiction—writers must perform exquisitely within a limited space, which requires a high level of artistry and creativity. It is not easy for ordinary writers to succeed in these genres; a large number of writers, either willingly or unwillingly, come to the relatively wider territory of the novella, which increases its prevalance.

Another factor in the popularity of the novella is often ignored: writers in general are often pressured to quickly respond to real-life issues, so the novella has unique advantages over the novel and short story. Since the 1950s, there is probably no other country in the world that has experienced such rapid, colorful, and complicated social change. With its slow pace and composed demeanor, the novel is not likely to present, reflect, and search through the complexity and unpredictability of society and the mind quickly. Short stories are, on the contrary, short and quick, but are limited by their narrower capacity; no sooner has a short story started than it has to find its end, thus the genre provides insufficient space to explain such large problems clearly. The responsibility to respond to real-life problems, therefore, falls to the novella. The winners of the first four national prizes for novellas are one example. Besides those winners—At Middle Age by Chen Rong, Legend of Tianyun Mountain by Lu Yanzhou, The Story of the Criminal Li Tongzhong by Zhang Yigong, Butterfly by Wang Meng, and Magnolia Beneath the Wall by Cong Weixi—the following works are noted examples in the field of contemporary Chinese literature for their relevance to contemporary China: Garland under the Mountain (Gaoshan xia de huahuan 高山下的花环) by Li Cunbao 李存葆, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Verdant, Blue, and Purple (Chi cheng huang lv qing lan zi 赤橙黄绿青蓝紫) by Jiang Zilong 蒋子龙, Life (Rensheng 人生) by Lu Yao 路遥, The Black Steed (Hei junma 黑骏马) by Zhang Chengzhi 张承志, Nawu (Nawu 那五) by Deng Youmei 邓友梅, Nineteen Tombs in the Mountain (Shanzhong, na shijiuzuo fenying 山中,那十九座坟茔) by Li Cunbao, There Is a Storm Tonight (Jinye you baofengxue 今夜有暴风雪) by Liang Xiaosheng 梁晓声, Gourmet (Meishijia 美食家) by Lu Wenfu 陆文夫, The Chess Master (Qiwang 棋王) by A Cheng 阿城,The Red Shirt Without Buttons (Meiyou niukou de hongchenshan 没有纽扣的红衬衫) by Tie Ning 铁凝, The Snuff Box ( Yanhu 烟壶) by Deng Youmei, River of the North (Beifang de he 北方的河) by Zhang Chengzhi, Emerald (Zumulv 祖母绿) by Zhang Jie 张洁, Afforesting Trees (Lvhua shu 绿化树) by Zhang Xianliang 张贤亮, Stories at Sangshuping (Sangshuping jishi 桑树坪纪事) by Zhu Xiaoping 朱晓平, Baotown (Xiaobaozhuang 小鲍庄) by Wang Anyi 王安忆, Red Sorghum ( Hong gaoliang 红高粱) by Mo Yan 莫言, and You Have No Choice (Ni biewu xuanze 你别无选择) by Liu Suola 刘索拉.

If the existence of the novella as a genre is indeed reasonable and necessary, then we may assert that the form has taken on a very important role in contemporary Chinese literature. If the format is not very well grounded in the realm of world literature, I don’t think it matters. In the context of Chinese literature, this robust genre has achieved self-consistency. Isn’t that enough to claim its legitimacy?

It is time to stop feeling guilty about its status.


I Write Novellas Because I Have Difficulties

As for my own writing, I have been scrupulous about the novella genre for many years. Fiction should either be short, as short as a short story—a reader can finish it within the space of smoking two or three cigarettes, feel relieved or horrified, find a moment of enlightenment, or encounter a mystery, a scream or a sigh. Or fiction should be long as a grand life with a history, filled with unaccountable people coming on and off the stage, generating tension through their unpredictable fates. This is a long symphony, a winding picture; and when the novel ends, time appears as if at the end of an era, ready for the next to begin. The bigger novels have the beauty of grandeur, as grand bronze sculptures or mountains; the smaller ones have the delicacy of sharpness of carvings and embroidery. I can imagine both the short and the long, both the concrete and the abstract; I know what they should be like, but I am less certain about what my novellas should be like. Sure, its something between a novel and a short story, but even after almost five years’ experience writing fiction, I had not given it a try. During those five years, I enthusiastically wrote countless short stories and even started a novel, but I remained skeptical of novellas—what responsibilities can this genre take on, and what problems can it solve?

Of course, you can say that what can be undertaken and solved by short stories can also be solved by novellas. But what makes this genre unique? It cannot be simply the number of words. In the beginning, I thought the form must truly be a challenging one to write in. Now that I have been writing in this genre, I must admit that after trying on the novella, I now agree with my earlier idea that it is a great challenge.

Short stories are more pure than novellas; they are short and fast, requiring more ingenuity in form and meaning. Short stories are a kind of guerrilla warfare, moving to a new position as soon as a bullet is fired; it is like storming heavily fortified positions, quickly fighting to secure a fast victory. Novels need a huge scope, with numerous details and enormous time-span, which requires an immense army and spectacular attacks and defences over the course of a protracted war. A novella, then, must be a form of trench warfare. It cannot be won if time is too limited, nor can it continue on for too long. It is, to me, like holding the breath—the most crucial aspect of writing a novella. It is very difficult to hold the breath for either too long or too short a moment. If a breath is held in a hurry, it must be so short that it can be soon released; you have to emerge from the water in less than two minutes. Even if you wrote 35,000 words, it is at most a protracted short story. If you have a super vital capacity, the breath could be held too long. With too many details, both the words and the implication gradually increase until the novella is bound to explode—and an exploded novella is no longer a novella.

This sense of breath is the core of good fiction. The size of the core determines whether it is a short story, a novella, or a novel. Then how large should the core be for a novella? For those too small or too big, it is not necessary to discuss; it is easy to categorize them. The transition zone between the big and the small is the most troublesome. It is difficult to precisely estimate how the core can promptly obtain its own identity and meaning within the novella genre. After some tentative practice, I, like most writers, have to say: Let’s just follow the heart. It really is impossible to quantify the core.

It seems that I have said nothing after so much ado; but actually I have said all that I have come to know. As to what I do not understand, I will probably analyze it within the pages of a novella.

A few years ago, I reviewed my fiction and found that among the series concerning Beijing, all were novellas, no short stories or novels; however, among those concerning my hometown and Flower Street, there were novels, novellas, and short stories. That is to say, for the latter, I was able to adjust the form to the content, with considerable freedom; while for Beijing, I could only write novellas—why is this the case?

It was because I had no fixed idea of Beijing. Ah, Beijing (A, Beijing 啊,北京), We Met in Beijing (Women zai Beijing xiangyu 我们在北京相遇), Xi Xia (Xixia 西夏), Three People Walking (Sanren xing 三人行), The Purjury Maker (Weizheng Zhizaozhe 伪证制造者), Peking Double Quick (Paobu chuanguo Zhongguancun 跑步穿过中关村), Heaven and Earth (Tianshang renjian 天上人间), Counter Clockwise (Nishizhen 逆时针), Ju Yan (Juyan 居延)—all exist in the present tense and drift along, rife with anxiety as they face an unknown fate and a dilemma between the city and the man. All of these qualities indicate that I was searching, excavating, questioning, and proving ideas through trial and error. In all of these stories, I did not know the results beforehand, nor did I know how to get to the places where the characters might eventually go, or where the complicated and equivocal relationships between them (and me) and this city might go. If I had possessed a clearer idea of Beijing, I could have focused on the most crucial factors, those sharpest points, and quickly solved them with the sharpest short stories; in this sense, the short story is actually definite proof. Of course, to write a short story is also to solve the unknown, but the unknown is closer to art. You can defeat the strong with little effort by using the abstract to present the concrete. In contrast, the novel, I have always believed, is a genre more known than unknown. Suppose you are in the mountains. Maybe you cannot see clearly the exact shape of each mountain, but you can have a general idea of their winding tendency. According to this view, you travel with the story. Novellas are not that impromptu, nor are they perplexing over years. Most probably, no one feels the need to write a novella to solve the problems that one fails to understand over a lifetime, for it lacks the vital capacity and tolerance.

I have written one novella after another. Even if at last I cannot see it clearly, I still want to look. I will have problems following, but I will go on looking. If it is not so outrageous to understand the novella in this way, then I want to say that this is an age of the novella, because of the present, because of the rapid changes, because you cannot understand the world immediately, because you often do not understand everything, because we do not have enough time or patience to make the final judgement after the dust is settled, because the dust will not settle for a long time, we must write novellas.

Of course, we should remain calm, because literature need not race against time. In essence, literature is slow.

Xu Shiyan is an associate professor at the School of Foreign Languages at Nanjing Normal University. Her research interests include comparative literature and translation. She is an editor of Chinese Arts & Letters, a journal of Chinese literature in English translation. As a visiting scholar in 2015, she worked at the Chinese Literature Translation Archive at the University of Oklahoma. She is currently working on a project on Howard Goldblatt’s translations based on the materials in the CLT Archive.

Xu Zechen, born in 1978 in Jiangsu Province, obtained a master’s degree in Chinese literature at Beijing University, and is currently an editor at People’s Literature magazine. Xu’s realist fiction explores the lives of China’s working classes and migrant workers. He has published four novels: Midnight’s Door, Night Train, Heaven on Earth, and, most recently, Jerusalem, as well as a collection of short stories titled How Geese Fly Up to Heaven. He has won several prizes in China. More recently he was the Writer-in-Residence at Creighton University in Nebraska in 2009, and took part in the University of Iowa’s renowned International Writing Program in 2010.


From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 5 No. 2

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Table of Contents







  • 3 Editor’s Note
  • 4 Contributors
  • 98 Chinese Literature in Review
  • 108 Pacific Bridge

THIS ISSUE’S ART: “Seductive Evolution of Animated Illuminations, 2013.” By Shih Chieh Huang. (Modification of fifteenth-century Renaissance period Murano glass chandelier. Combined with micro controller, computer cooling fans, LEDs, garbage bags, and plastic shrink wrap.) Image courtesy of the artist.


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