China’s Novelistic ‘Soft Power Invasion’ of Vietnam
Gooey romance novels thrill everybody but the government
In 2019, a then-third year Hanoi student named Dỗ Thị Phương was elated to be selected for an English-taught exchange program in China at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing.
“My dream finally came true,” said Phương, having little idea of the university or of the strengths of the program that she was going to study in the following five months. Instead, she was thrilled to be headed for the native soil of the yanqing novel (言情）– what is called the Harvard of China is the setting of numerous Chinese romance novels that she and her friends read avidly on laptops and mobile phones including the popular story “It is better to be a Tsinghua hopeful than a movie star.” The male protagonists in these novels who study or graduate from this university are study gods who are not only diligent and intelligent, but caring and loving.
Phương is also a member of three Facebook groups that were created to discuss characters in popular Chinese novels, many of which have been adapted into TV series. Phương said she spent a few days looking for faculty buildings of characters in her favorite stories.
These 青春校园, or campus-based romance novels, a sub-genre of contemporary Chinese romance novels (yanqing xiaoshuo, known in Vietnamese as tiểu thuyết ngôn tình), have gained wide currency among young Vietnamese. Fan pages of the novels, such as “The Group of crazy fans about Chinese yanqing novels,” and “Groups of those obsessed with male characters in Chinese yanqing novels,” etc. have tens of thousands of followers.
Domestic media outlets have leveled heavy criticisms at the compulsive consumption of those novels and their TV adaptations and the government has found reason to search their pages for anti-Vietnamese propaganda. Numerous articles encourage students not to immerse themselves in them. Over the past decade, the Vietnamese government has made several attempts to resist this cultural flow, labeling the products as “poisonous” and even inimical to youthful personal development. In 2015, the Publishing and Printing Department under the Ministry of Culture ordered local publishers to stop releasing “mawkish and maudlin” romance novels, especially those from China, including homoerotic romance, known in Chinese as “danmei" with so-called "clichéd, useless, obscene and offensive" content. However, the ban has turned out to be just a slap on the wrist. Shortly after the ban, yanqing novels were back on the market and selling well. Today, the ban is largely ignored.
No clear definition
Indeed, the ban is unfeasible. There was no clear definition of what exactly a yanqing novel is. Even publishers seeking licenses for publication are at a loss about what can or cannot be published. Nguyễn, a retired official at a state-owned Publishing House in Hanoi, who is no stranger to the Communist Party’s hammerlock on his industry and who asked to be known only by his family name, said it was easier said than done. “Romance is present in more or less every Chinese novel,” he said. “How can we ban all of them?”
In early 2017, the Department of Publication, Printing and Distribution under the Ministry of Information and Communications reminded both state-owned and private publishing houses to not apply for publishing permits for novels that contain escapist romance and boys’ love without giving those terms a definition. The department also urged the publishers to review drafts of the novels that they intend to publish. Yet the warning fell on deaf ears. Publication, including those by the Publishing House of Literature, a major state-owned publishing company, has continued unabated.
In Vietnam, only state-owned publishing houses are authorized to print books. Private publishers must cooperate with a state one to be allowed to print yanqing novels. As a result, it is safe to say that state-owned publishers play a crucial role in bringing Chinese romantic books to Vietnamese readers.
It goes without saying that women readers are more attracted to these novels, chiefly written by female authors. According to Lê Nguyễn, a former volunteer translator, her colleagues are solely female. Trang Hạ, a feminist author and translator of Chinese language literature, was seen as a pioneer in bringing post-war yanqing xiao shuo to Vietnam in the early 2000s, when Internet penetration started growing across the country.
In these stories, male protagonists are heartthrobs, good-looking, well-educated, mostly graduates from top Chinese or Ivy League Universities. More importantly, they embrace “soft masculinities:" caring towards their partners and committed to long-term relationships. Amid rising domestic violence and increasing singlehood, these are the particularly desirable qualities in a male partner.
Due to cultural proximity, Vietnamese readers can relate to yanqing novels that revolve around a variety of topics: family, romance, marriage, schooling. Vietnamese youths can personally relate to similar pressures facing their Chinese counterparts: pressures of passing university entrance exams to make it to decent universities, finding jobs, choosing lifelong partners, etc. Most importantly, those novels feature young people's emotional struggles in competitive environments and efforts to pursue individual dreams, while conforming to and resisting traditional norms.
Not all yanqing novels have happy endings. According to Hoa, an owner of a famous private bookstore in Hanoi, however, they are both entertaining and commercially successful.
Readers vary. Now at 59, she admitted enjoying reading some best-sellers in her free time. “Of course, the majority of buyers are young people, but housewives and elderly women are also attracted to these overly romantic stories,” said Hoa, who recalled a woman in her 80s looking for such novels.
Translated versions of Chinese yanqing novels with colorfully decorated covers and very catchy titles predominate in most Vietnamese bookstores in the cities. Enthusiastic readers can always find copies at a much lower price at many pirated bookstores, which are largely unregulated. Pirated versions and their TV adaptations are easily accessible at the click of a mouse for free on the Internet. The industry of translating Chinese Internet literature by emerging authors and TV series into Vietnamese has been thriving. Numerous websites that hire Chinese-speaking Vietnamese translators of Chinese novels have been mushrooming.
Many young people agree that these easily digestible and emotionally charged novels are addictive.
“I don't like China, but I like their films, series and novels,” said Hương, a 26-year-old professional from Bắc Ninh. “I might think about the characters for a week.”
Also, yanqing novels are long and not very cheap. Typically, each novel is between 300 and 600 pages, costing the equivalent of US$5 to $10 in Vietnam. The quality of both the storyline and the translation is not the best, yet the translated language is easy to understand. Sub-genres of yanqing novels are diverse, including urban stories, online love stories, time travel and historical fiction.
“I read quickly because it is easy to understand, and I can relate to many things, such as student years with crushes,” said Linh. “I do not think I can relate to things found in Western novels."
However, young readers are aware of their escapist nature. Ngọc Anh, a 2nd year student from Ha Noi, recalled exam periods where she had to give up reading those novels for fear that they might affect her study. “I can’t stop reading them and can’t concentrate on anything else,” she said. “They are unputdownable.”
Perhaps escapism is not the only reason behind the ban. On numerous Facebook pages, politicization of yanqing novels has been exposed by Vietnamese readers and translators. Some novels are reported to contain negative descriptions of Vietnam and even calls to ostracize the country. Some Chinese authors shared on their social media maps including the so-called “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea that gives Beijing hegemony over almost the entire sea.
Historically speaking, it isn’t the first time the Communist government has sought to resist the cultural flow from China. Following the Vietnam War, a cultural purge banned romance novels by renowned female writers such as Qiong Yao and Han Suyin for describing individualistic love in a bourgeois manner that ignored the miseries of the working-class people. Domestic media at that time also referred to them as “cheap novels" although the top-down resistance didn’t seem to affect ordinary consumers.
Many readers don’t agree with a blanket ban on the novels. Nguyễn Thị Như Lê, a 31-year-old professional from Hưng Yên province, used to be a fan in her teenage years but “I am not at the age for yanqing anymore,” she said. “I just lost interest over time.” However, she frowns on the ban, saying the government should let the readers make the choice.
Quang, a translator of European books, said escapist novels exist in many countries, not just in China. According to the 50-year-old translator, every genre of book has its own readers. When they are out of favor, the readers will stop looking for them. A ban is not necessary.
“There are lots of American, French escapist novels as well. Why are they not banned?” said Quang.
Lê Ngọc Hân, a Hanoi-based university lecturer, agreed that the government should promote education for youths to be selective about what they read instead of banning innocent novels.
“There is no evidence that those novels really harm teenagers," said Hân. “If they try to ban yanqing novels, they should ban K-dramas as well.”