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Between a Rock and a Hard Place:
Chinese Literary Journals in
the Cultural Marketplace

by Shuyu Kong

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 14, no. 1, pp.93-144

China is the country with the most literary journals in the world, and the literary journal system, formerly a state-funded institution, played a crucial role within the socialist cultural establishment after 1949. However, during the last two decades, literary journals have faced unprecedented challenges as a result of sweeping economic reforms and the gradually emerging cultural market. This once popular and prestigious industry has declined to such an extent that it has now reached crisis point, and many journals have had to reinvent themselves both conceptually and institutionally to adapt to the new cultural reality.

This paper is a detailed study of the crisis facing literary journals and the measures they have taken to respond to that crisis since the 1990s. By focusing on the transformation and paradox of Beijing Literature and other relevant journals, the paper reveals the varied and contradictory forces that impel literary and cultural change in a complex transitional society. The paper begins by briefly describing the sense of crisis among literary journal editors in the late 1990s, then traces the roots of this crisis back to the mid-1980s, when the government first reduced funding for many cultural institutions and required them to introduce market mechanisms into their management. It examines various strategies that literary journal editors adopted during the late 1980s and early 1990s to try to raise capital to survive, including their often awkward attempts at selling advertisement space and seeking corporate sponsorship. It shows that, since the late 1990s, a few journals have attempted to plot a middle courseæ adopting rational marketing methods while at the same time broadening their definition of literature.