What Is a Reader? Participation and Intertextuality in Hand-
Copied Entertainment Fiction from the Cultural Revolution

By Lena Henningsen

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 29, no.2  (Fall 2017), pp. 109-158

This essay presents a close reading of Jin Fan’s Open Love Letters, an epistolary novel narrating a triangular love story among rusticated youth in 1970. The novel originally circulated underground as hand-copied entertainment fiction (shouchaoben) during the Cultural Revolution, and then was published in 1980. In their letters, the protagonists exchange their views on all topics pertaining to their lives and also voice their discontentment with the political situation and their personal living conditions at the time. Like other shouchaoben literature, the novel reflects the historical context, including contemporary practices of writing and reading, and it anticipates Post-Cultural Revolution literary developments. Drawing from Foucault’s considerations on authorship (author-function) and from de Certeau’s on readership, the author argues that the novel can be read essentially as a text about the nature of writing and reading. Henningsen therefore proposes the concept of the reader-function and traces how through their writing and reading the fictional characters are constructed as readers. As an effect of the fragmentary nature of the epistolary novel, there does not appear one distinct reader. Rather, their letters offer the characters possibilities to probe into different roles as readers and thus to test the ground for future literary and intellectual developments.