The Subplot

The Subplot
What China Is Reading and Why It Matters

What does contemporary China’s diverse and exciting fiction tell us about its culture, and the relationship between art and politics?

The Subplot takes us on a lively journey through a literary landscape like you’ve never seen before: a vast migrant-worker poetry movement, homoerotic romances by “rotten girls,” swaggering literary popstars, millionaire e-writers churning out the longest-ever novels, underground comics, the surreal works of Yu Hua, Yan Lianke, and Nobel-laureate Mo Yan, and what is widely hailed as a golden-age of sci-fi. Chinese online fiction is now the largest publishing platform in the world.

Fueled by her passionate engagement with the arts and ideas of China’s people, Megan Walsh, a brilliant young critic, shows us why it's important to finally pay attention to Chinese fiction—an exuberant drama that illustrates the complex relationship between art and politics, one that is increasingly shaping the West as well. Turns out, writers write neither what their government nor foreign readers want or expect, as they work on a different wavelength to keep alive ideas and events that are censored by the propaganda machine. The Subplot vividly captures the way in which literature offers an alternative—perhaps truer—way to understanding the contradictions that make up China itself.


This book is published with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Read CGR Director Nicholas Lemann’s Letter to the Reader

The Subplot
  • ISBN: 9781735913667
  • Price: $16.00
  • E-book ISBN: 9781735913674
  • On Sale: February 8, 2022
  • Pages: 136

Underreported podcast

Listen to three-part series of our podcast, Underreported with Nicholas Lemann dedicated to The Subplot.

Find episode transcriptions and credits here.


A New Yorker Best Book of 2022
An Economist Best Book of 2022

“Engaging, informative and — considering the ground it covers in 135 pages — astonishingly nuanced, The Subplot primes us to dig into [Walsh’s] list of suggested further reading.” Wall Street Journal

“[A] lively, lucid survey of contemporary Chinese fiction.... Walsh delivers a wry cornucopia, inviting for general readers who don’t know Mo Yan from Han Han.” New York Times Book Review

“Illuminating...offers a superb introduction to Chinese publishing and the clever, subversive ways it’s thriving.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post

“A wonderful, pacy tour of contemporary Chinese literature.” The Economist

“A portal into people’s hearts and minds by exploring contemporary Chinese literature.” GlobalAsia

“Concise and fast-paced.... The Subplot will make you want to read more Chinese fiction.” New Statesman

“An illuminating insight into the web fiction, sci-fi and subtle dissent read by one-fifth of humanity.” Financial Times

“A sharp, revealing portrait of contemporary China.... Elegantly written and fascinating.” —Adam Foulds, author of The Quickening Maze

“An eye-opening glimpse into China’s ‘intentionally hazy’ authoritarian political climate of censorship and propaganda…. A succinct, fascinating overview of literary ambivalence in China.” Kirkus Reviews

“Drawing on a rich field of research, The Subplot not only crosses the language barrier, opening a window for the world to see contemporary Chinese literature, but it could also be an invaluable record for young Chinese people, both in China and overseas, to think about how society is affected by China's fast-pace of change.” —Xinran, author of The Good Women of China

“In The Subplot, Megan Walsh showcases the diversity and vitality of contemporary Chinese literature. With economy and wit, she shows us why it’s so necessary to read literature to understand the story of China today.” —Angie Baecker, University of Hong Kong

“A jaw-dropping look at what mainland Chinese are reading right now. Megan Walsh tells us why, in this time of China’s economic ascension, its literature is both liberating—and soul-crushing.” —Jan Wong, author of Red China Blues

“We are what we read. As China is rising, people are naturally interested in what the Chinese are reading. This overview of the literature in China offers an interesting perspective of a country that is reshaping the world.” —Lijia Zhang, author of the novel Lotus and of Socialism Is Great!: A Worker’s Memoir of China


Author Interview with Megan Walsh — Book Culture

The Beijing Olympics feels like a curtain raiser for China’s defiant global hegemony — Globe and Mail

Megan Walsh on Understanding China Through Its Literature — The Diplomat

How China’s Fiction Writers Have Learned to Survive Its Politics — TIME

What Is China Reading Now? — Literary Hub

Why What China Is Reading Matters — China-Britain Business FOCUS

Inside China’s Fiction Factories — UnHerd

Why Chinese fiction matters — Axios


What China is reading and why it matters — Sinica podcast

China, Freud, War and Sci-Fi — Free Thinking (BBC 3)

Megan Walsh Discusses The Subplot — The Book Review (New York Times)

Monocle Reads: ‘The Subplot’ — Meet the Writers

Love poetry; love books — Start the Week (BBC 4)

About the author

Megan Walsh

Megan Walsh is a journalist and writer who specializes in Chinese literature and film. She has lived in Beijing and Taipei, and holds a masters in Chinese Studies from SOAS. Her work has appeared in The New Statesman, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Wall Street Journal, and she was on the books desk at The Times of London, where she reported on contemporary art and literature in China, Russia, Cuba, and northern Iraq. She lives in London.