Two full novels, three short novels and two plays received the Second Lao She Literary Award, which was announced in Beijing on Tuesday.
The ceremony to present the prizes, awarded every two years, was held at the Great Hall of the People.
Renowned writer Zhang Jie, deputy chairperson of the Beijing Writers' Association, was honored for her latest long novel, Wuzi (Without A Word)."
Newcomer Ning Ken shared the full-novel award with Zhang. His work Mengmian Zhicheng (The Veiled City) was first published on the Internet before it drew the attention of the literati.
The three winning medium-length novels were Shenmu (Magic Wood) written by Liu Qingbang, Yinianji, Ernianji (First Grade, Second Grade) by Zeng Zhe and Chusan Chusi Kanyueliang (Watching the Moon on the Third and Fourth Days) by Yi Xiangdong.
Realism has become an important criterion for panel members who nominate literary works for the award.
Most of the 24 works that were nominated for this year's award were selected because they reflect, in one way or another, the real and complicated struggles ordinary Chinese people endure in their mundane lives.
Without A Word, which was unanimously selected by all members of the appraisal committee, perhaps best illustrates this.
The master stroke of the novel is the use of the family story of Wu Wei, a fictional woman writer. Focusing on the fates of four generations of women in the family, it records the transition of Chinese society throughout the 20th century from a unique women's perspective.
"In the novel, Zhang analyzes Chinese society in a ruthless way. She criticizes male chauvinism with her keen observation skills, but she is by no means a feminist," commented critic He Shaojun, a member of the nominating committee.
Compared with Without A Word, The Veiled City reflects a more modern China.
The novel portrays the experience of 17-year-old Ma Ge in his search for his soul father.
The author has written for the past 20 years, but before this novel, only a few of his works had been published.
The novel was first published on the literature channel of Sina.com, the country's leading web portal, and soon became an online hit. Over 500,000 people clicked on and read the novel when Ning Ken himself offered it as a candidate for the Lao She award.
One element of surprise at this year's awards was that Kong Jingzi (The Empty Mirror) failed to be chosen.
Written by Wan Fang, the novel was one of the most attention-grabbing works among those nominated.
The book was turned into a successful television serial earlier this year and was most popular among urban viewers, especially in North China.
Almost all major literary awards in China are named after Chinese master writers.
The Lao She Literary Awards is no exception. It is named for the pseudonym of Shu Qingchun (1899-1966), the great Chinese writer whose major works include Teahouse and The Rickshaw Boy.
This year marks the second time the biennial award, sponsored by the Lao She Literature Fund, has been issued.
Different from the Mao Dun Literary Award and some other national awards, the Lao She Literary Award is currently only a local Beijing award.
Held by the Beijing Federation of Literature and Art Circles, the Lao She award is still unknown to many people.
According to Li Qing, secretary-general of the Beijing Writers' Association, only works by Beijing authors or those published in a local periodical can currently qualify for the award.
As a Beijing native, Lao She distinguished his works from those of other writers with an obvious local flavor.
However, Li Qing said in choosing works for the award, "a Beijing flavor" was not a requirement.
There are dozens of literature awards bestowed in China. The common consensus among Chinese writers and readers is that the Mao Dun Literary Award is the most important. That award is named after writer Shen Dehong, (1896-1981), who wrote under the name Mao Dun, and who is best remembered for works like Shop of the Lin Family and Midnight.
For writers, it is the prize of prizes, the yardstick by which to measure the achievements of contemporary Chinese writers.
Li said the Lao She award does not aim to reach the level of the Mao Dun award.
"Maybe in the long term we will change it into a national literary award, but currently we do not have such a plan," Li said.
Awards and Popularity
While the Chinese literati are busy issuing all kinds of awards, readers have shown little interest in such events, experts said.
An embarrassing fact is that people now seem to be less concerned about literary works or the development of literature in China.
Literature itself -- or at least some genres such as poetry and novels for example -- are waning.
The circulations at some periodicals and novels are currently a fraction of what they were in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Wang Meng, a renowned contemporary writer in China, attributed this to the flood of books written for entertainment and leisure reading.
"Romantic and swordsman fictions by writers from Hong Kong and Taiwan, various stars' autobiographies, secrets about political dignitaries and even writings full of feudal superstitions are usually more competitive in the market than serious writing," said Wang.
The fate of the National Museum of Chinese Literature might provide a footnote to that.
Established in 1985, the museum holds one of the largest and finest literature collections in the country. But few people like to spend time there.
According to curator Shu Yi, the son of Lao She, the museum, which covers 15,000 square meters, has only 200 visitors per day.
Literature awards are expected to promote the public's interest in literature, and they have proved effective.
According to statistics from the China Book Journal, the Fifth Mao Dun Literature Awards, announced in 2000, greatly boosted sales of the winning books.
Between 1998 and October 2000, only 100,000 copies of Chen'ai Luoding (When The Dusts Settle Down)," written by Tibetan writer A Lai, were printed.
After it won the Mao Dun Award in October that year, another 70,000 copies were printed within three months.
Statistics from the Beijing Book Mansion, one of the major book shops located at Xidan in downtown Beijing, might be more persuasive.
Before A Lai won the award, only a dozen copies of the Tibetan's book had been sold. After that, as many as 955 copies were sold within just two months.
The organizing committee of the Lao She Literary Award published voting forms in major local newspapers in Beijing. Every reader chose novels he or she liked and sent the votes to the organizing committee.
Readers actively responded, the committee said. Every day the organizing committee got more than 200 votes from readers.
(China Daily October 28, 2002)