“Long live indie publications!”

by Kitty Drake in March 2021
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Art & design

P_Pal is a book lover’s guide to China and its self-publishing scene, made by Editor Yue Zhou and publisher Sasha Zhao. Yue and Sasha are also co-creators of the Institution abC, China’s premier international art book fair, which was founded in 2015, and this magazine is a loving documentation of the country’s thriving indie publishing scene. “We’ve experienced and witnessed the enormous development of the Chinese independent publishing scene,” Yue and Sasha tell me via email. “P_PAL serves as a record of Chinese book makers and book lovers from our perspective.” 

Expertly researched, the magazine is divided up into sections devoted to different publishing roles (cover artist, publisher, designer) so that the contents page reads like a masthead. There are pieces on comics and risograph printing, and there are deliciously nerdy special features, including an exquisitely drawn map of ‘alternative books in Hong Kong’, and a yellow-page style directory of independent bookstores across the world.

P_Pal is so detailed it is a little like a reference book; it reminds me of an Oxford English Dictionary, but for Chinese magazines. But it’s also so beautifully designed — with pull-outs and flow-charts and diagrams —  that it looks like a piece of art. Below, Yue and Sasha explain the inspirations behind a singular publishing project.

One idea recurs throughout the magazine: that print lasts but ephemeral ways of communicating, like WeChat in China, doesn’t. Can you explain why it’s important to you to make something that lasts?

Sasha Zhao: Books are traces of civilization, and the physicality of printed matter has always been irreplaceable. As a traditional and ancient medium, paper books are carriers of not only information and knowledge but also places of community. The medium lends itself to interaction; it is passed between people. Making a magazine meant we could reach a wider audience and touch more random people.

Why did you want to make a magazine about Chinese indie publishing? What makes the Chinese scene unique?

Yue Zhou: It’s important to say first of all that we cannot fully represent China’s entire independent publishing community. P_PAL focuses on niche art publishing, which is considered “unique” because people always associate it with the Chinese national context, politics, and censorship. Some early Chinese self-publishing creative groups are indeed obviously marginal and avant-garde, with a democratic and anti-elitist standpoint. But indie publishing is not necessarily always a “confrontation” with the state; it is more of a response. China has undergone dramatic changes in the past 20 to 30 years, shifting from a planned economy to a market economy. Many social issues have emerged in the wake of this, and it is natural for creators to respond to these social issues.

Homosexuality was decriminalised in China in 1997, but in 2018 the novelist Tianyi was sentenced to a decade in prison for writing a gay erotic novel, under a law that makes it an ‘especially serious’ crime to sell more than 5,000 copies of a work classed as pornographic. Can you talk about the impact of censorship on magazine-making in China?

Sasha: I once interviewed a Burmese artist in Yangon in 2015, Moe Satt, who said, “Only when our country is liberalised, will local artists have a chance to literally stand in the spotlight, instead of always thinking of politics as you thinking of Myanmar.” I would like to borrow this quote as my response. Despite the reality of censorship, I still hope to stay in the field that we love for as long as possible, letting more people know about self-publishing culture through this magazine. Also, I think it could be a better approach for English readers who are interested in what their Chinese artist peers are doing, to start by erasing a kind of romantic or monstrous exotic impression of them.

Censorship has its roots in politics. But most Chinese people don’t care about politics because there is no sense of involvement in political activities. In our generation, self-censorship has become a pattern. As an activist, if you want to say what you want and consistently output ideas, it’s better to take censorship as a game rule.

Yan You of Jiazazhi magazine talks about how big the comics scene has been in Beijing. Are there genres of print magazines that are particularly popular in China?

Sasha: I don’t think there has ever been or will be a genre “particularly popular” in China. But just like Yan You said, the comics scene was influential in the early days of independent publishing in China. The emergence of independent comics periodicals after the millennium, Cult Youth’s Choice (《Cult青年的选择》)and Narrative Addiction (《叙事癖》), greatly impacted many young people who loved art, and many were inspired to start experimenting with self-publishing themselves.

Photography magazines used to be very popular indeed, and the issue 0 of Jiazazhi (the Chinese name means Fake Magazine), which Yan You founded, was once a best seller. It is now out of print, and I don’t know when a second one will appear. We’ve seen some refreshing independent magazines over the years, but unfortunately, most of them are short-lived or have been out of print for more than 10 years. We want to make print prosper: long live indie publications! Of course, the first issue of P_Pal received a great response and was more popular than we expected.

What is the significance of risograph printing in China? Is it particularly popular? If so, why?

Yue: If we draw a tendency chart, we would see the popularity of risograph rising almost simultaneously with the boom of independent publishing. Works with risograph form a large and impressive part of the art book fair. I believe it is a popular art printing technique globally. One cannot ignore its unique texture, its colors, and the fact that it is more suitable for short-run printings. However, if it’s abused rather than properly used we might experience risograph-fatigue.

P_Pal’s design is exquisite! What was the thinking behind making it this beautiful and intricate?

Yue: I like your description — beautiful and intricate!

What I’m proud of is the magazine’s structure. Unfold the cover, you will see a complete contents page; we spent a long time finding a suitable reading thread that would perfectly connect all the content. As we indicated, the professional role and publishing process involved in art publishing serves as the narrative of the magazine, giving a glimpse into the publishing process.

In a self-publishing culture, one person often has to do all the work. This is also the idea behind the composition of the magazine’s content. Each column is named after a different professional role in publishing (cover artist, publisher, designer, producer etc), with the article titles printed in transparent UV coating around it.

The cover design is extraordinary. It looks a little like camouflage. What was the thinking behind it?

Yue: The magazine’s cover design is not a direct use of the artists’ work; it is an interesting re-creation process for both the designer Ji Yang and myself. The designer Ji Yang did the Chinese version cover design of The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante, she worked carefully to understand the artist Wen Ling(温凌)’s concept, and then extracted elements from his paintings and used “camouflage” to interpret his work. The whole magazine has a lot of this “hide” approach, for example the contents page is partially printed with transparent UV coating covering on the text, so you can’t read all the article titles directly; you have to tip the magazine to read at a particular angle in order to make the words legible. I hope you can always be curious when reading this magazine.

Designer Ji Yang was involved in the content editing phase. Her concern was to integrate the information more accurately, and she put a lot of effort into it. We imagine that people might read P_Pal for a long time after getting their hands on it, or use it for reference, rather than just flipping through it over a cup of coffee. P_PAL is a magazine that is more like a book in terms of how much text there is in it. So we paid a lot of attention to making the information beautiful and appealing to read.


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