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By  Chitralekha Basu and Sun Li (China Daily)

08:46, April 19, 2012

Anni Baobei has a big fan base as an online writer. Provided to China Daily

Described as a writer ahead of her time, Anni Baobei reveals rare bits of her personal life and explains the spiritual themes in her prose to Chitralekha Basu and Sun Li.

Earlier this year we were at a posh Chinese diner, with the writer Li Er and a few literary friends. We got talking about Anni Baobei and her magazine Da-Fang (O-Pen). The manageress caught the name and came over to our table, asking if we could get Anni to join us. "I would give you a 50 percent discount, if she did," she said. That is Anni's clout.

Nearly 14 years after she started posting stories of love and longing in Chinese cities, Anni Baobei's fan base continues to grow. From being a youth icon of urban angst, Anni now resonates with a mature audience, who, like her translator Keiko Wong, find comfort in revisiting her works, a decade after they were written.

Anni (Li Jie is her real name, but she is best known by her pen name Anni Baobei) was an instant online sensation in 1998 - at a time when only a few million Chinese had online access and did not usually go on the Web to read a novel. But Anni, who got there early, clicked with a nascent audience, who would soon multiply into several millions - each eager to check out the Anni phenomenon.

"Anni brought freshness to online writing, as opposed to the flamboyant style then in vogue," says her publisher Lu Jinbo. "She often omitted the subject in the sentence and used unconventional punctuation."

She was in her mid-20s then - a little listless and fragile, an artistic individual who had quit a secure job with a national bank against her parents' wishes as she tried to find her feet in Shanghai.

The recurring theme in Anni's stories of a sensitive and lovelorn young woman is, expectedly, seen as projections of the writer's own personality. Her main character is usually a writer, who listens to Paganini, wears sneakers without socks, drops by at Starbucks and gets entangled in agonizingly complicated relationships. Often named Qiao, the vulnerable-romantic protagonists of Anni's fiction were a generic model that a generation of young women, and men - caught up in the unsparing whirl of China's big cities - could identify with. Goodbye Vivian, published in print in 2000, unleashed a wave of pirated editions.

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