Are Chinese Online Novels the McDonald’s of Literature?

Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, a famous online novel in China (source: weibo)

The term “Wang Wen”, literally translated from Chinese as internet literature, was once specifically used to describe low quality writing. In most people’s eyes, it was fast food content with cheap plots and stereotypical characters. Usually mass produced by unknown niche writers, online literature was often seen as inferior to traditional literature. You would not find these works in young adult must-read sections in bookstores, and most literature lovers would despise them, but the Wang Wen industry thrived regardless.

Reasons behind the booming popularity

Sharing a resemblance with Japanese light novels that originated in 1970’s, Chinese Internet literature has been wildly popular across China, especially in lower-tier cities. Many online literature apps including LinkSure Reading began to embrace this lower end market, utilizing the massive demand from fast growing small-town populations that have huge market potential in the Internet era.

Wang Wen writings come in different styles and at different quality points. For example, you would hardly be able to read and fully comprehend Shakespeare or Joyce during your daily subway commutes, and that’s exactly when the “cheesy” online literature comes in. If you look at people on the subway in any Chinese city, several of those around you would probably be killing time by reading online novels on their phones.

“It’s mainly for entertainment. It’s not like you really care about the literary value. Sometimes I even skip chapters just to see what happens,” said a 26 year-old white collar subway commuter.

Other than being easier to read, Chinese online novels also appeal to people by providing them with a wide choice of genres and continuous content updates. However, in order to satisfy the readers’ unquenchable thirst for updates, internet novelists need to be extremely prolific. Some of the writers contracted with Jin Jiang, the top online literature platform in China, are required to turn out 3000 to 10,000 words of updates per day, which is indeed a huge work load. Also, compared even to people who casually contribute to magazines and online media, the threshold for becoming an internet novelist is rather low. Basically all you need is just time and passion to write.

The dark side of commercialization

On Jin Jiang readers need to pay per chapter, and the website shares that income with its writers, thus the more chapter updates and readership, the more the writer’s earnings. Therefore many may have descended into writing click-bait content to get onto the top of the online writers’ list.

“The end result of commercialization is sometimes malignant competition. Some of the male writers could write as much as tens of thousands of words per day, so their novels are mostly crappy and with the same style. The content there is definitely not as diversified as when the business first started,” a language teacher who also writes part time said.

Furthermore, copycats emerge rapidly and make huge money from the business. The original novel of the hit show Eternal Love, Three Lives Three WorldsTen Miles of Peach Blossoms was accused of plagiarizing a gay love novel.

Eternal Love (source: internet)

User portrait among the huge readership

However, it doesn’t change the fact that the industry is growing. According to the blue book of Chinese online literature published by China Writers’ Association, in 2018, Chinese internet writers now amount to 15 million in total, attracting a readership of 432 million, which means every one in three people in China reads online literature. China Reading Limited, a major player in the industry, leads the game with 200 million monthly active users.

According to Zhang Jinguo, general manager of Zhulang.com, one of the top three online literature websites in China, 64% of readers on the platform are male, with women in the minority. In terms of age, over 40% of readers fall between 18 and 24, with 29% aged between 25 and 34.

He also mentions that in terms of education, those that have high school diplomas or lower account for about 90%, with only 10% of readers being college graduates. Occupation-wise, readers in the education as well as medical and health industries account for 30% and 27% respectively. There are also readers from IT and electronics, finance and insurance, energy, mining and chemical industry, as well as social public management.

Xuanhuan and romance are leading genres

The most popular genres on the three main Wang Wen websites are xuanhuan (local type of fantasy), urban tales, romance, history, sci-fi, thriller, ghost stories and wuxia (martial arts stories). Realism or non-fiction do not seem to captivate people’s minds that much when it comes to online reads. “We have encouraged people from certain professions to write their own industrial stories, for instance, doctors, lawyers and special forces military. Some of the talented ones can also grow to be good writers,” Said Zhang Jinguo of Zhulang.com.

According to a report on online writers in China conducted by iResearch, the top three most appreciated literature genres are xuanhuan, modern romance and ancient romance. Take Zhulang.com for instance, the top three novels for male online readers all fall into the category of xuanhuan.

Xuanhuan neither refers to typical wuxia novels, nor western fantasy stories. Usually with a heavy Daoist setting, a Xuanhuan novel combines the Chinese philosophical ideas of Yin and Yang, religious reincarnations and ancient folklore with western demons and magical creatures, supernatural elements or even time-travel. A clearer picture can be drawn from the titles of those novels such as Battle Through the Heavens and Legend of Immortals.

mobile game adapted from the novel Legend of Immortals (source: internet)

The commonly recognized earliest xuanhuan novel is The History of the Tang Dynasty’s Two Dragons by Hong Kong writer Wong Yee, father of historical time-travel novels in China. It tells the story of two young nobodies seeking the “Secret to Long Life” through thrilling adventures with a chaotic historical background of the warring states in the end of the Sui Dynasty (581–618). Published from the mid-90s until 2001, the story is infused with the author’s life experiences and abundant knowledge of different sciences. Regardless of its cultural value, the novel managed to become one of the best sellers in that era.

It is also unsurprising to see that romance stories top the chart for the female readers list. Apart from campus life and historical romance, a genre that has been getting ever more popular over the years is called “Dan Mei”, which literally translates as “indulged in beauty”. However, here it refers to the appreciation of beautiful boys rather than girls.

Gay love stories have been somewhat of a sensitive issue in China because of Internet restrictions on same-sex love and erotica. Yet, some quality works emerged amid the chaotic regulatory and business environment. It is worth mentioning that the No.1 female writer on Jin Jiang, whose pen name is “Priest”, got famous for her subtle and tear-jerking gay love stories. Many women fell in love with her writing because of her most acknowledged novel “Brother” which tells the story of two adopted brothers, where a strong family bond evolves into romantic love over a span of 20 years.