Ning Hui

What’s Behind China’s Growing Legions of Online Readers

(Via Bigstockphoto)

Modern Chinese literature is flourishing—at least for those who have an Internet connection. A survey by Chinese Internet market research firm iResearch counted a total of 12.2 million daily readers among China’s top ten literary websites. These websites together contain millions of online books, some reaching millions of Chinese characters in length.

Qidian.com is the leading website of its kind, with one million registered writers and one hundred million paying members. On Qidian alone, 880,000 thousand books either have been written or are being written. Some of these books can be millions of characters long. Every day, 1.78 million readers visit this site, according to the latest figure from iResearch.

The site’s model is simple. Registered writers are paid to update chapters on their online literary websites each day. Updates average 6,000 words, with readers paying from 0.02 to 0.07 RMB per thousand words (fractions of a U.S. cent) to read them. A sophisticated system allows readers to “recommend” or even to give small cash “tips” to their favorite writers.

Admittedly, 0.07 RMB per thousand words isn’t a lot of money. Daily updates require constant effort, and readers are picky and impatient. But the handful of “winners” can be well rewarded. Qidian has about 29 Platinum Writers — fans call them “Dashen” (Big Gods) — who sometimes earn millions of RMB and fame. @唐家三少, for example, has owned his handle for about 10 years. Last year, he applied for the Guinness record for having written non-stop for 100 months, in the process collecting a readership of 260 million people.

A pyramid scheme, of sorts

Of course, 29 “Gods” out of 1 million is an infinitesimally small proportion. Most of the site’s writers, largely between the ages 14 to 21, remain stuck at the bottom of the giant pyramid. A China Business Focus report pointed out that “90% of online writers cannot benefit… One couldn’t survive without at least writing hundreds of thousands of words per month.” Even writer @南派三叔, one of the so-called “big gods” who has frequently seen his name atop China’s richest writers list at the tender age of 33, decided to quit last month. “I have decided not to carry on any kind of literary creating from now on… … Sorry, I can’t take it anymore,” he wrote.

A screenshot from the hyper-active online lit site Qidian.com, which often demands constant updating from its writers. (Tea Leaf Nation)

Why has online literature gotten so hot in China? Restrictions on traditional publishing surely take some of the credit — compared to the difficulty and cost of publishing a print book in China, which also needs to go through rounds of editing supervised by the government, the Internet provides a much larger and freer space. 榕树下.com, a website created in 1997 shortly after the Internet found its place in China, became an early hub cultivating some of the biggest names in China’s contemporary literary world, including Han Han, Ning Caishen, Jin Hezai, and Murong Xuecun. In 榕树下, which literally means “under the banyan tree,” online literary creation is not much different from the traditional concept of literature, except for the refreshing styles its young writers often brought to the table.

It’s not just talent at play, but also market-based incentives. After a decade of development, novels have come to dominate online reading, not essays or poems. In 2012, the number-one searched term on Baidu.com, China’s main search engine, was xiaoshuo, meaning “novels.”

Online novels often include so-called “xiaobaiwen,” meaning stories with no depth, or “YY novels” that depict unrealistic fantasies. Shao Yanjun, a deputy professor at Peking University and one of the few literary scholars that focus on online literary development, commented that “online novels are about creating a second world. Many desires and imaginings can be fulfilled in this second world, and that’s why they are attractive … Many writers find our reality depressing — a wolf-eat-sheep world; so they create a more enhanced wolf-eat-sheep power relation in the new world. And how do they satisfy you? By letting a sheep from this reality to be a wolf in their world.”

Millions of China’s online books can be fairly classified as escapist. This includes the fantasy genre, which often involves time traveling from the real world to the ancient world (or another universe). In many other cases, a story’s protagonist will  travel the long path from being a nobody to becoming the most powerful man in a magical land. The fiction is often male-centered, but Qidian has a Girl’s Channel, where females are the main characters and romances are more common.

Although many self-styled bookworms may critique China’s online literature as “cheap,” online novels, supported by a huge and loyal readership, have unquestionably influenced China’s popular culture. Many have also made the journey from “virtual” novels to print. On dangdang.com, one of China’s most popular online booksellers, 23 of its 100 bestselling books in 2010 were originally online novels.

TV dramas and movies adapted from online novels have also ascended to great popularity. Zhenhuan’s Legend (甄嬛传), a story of an innocent girl who grew into a queen well-versed in palace intrigues, was the most popular TV series in 2012.. The story was originally written as an online novel by a college junior in 2007. There’s also the film 33 Days after the Break-Up (失恋33天), which grossed 189 million RMB (about US$31 million) in 2011. The storyline of this movie was originally an online novel which was updated over a six-month period, attracting millions of followers.

New art for a new age

According to a survey conducted by the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication, Chinese people read about 4.35 books per year – a number that has drawn much discussion given that in Japan, the figure is 40 and in Israel, 64. Digital reading, however, is still not included in those calculations, and millions of online novel readers in China have certainly proved that printed books are no longer only places where digital readers — let’s call them bookworms 2.0 — can be found.

In this way, China’s literary scene has functioned somewhat like its media landscape, where harsher restrictions on the printed form lead to a more vibrant, comparatively free online space. In the process, of course, it creates a schism between the two universes, and deserving art does not always cross the rubicon. As Baidu’s 2012 end of year recap noted:

A survey conducted after Mo Yan was awarded the [Nobel] prize showed that many young people had heard of Mo Yan’s works, and seen adaptations of his work in movies, but had never actually read his work. [That is] because most of them read online novels. In an age of vibrant online culture…every major online novel website has been visited by tens of millions of users each day. Online novels have gradually become the first choice for readers.

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Ning Hui

Ning Hui, or Lulu, is a media enthusiast who has worked in development and currently enjoys exploring China's emerging civil society. She is close to Beijing's contemporary art scene. She holds a BA in politics from Dalian Maritime University and a MA in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She is based in Beijing.
  • daoist

    At some point, I realized that I’ve seen more people on the Beijing subways over the last year playing with Rubik’s cubes (2) then reading actual physical books.

    There may be some observational bias in there.

  • http://www.facebook.com/iflylocus 申飞

    Thanks. But I got confused on the words “In the process, of course, it creates a schism between the two universes, and deserving art does not always cross the rubicon. “. Sorry for my poor English. Would you help me to translate it into Chinese. Thanks a lot. I’ve tried to find your Chinese version, however I failed. Thanks for your help.

    • antonii

      we a couple of guys including 申飞 have discussed this essay in a QQ group devoted to translating eMarketer report to chinese. seems there have not any chinese version of this essay because it was written in english originally, i tried to enderstand the means of the aforemetioned sentence in chinese as 这一过程中网上和网下的文学世界出现了隔阂,而优秀的作品并不总能够越过边界在两个世界同时引起共鸣。just don’t know is it wright?

      • http://www.facebook.com/iflylocus 申飞

        thanks for your help.

        • http://www.facebook.com/iflylocus 申飞

          ha, i didn’t realize we came from the same qq group. I like your translation. thanks a lot

  • Zhugenaut

    Considering a character can be translated to a word (or more) in English, one million is equal to several thick books, that’s long novel there.

    I’m a self styled bookworm, but I don’t consider them as cheap. I think of them as non-traditionalist novels. It’s refreshing, to be honest, seeing something different both from mainstream genre of western novels and traditional genre of eastern novels.

    Someone in SPCNET forums once mentioned about a writer who got contacted by physical book publisher but the deals was off, unfortunately the the book was printed (maybe based on the manuscript submitted) and the writer didn’t get a dime out of it. So it’s understandable to find writers choose to publish online, mostly to more than one website.