A new era of reading

2024-05-31 10:30:00 Source:Beijing Review Author:Zhang Yage
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Visitors walk through the Future Time tunnel, an exhibition on the sidelines of the 81st World Science Fiction Convention, in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, on October 18, 2023 (XINHUA)

From carving stones and cuneiform to computer screens and ebooks, the way we read has come a long way since the technology emerged more than 5,000 years ago. The digital age has taken away much of the cost of reading and writing, making it possible for anyone to produce written content and publish it online wherever and whenever they want. This is the time for online literature.

According to a recent report on China's online literature, published by the China Writers Association, as of the end of 2023, the number of online literature readers in China had reached 520 million. Data from 50 of the nation's top online literature platforms revealed that the total number of online literature works now exceeds 30 million, with approximately 2 million new works added last year. The combined revenue these 50 platforms generated from online literature and its related industries reached approximately 34 billion yuan ($4.69 billion) in 2023.

The report states the flourishing of online literature has also contributed to the development of micro-dramas, a new video entertainment format with episodes lasting just a few minutes each but sometimes numbering over 100 in total. Revenue from these micro-dramas makes up a great part of the online literature industry's revenue. As of the end of 2023, the total number of authorized adaptations of online literature into micro-dramas exceeded 3,000. Last year, over 1,400 micro-dramas were released, with the industry's market value exceeding 37 billion yuan ($5.1 billion), a year-on-year increase of approximately 268 percent.

"Besides being used as the basis for video content, online literature works can also be adapted into comics and audiobooks, as well as used for creating themes and storylines of cultural and tourism programs, TV variety shows, and offline games such as escape rooms and jubensha (a role-playing mystery solving game—Ed.)," Xu Miaomiao, a professor of art education at Capital Normal University in Beijing, told China Reading Weekly. "I know a lot of online writers who also work in other fields such as playwriting. The increasing diversity of those engaged in writing online literature will see its influence spread into every related industry, leading to it booming and becoming more widespread."

Diversified trend 

This increasing diversity of authorship, arising from the inclusiveness of online literature, is leading to increased diversity in the personal experiences drawn upon a growing trend of literary realism and real-life stories.

Twenty-eight-year-old online literature enthusiast and part-time writer Li Yuqing finds these works more relevant and attractive. "I'm a computer programmer and I have a preference for literary works with IT staff as leading characters," Li told Beijing Review, adding that she finds the plots and characters in many works quite convincing.

"It is as if the scenes depicted were taken from my own everyday life. I have every reason to believe that these writers are working in the computer science industry in real life," she explained.

Currently, there have been 1.6 million realistic online literature works published, with 200,000 new additions in 2023. During an April event for online literature influencers in Shanghai, zealous readers were excited to find many of their beloved authors were also online game designers, taxi drivers, physics Ph.D. candidates or forensic scientists, and that the vivid and highly authentic nature of their works comes from first-hand experience in related fields.

"The prosperity of the online literature market is the result of joint efforts of numerous content creators," a writer and member of the China Writers Association, who goes by the pen name Baishijinglun, said at the Sixth Online Literature Plus Conference in Beijing on March 24, 2023. "Online literature platforms need to optimize their content audit and reward mechanisms to inspire more ordinary people's enthusiasm to write."

Another increasingly popular and influential genre last year was science fiction, with 250,000 new titles published, a 15-percent year-on-year increase. One of these, Hidden Corners, a science fiction work similar in spirit to the Three-Body Problem, which applauded humankind's courage and wisdom when facing catastrophic difficulties, was awarded with the 34th Galaxy Award for online literature. The Galaxy Award is the most prestigious science fiction award in China, which was initiated in 1985 by sci-fi magazine Science Fiction World.

"The blossoming of science fiction works in online literature not only reflects a new trend in the literature market, but also demonstrates people's expectations for and imagination of the future," Xu said, adding that the scientific knowledge that the theme required for writing posed challenges to many writers.

"Some creative writers have begun to combine mythical stories and folktales from ancient China with science fiction elements, promoting traditional Chinese culture and Chinese people's endeavors in scientific discovery," Ma Ji, a researcher at the Online Literature Institute of the China Writers Association, told China Reading Weekly.

Overseas popularity 

China's online literature is also gaining international traction. In 2023, its overseas market scale exceeded 4 billion yuan ($55.23 million), with nearly 200 million active readers outside China. These readers were broadly distributed among the world's countries and regions, and of them, Gen Zs accounted for 80 percent. Multiple overseas Chinese online literature apps have over 100,000 daily active users.

"Chinese online novels have captivated a huge reader base in Southeast Asia," Andeez Ziauddin, a Bangladeshi student at Fudan University in Shanghai, said at the online literature influencer event. "One of the students I tutor is a big fan of these works and the videos and dramas derived from them, and she regularly recommends them to me. I also know lots of people who are learning Chinese in order to understand the online literature works better, and those who even start writing online in Chinese or in Chinese genres."

"Taoists" is the collective term overseas enthusiasts of Chinese online literature use to refer to themselves. The religion, which originated in China's Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220), is frequently featured in Chinese online literature works, especially in wuxia (martial arts) and xianxia (Chinese fantasy heavily inspired by Chinese mythology and influenced by the philosophies of Taoism, Chan Buddhism and Chinese martial arts) genres.

Some Taoists who are proficient in Chinese even translate the works for free, giving rise to hundreds of translation websites especially for Chinese online literature, such as WuxiaWorld and Gravity Tales. Through reading from these websites, millions of readers have learned about Chinese history, mythology and folktales, becoming "China fans" and "China experts" along the way.

Some overseas readers are no longer satisfied with reading translated literature and create Chinese-genre works in their own languages. According to the report by the China Writers Association, as of the end of 2023, overseas platforms had signed nearly 1 million writers and created over 1.5 million original works of Chinese-genre literature.

"One of the reasons Chinese online novels are so popular overseas is that the works are rich in cultural and historical content," The Bilps, an online novelist from the Philippines, said. "This is the catalyst boosting the wide spread of Chinese online literature, and one that has distinguished it from many other genres and categories."

"With the increasing international influence of Chinese online literature, we are faced with new challenges and opportunities," Chinese online writer Yuantong said at the Shanghai event. "It is important for us writers to shoulder more social responsibility and pay more attention to the content and principles that our work conveys to the world."

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

Comments to zhangyage@cicgamericas.com 


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