Chinese online literary works gain growing global readership
With stories about transmigration, romance and superpowers, Chinese online literary works are gaining a growing global readership.
For Ji Yunfei, this is not a novel observation. As one of the first Chinese scholars who took notice of the phenomenon, he took the initiative to contact the founder of WuxiaWorld in 2015 to find out how the platform could maintain a strong base of North American readers. Launched in 2014, the website was one of the earliest online reading platforms of translated Chinese web novels. From then on, Ji's research has been focusing on online literature, including its types, production mechanisms and international dissemination.
Reading web novels has long been a hobby for Ji, an assistant professor with the Department of Chinese at Sun Yat-sen University. The 30-year-old estimates that he has read about a billion words from web novels overall. To him, online literature is the most comprehensive and the keenest reflection of life today, which will become the mainstream of contemporary literature.
"Web novels are popular among young Chinese, who share similar reading preferences with their overseas counterparts," said Ji.
He said these popular web novels gave what young readers want – the feeling of gradually becoming powerful, gaining magic skills or making huge achievements with serendipity, which is rare for most people in this competitive era.
"Popular web novels adopt the styles of Western fantasy novels which are familiar to Western readers, who also find freshness with elements from traditional Chinese culture," said Ji.
By the end of 2022, more than 16,000 Chinese online works of literature had been exported abroad, reaching over 150 million readers outside China, according to an annual report on online literature released by the China Writers Association.
The majority of overseas readers of Chinese web novels are Generation Z born between 1996 and 2010. The authors of web novels are also young, mainly born after 1990.
China's online literary works have spread to more than 200 countries and regions around the world. In 2022, 16 Chinese online works of literature were included in the British Library's Chinese collection for the first time.
At a forum on online literature during the 75th Frankfurt Book Fair in October, Hou Xiaonan, CEO of online reading giant China Literature, said the originality of online literature lies in openness, inclusiveness and co-creation.
On online reading portals, readers not only rate books based on their plot, word building, translation, but they also interact with the authors.
Hou noted that writers from more than 100 countries are writing literary works on the company's reading platforms, and the company hopes to establish a global co-creation platform in the future.
China Literature launched its global online reading platform WebNovel in 2017, which has become one of the biggest global reading platforms for online Chinese literature.
As of June 30, 2023, WebNovel offered about 3,200 works translated from Chinese and 560,000 original works created locally, providing services for a total of 200 million readers and 380,000 overseas authors.
Ji also noticed the growing number of local writers on WebNovel. He said they understand the preferences and taboos in their own culture, and have the potential to create popular online works for local readers using the production mechanism of Chinese online literature.
The young scholar has full confidence for the future of online literature, since both the literary circle and readers are pushing authors to write better works. He believes adaptations to films, TV dramas, and games will also boost development of online literature.
At a forum on the high-quality development of online literature in Wuzhen, east China's Zhejiang Province, well-known writers of online novels got together, discussing ways to create great stories.
Aware of the popularity of China's online literature overseas, several key writers who spoke on the forum suggested that authors should assume social responsibilities, have an international perspective, and create stories based on the fine culture of China.
Compared with Japanese animation and manga or South Korean TV dramas, which have been developed overseas for 20 or even 30 years, the influence of Chinese web novels is still in its infancy. South Korea is also a strong player in the global market of online literature, gaining international market share by acquiring competitive online reading websites or apps.
Ji pointed out that Chinese online literature is developed along with the latest media revolution, which brings about changes in the mechanism of literature creation, publication and dissemination.
"For now, Chinese online literature is seizing the moment, but other countries and cultural circles will join in, bringing about changes worldwide," said the young scholar, adding that the popularity of Chinese online novels overseas may herald the birth of the world's online literature.
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