SHANGHAI — Kevin Cazad has never been to China. Born and raised in California, the 31-year-old works as an IT support technician at an Amazon warehouse. Yet the young American has been the subject of dozens of Chinese media articles over the past two years.
The reason is a post Cazad shared on the forum of WuxiaWorld — a popular website that translates Chinese fiction into English — about how his newfound love of martial arts epics had helped him beat a cocaine habit. “WuxiaWorld took up all my time and I was able to forget about wanting any drugs,” he wrote.
Two years on from the post going viral, Cazad is still hooked on Chinese literature — and still off the drugs. “My main hobby is still reading these web novels,” he tells Sixth Tone. “I basically traded one addiction for another.”
For many in China, Cazad embodies the hope that Chinese fiction might one day conquer the global market, as the country’s leading tech companies step up an ambitious push to gain readers abroad.
China’s online literature scene has developed its own unique culture over the past two decades. Rather than publishing stand-alone e-books, writers often write and release new chapters weekly or monthly via online platforms, in a similar manner to how Charles Dickens serialized his novels during the 19th century.
These platforms tend to specialize in fantasy sagas and steamy romances and have become hugely popular in China. Online literature has developed into an industry worth billions of dollars, with 24 million titles available and 430 million active readers, according to a report issued by China’s General Administration of Press and Publication, the country’s top publishing authority, in August.
As the Chinese government tightens control over content providers and the number of domestic users begins to plateau, market leaders such as China Literature — a Hong Kong-listed platform provider backed by Chinese tech giant Tencent — are venturing overseas in an attempt to bring this business model to new, untapped audiences.
China Literature, which claims to have nearly 12 million titles and 217 million active users on its platforms, had previously made small forays into the international market and has partnerships with more than 20 foreign publishers. But in the early days, these deals were mostly small-scale and involved translating and printing a few Chinese best-sellers.
In fact, as recently as 2017, Wu Wenhui, the founder and CEO of China Literature, appeared lukewarm about the prospects of Chinese web novels enchanting readers around the world. Despite several titles achieving success in Thailand and Vietnam, Wu said he would “let the bullets fly a little longer” before deciding on further international expansion — a Chinese expression that suggests a wait-and-see approach.
What may have changed Wu’s mind was the rising popularity of Chinese fantasy fan websites like WuxiaWorld. Founded in 2014 by Lai Jingping, a 33-year-old Chinese-American, WuxiaWorld is a hub for English-speaking fans of Chinese fiction, especially wuxia fantasy martial arts novels, with many members volunteering to translate works themselves in their spare time.
By 2017, WuxiaWorld was among the 2,000 most popular websites in the United States, according to web traffic rankings provider Alexa, showing that wuxia had the potential to appeal to readers far beyond China and its East Asian neighbors.
By that time, China’s government had also begun to take more interest in the potential for online literature to act as an instrument of Chinese soft power. In January 2015, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television — then China’s top media watchdog — issued a guidance that called on online publishers to “go beyond the country’s borders, to tell China’s story on the global stage, and to showcase the new face of China.”
All this pushed China Literature to take the foreign market seriously, and in May 2017 it launched its own English-language website, Webnovel. Other Chinese online literature platforms have followed suit, including the Beijing-headquartered IReader Technology Co. Ltd.
But it has not always been smooth sailing for the Chinese sites as they try to negotiate a yawning culture gap. For one thing, translating Chinese fantasy novels and making them accessible to English-speaking readers can be a herculean task.
Popular Chinese fantasy genres, such as xianxia and xuanhuan, draw deeply from China’s rich literary, cultural, and spiritual heritage, mixing martial arts traditions with elements from folklore and mythology. Rendering terms in English requires careful thought: The literal translation of the ferocious nine-headed monster jiuying — “nine baby” — could easily cause confusion.
etvolare, a translator based in Taiwan who preferred to use her pseudonym for privacy reasons, began creating English versions of Chinese fantasy and romance novels in 2015. She tells Sixth Tone that she struggled with the task at first, despite growing up in a Chinese-speaking environment.
“I only updated two or three times a week at most for my novels,” she says. “That was actually considered very decent.”
According to etvolare, most of the translators who are able to take on this “difficult hobby” are Chinese-Americans who are fluent in both English and Chinese. Being a native English speaker is essential, she says, because the texts are ultimately for an English-speaking audience.
Finding translators who tick all these boxes is a challenge. WuxiaWorld, which until recently largely relied on fan donations to pay contributors, still only hosts a total of 56 Chinese novels after five years in operation.
China’s tech firms are trying a variety of methods to remove the translation bottleneck. Webnovel says it has hired a team of more than 200 translators — which it pays directly — and has established a centralized glossary for frequently used terms to make sure the English versions remain consistent.
Many of these contracted workers, however, are not full-time and often struggle with the pressure of juggling two jobs. Oon Hong Wen, a Singaporean translator who signed a contract with Webnovel in June 2017, says he gets up at 6 a.m. to work for two hours before heading to the office and then continues after dinner until 1 a.m.
“Translators are just like authors,” says Oon. “Every day, we open our eyes and think about updating chapters.”
IReader, meanwhile, has taken a different approach by partnering with an artificial intelligence startup to translate texts into English using machine learning. “It’s many times faster than humans,” says Jia Huaiqing, director of IReader’s overseas business unit, “but it still needs people to review and copy edit the translations.”
If all this effort is to pay off, Chinese web novels will need to go truly mainstream in the English-speaking world, rather than being a niche subculture. At the height of its popularity, for example, Volare Novels, then the second-largest web novel platform, received 15 million page views per month — not a bad total, but barely enough to make a dent in the bottom line of a multibillion-dollar firm like China Literature.
Some web novel fans, however, doubt whether regular English readers will embrace the world of Taoist warriors and demons. Cazad, the U.S.-based WuxiaWorld user, says the genre only tends to attract Americans that are already interested in other forms of East Asian pop culture, such as Japanese manga.
Justin Mai Song-yun, a wuxia enthusiast from Malaysia, however, believes that it is precisely the genre’s essential Chinese-ness that attracts readers. “Chinese culture is deeply intertwined with and intrinsic to Chinese web novels,” he says.
The platforms will also need to do more to attract female readers, as sites like WuxiaWorld are dominated by stories featuring male main characters, or MCs, according to etvolare.
“The novels being translated right now, they’re heavily catered toward male readers,” she says. “Even now, popular female MCs are very few and far between.”
Jia, of IReader, has noticed a similar trend, observing that North American and European readers tend to prefer xianxia and xuanhuan — genres usually favored by men in China.
Webnovel’s audience appears more balanced, with the site’s top 10 popular stories equally divided between tales featuring male and female protagonists. But etvolare says she is sometimes troubled by the values encoded in the female-led stories, which almost always focus on an innocent woman falling in love with a successful, domineering, and sometimes abusive CEO.
While similar stories are popular all over the world, the Chinese novels sometimes go too far, according to etvolare. “Unlike ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ where the female character grows to like BDSM, (the protagonists’) sexual relationship is basically rape,” she says.
Translators are sometimes driven to quit after the Chinese web novels they are working on provoke backlash from Western readers, according to etvolare. Often, the trigger is a work’s sexist attitudes toward women, but other issues are also common — particularly scenes depicting domestic violence toward children and derogatory comments about Japan or South Korea.
The most common complaint from readers, however, is the formulaic approach taken by many web authors. Mai, the Malaysian wuxia fan, says he struggles to satisfy his craving for fresh content.
“There’s repetitiveness, tons and tons of repetitiveness,” says the 33-year-old. “And word-padding to increase the word count, too.”
Yet none of the problems are deterring the Chinese platforms from continuing their global expansion plans. China Literature has mentioned its overseas ambitions prominently in its past two annual reports, and Webnovel appears to be gaining traction. Though the company is yet to reveal details of the revenue generated by its overseas business, Webnovel is now among the two most visited English-language Chinese web novel sites, data from Alexa shows.
The company is increasingly focusing not only on exporting Chinese fiction, but also the entire Chinese business model of serialized novels. In 2018, Webnovel launched an original section that now features more than 61,000 novels by 40,000 writers, many of them native English speakers.
China Literature is also increasing its presence in the African market. In June, the company signed a deal with Shenzhen-based electronics firm Transsion Holdings, which has a 49% share of Africa’s cellphone market, that will see the firm preinstall China Literature’s content apps on all handsets sold on the continent.
For Rajdeep Trilokekar, a 23-year-old web novel fan from the U.S., there is no reason why China’s online novels cannot become as popular as Japanese anime or South Korean soap operas: The platforms will just need to be patient.
“It may take time due to the cultural differences,” says Trilokekar. “But if Chinese authors become more aware of their global audience, it may spread faster.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: A collage of covers from Chinese online novels. From Webnovel.com)