“Upon waking, Xia Xiaolan realized she’d been reborn in the 1980s — and with a beautiful face that could bring down empires…”
So begins the synopsis for Reborn in the 1980s: Such a Hot Wife. The book ranks among the top three recommended by women older than 50 on Ximalaya, a popular audiobook app in China.
Its fast-paced tale of rebirth and vengeance belies the image of China’s older generation as traditional and conservative, and a country where a 2021 national survey showed 18-49 year olds were still the top consumers of books online.
The survey, however, also showed an uptick in the number of middle-aged and elderly, for whom reading literature online has become the newest form of mobile entertainment. According to the data, 23.2% of those exposed to e-reading in 2020 were older than 50 — an almost 3% increase from 2019.
And their interests varied: From “rich-romance,” a subgenre involving a rich, domineering male protagonist who pursues a penniless heroine, to “live-in son-in-law,” where a poor man marries into a rich family, or even “war god,” where the hero has enhanced military capabilities.
On most ebook apps, setting the filter to “stories for women” brings up the buzzwords “domineering millionaire,” “ancient concubine,” or “spoiled wife.”
A man looks at his mobile phone in a park in Huai’an, Jiangsu province, Sept. 4, 2021. Zhou Changguo/IC
A New Chapter
In its 2019 Annual Digital Reading Report, ebook company Zhangyue found that though older consumers don’t read books online as much as the younger demographic, the middle-aged and elderly demonstrated enough potential as an up-and-coming group. And their average interactions and online ratings far exceeded those of other users.
In another survey conducted last year, the Department of Chinese at Peking University created an “intergenerational portrait” of readers on Tomato Novel, a web platform owned by ByteDance.
The survey combed through the different topics, storylines, anwd characters readers across different generations enjoyed. The 41-50 age group most preferred xiuzhen (a Chinese fantasy subgenre focused on the Taoist quest for spiritual transcendence), time travel, and miracle doctors, while those above 50 tended toward genres like modern romance, rebirth, and war god.
Modern romance ranked first among the 50-plus group, with a popularity rating of 48%, far higher than any other age group. Among them, stories of rebirth and time travel were the most popular — something they shared with readers of other age groups.
On the other end of the spectrum were “system” stories where characters live in a game-like world of rules, rewards, and punishments. Fans of this new subgenre fall distinctly into two age-related camps: 55% of 18- to 24-year-old readers enjoyed the genre, compared to only 13% of readers aged 50 and over.
Apart from the subjects and storylines, characters were a crucial component of novels as they most closely reflect the imagination of their readers, allowing for an immersive experience.
For 41- to 50-year-old readers, “miracle doctors” were the most loved character, with 60% popularity, whereas readers older than 50 preferred both “miracle doctors” and the “war gods.”
According to the Online Literature Research Center at Peking University, both characters embody the older readers’ pursuit of health, ability, physical might, and honor.
Gender matters too. In one reading app, men flocked to subjects like Eastern and Western fantasy, sci-fi, urban tales, wuxia (martial arts), and military, while women favored time travel, school stories, rich-romance, modern and ancient romances, and fantasy romance.
Incidentally, the rich-romance novels favored by older readers often have jaw-dropping word counts of around one million words. Some ongoing series are already up to nine million words. And with increasing commercialization, online literature has only grown lengthier.
Urban romance novels are no exception, easily running into millions of words and supported by a vast array of characters and complex plots. The endless chapters, grounded storylines, fast pace, and easy reading experience on smartphones have countless older people hooked.
Qiang Chen/E+/People Visual
The Tables Turn
Tongtong’s 75-year-old grandmother loves rich-romance stories, and often reads free novels online. “Whenever she has a moment, she grabs her phone and starts reading,” says Tongtong. “Sometimes she stays up all night reading, and that has me worried about her health.”
Her grandmother was always a voracious reader, but as her eyesight failed, the small text in physical books posed a challenge. For the septuagenarian, smartphones, which allow readers like her to adjust font sizes and explore a dizzying array of stories, changed all that.
The 2020 Report on the Digital Lives of Elderly Users, jointly released by Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper and content aggregator Qutoutiao, found smartphones were already the primary interface for the middle-aged and elderly to get online.
Data showed over 95.6% of these demographics use smartphones to access the internet; over half said phones play an important role in their lives.
One user asked on the hobby platform Douban, “Do you know any middle-aged or older people who are obsessed with online lit?” A number of netizens responded affirmatively and added that some of their older relatives even paid to read online.
On the Q&A platform Zhihu, user Sigui says her father, a government employee, likes wuxia or fantasy, but it never got in the way of his work, life, or kids. “I think it’s important to be tolerant, just like how your parents put up with your video game obsession back in your early teens,” says Sigui.
Another netizen, Tuantuan, says her mother got into ebooks through WeChat, China’s social app, and eventually learned how to give writers monetary rewards. Tuantuan’s main concern is people using book sites to phish and scam unsuspecting victims.
“Some works prey on the weakness of human nature. It’s certainly wrong, but it attracts people exactly because of it,” says Tuantuan. Although she’s suggested more reputable online websites, her mother still prefers recommendations from WeChat.
“If she visited more legitimate websites, then I wouldn’t worry at all, but I’m afraid she’ll get scammed out of a lot of money when she gives out rewards on shady websites,” she says.
Tuantuan’s apprehensions aren’t unfounded. The relatively low exposure of the middle-aged and elderly to the media leaves them vulnerable compared with younger generations who grew up with the internet.
According to a video posted by police in May, a resident of Anqing, Anhui province, surnamed Zha clicked a pop-up ad while reading a novel on her phone. A quiz app automatically downloaded to her device, and ensnared her in a series of elaborate scams that defrauded her of over 1 million yuan ($155,000).
In addition to online scams, many also worry about their parents’ health. One netizen mentioned that his father spent most of the day reading, often until 4 or 5 a.m. He says, “I’m afraid it’ll be the death of him.”
The health risks to the elderly from reading online novels for hours on end are stark. Their eyes may already be weaker, and staring at smartphones for an extended duration can cause discomfort and lesions. Excessive use can sometimes lead to other health problems like shoulder, neck, and back pain, loss of appetite, and mental illness.
A woman checks her phone in bed in Beijing, 2017. Rayfoto/People Visual
The Online Allure
Chief among the many reasons the elderly flock to books online and contribute to so much traffic is boredom.
“There’s not much meat in these romance novels, but I read them because sometimes I’m just too bored. Plus, they’re pretty much all the same, so there’s no point in reading too many of them,” says a woman surnamed Wang, who admits to often filling in the gaps of her downtime by constantly downloading and uninstalling reading apps.
Another elderly woman surnamed Li recalls when she saw a pop-up ad for online literature while browsing the news. “I accidentally clicked it and stumbled upon romance novels, including what you call rich-romance,” she says, adding that she now reads before every nap and at bedtime.
Meanwhile, a 73-year-old man surnamed Chai actively searched for military-themed novels online once he learned to use his phone. Always fascinated with the military, reading online became a regular part of his life, akin to walking, grocery shopping, and playing chess.
Dong Jiangbo, a veteran editor of online literature, attributes the popularity of rich-romance novels among older readers to the lack of an emotionally fulfilling life. When family members fail to provide emotional value and support, such novels fill the void, he says.
But this isn’t the only factor that drives the elderly to read. In fact, the reasons many such readers gave reflected just the opposite. They said their addiction to books online stemmed from “interest,” “a longtime habit of reading,” and “the convenience of listening to audiobooks.”
While those relatively well-off easily engage in giving rewards to writers online, others are more conservative. Older readers are generally more “frugal” than younger readers, who can be less price-sensitive and make impulsive purchases.
A man surnamed Li said that he only reads free novels. “Reading online is just for entertainment,” he says. “I try not to get too addicted, and it’s bad for your eyes to stare at your phone for too long anyway.”
Most think of the elderly as leading a sedate life of retirement or taking care of grandchildren, but smartphones and internet access are fueling rapid change.
Older readers who love online literature also remind us of the complexity of their emotional pursuits. Discovering that the elderly around us are immersed in the world of online literature may be an opportunity for younger generations to understand them — and their interests — better.
This article was written by Ma Yuxiaoxu, Chen Yuhe, Yang Ruoyu, and Li Yingxue, who are students at Renmin University of China (advised by Professor Fang Jie).
A version of this article was originally published by RUC News Studio. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is reproduced here with permission.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Xue Yongle and Apurva.
(Header image: Elderly Chinese look at their mobile phones in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, 2018. Zhang Heping/People Visual)