汉语世界(The World of Chinese) 2016年1期

刘莎 孙佳慧

The murky realm of plagiarism, formulaic plots, and smut thats taking the publishing world by storm


Quick question: which Chinese author makes the big bucks?

If you said Nobel Prize Winner Mo Yan, youd be wrong—he comes in at number 13 in terms of annual income, with a relatively paltry 6.5 million RMB.

But hey, the highbrow stuff doesnt usually rake in much profit. Perhaps instead you might opt for Hugo Award Winner Liu Cixin.

No again. Sci-fi is far from a cash cow in China.

Instead, turn your attention to the online forums, where a new breed of writer is emerging.

The Chengdu-based West China Metropolis Daily revealed its annual “rich writers list”, which was split between the China Online Writer List and traditional China Writer List. The highest earner of them all belonged to online writer Tangjia Sanshao, the penname of Zhang Wei, who earned 50 million RMB in 2014.

Online writers take in online subscriptions and licensing fees for all related movies and games, significantly boosting their revenue, something few traditional fiction writers can boast. With just royalties, Zhang Jiajia, a novelist and playwright, topped the traditional China Writer List with an annual income of 19.5 million RMB.

But, even writers like Zhang Jiajia have made more than a few bucks via the online method—before becoming a print sensation, he was famous for publishing a series of bedtime stories on Sina Weibo.

Zhang Jiajia and Tangjia Sanshao represent the two most popular online literature styles: fantasy and romance.

Cash formula

If you want to make the big bucks, you need to sell out. Plot, characters, settings—these are but distractions. The key to unlocking the mighty moneymaking power of online literature is the formula.

A, 18, a plain-looking female college freshman from an ordinary family in the bloom of youth, meets B, the most popular guy in college from a well-off family, who eschews the cheerleader type (C), in favor of A and falls madly in love. But, it is an unrequited love, as A has fallen for D, a cool, mysterious head of a multi-national conglomerate.

And, there you have it: online literature. Give them some cute or stupid names, let them do whatever jobs they like, and dont worry too much about how the plot doesnt make any sense.  Just use your imagination and remember: A cannot be smart or rich—the dumber she is, the easier her life will be.

Popular online fiction in China has become little more than a process of making money out of template fairy tales. Find an adorable way to have your characters meet, a rich male character, sex things up somewhat, and youre good to go.

If you get writers block, you can access a vault of online help in which your readers will guide your story for you. Your story does not belong to you; it belongs to your readers.

Sure, its tripe, but online fiction writers now make more money than traditional writers who opt for print. Its the process of creating the modern Chinese Prince Charming, Cinderella, or Superman and attracting millions of hits every day. Such online works have been adapted into films, TV shows, and games.

Feel-Good Stories

Literature websites strictly divide readers by gender, one area for men and one for women. The female section is full of romance stories, ancient or modern, set in China. Its the templates for these that have become startlingly predictable.

The popularity of these stories has given rise to unusual stereotypes. One of the most prevalent is that of male leading characters as successful, handsome businessmen—invariably wealthy and powerful, occasionally a control freak. Sound familiar? This is not entirely dissimilar to the Fifty Shades of Grey train wreck, and many female readers prefer strong male roles in which the female doesnt have to make many decisions.

The leading female roles are similarly fixed; usually its a student or a fresh graduate: inexperienced, young, and na?ve. Their most lauded features are being simpleminded and kind.

Strangely those are often the traits of the male leads in online literature directed at male readers: an average boy, not particularly tall or smart, somehow meets a kung fu master or wizard. And, inevitably, the boy goes on to save the world and get the girl, a story as old as time itself. If there is a main character in online literature, it is the concept of luck. Writers get away with any old rubbish as long as they say, “What a coincidence!”

“Readers get tremendous satisfaction reading those stories and the reading process requires no use of brains,” says Wang Xiaomeng, an editor with YueDuJi Publishing, a publisher known for publishing romance novels favored by female readers. Classic feel-good stories are good for business.

Its Wangs job to read different online novels, look for good writers, and sign them, publishing their stories in print. In the past 11 months, she has read at least 1,000 novels and “a large percentage of those are feel-good stories.”

Gu Wei, editor of China Wealth and Luxury at TheWall Street Journal, says that the success of someone like Tangjia Sanshao is based on fantasy fulfillment, a practice that has made Tangjia Sanshao very rich indeed.

Many online writers succeed by targeting the lowest common denominator in the feel-good virtual world. A sense of satisfaction is gained through being loved by a rich CEO or surrounded by a bevy of beauties. But, perhaps the most interesting thing about the online writing process is how the readers can play god.One writer, going by the penname Zixiang, began writing stories on Jinjiang Literature City, one of the biggest online lit forums, two years ago. Building her reader base, she was asked by readers to resurrect the dead.

She tried to argue, telling them it was not how the story should go. “I try to make my stories more like serious literature, but my readers dont buy it.” Not wanting to lose readers, she pulled a Lazarus on a character she needed to kill.

As perhaps the greatest difference with traditional publishing, online literature is constantly interfered with by readers—on everything from forums to reviews. According to Wang, online stories always have happy endings, and in a love story, its always best if the leading characters are virgins before they meet. Break these rules at your peril; readers will complain.

And, as usual, sex sells. Zixiang experienced protests from her readers demanding her first sex scene. Of course, headlines implying sex always get more views.


Seeing as how the formulas are so simple, they can be produced in bulk and updated regularly. Online novels are all serial stories and are released a chapter or two at a time, and as such, readers desperately await coming plot twists. Readers must be fed regularly or their loyalties will stray. Its a punishing pace; youll be expected to deliver 3,000 characters a day. Search “how to make an online novel popular” in any search engine or forum, and you can easily find many “professional” suggestions.

Tangjia Sanshao, or Zhang Wei, is a good example of non-stop updaters. He is famous for his updating speed. It has been reported that Zhang writes 9,000 to 10,000 characters every day, even on his birthday when he had a fever of 40 degrees, as he said in an interview with Beijing Evening News. From 2004 to 2014, he wrote 13 novels with a total word count over 30 million.

Zhang has remained at the top of the Chinese Internet Writers Rich List from 2012 to 2014. Though he is proud of his productivity and speed, Zhang has also admitted that he felt that he was just a “writing machine”.

But you cant argue with results and his readers admire his diligence. Hu Qipeng, a 27-year-old man who began reading Zhangs books ten years ago, says that Zhangs update frequency was what made him a fan. “I cant say his writing is good, but he writes fast, so it is not hard for me to wait for the updates,” says Hu.

Not every writer attains such success. They need to find other ways to stand out. Some writers interact with readers regularly, announcing updates in advance and releasing follow-up plots now and then to maintain readers; some try to schmooze with popular writers to get a bump.

Of course, others go the less traditional route: namely the “internet water army” (網络水军), or paid posters, to click and comment on their works so that more real viewers will be attracted by the imaginary popularity. The writers arent the only profiteers. They have to split their cake with the online literature sites. A successful case is Qidian, the largest and most influential online literature platform in China, on which Zhang and many other star writers got their start. Founded in 2002, it created a unique low-price payment model.

At first it was not clear whether the site could make money. But two years after its foundation, when it was acquired by Shanda Interactive Entertainment Limited, a gaming company, Qidian already had over one million registered readers and about 20,000 writers.

Anyone can register to be a writer and publish works on the website. Viewers can read for free at first. If a story gains certain amount of views, Qidian endows the author with VIP membership, and starts charging readers around 0.02 RMB for each 1,000 words.

Seventy percent of that money goes to the writer, with Qidian taking the rest. The price is almost negligible for readers. But it adds up, especially when the story is quite long, it could be huge for writers if they attract and maintain a large audience.

Besides this, Qidian has also established various reward schemes. For example, every VIP reader can vote for their favorite novels each month. The winning authors then get bonuses in addition to the extra attention.

There is also a “tipping” system allowing VIP readers to give writers tips directly or buy votes for them. The tips can be huge. It was reported that one of Zhangs readers gave him one million RMB via this system.

The popularity of online works also means potential opportunities for print. Many publishers cooperate with these online sites, and book editors accept recommendations from the website or look for good works by themselves. When it enters the field of publication, there are chances for movies, TV shows and games.

Quality literature?

The past ten years has seen the prosperity of online literature websites like Qidian, but at the same time, the criticism over the low-quality, plagiaristic nature, and pornographic content remains.

Since anyone can register as a writer, the quality of works vary. Writers tend to do everything they can to please their readers and pad out the works because their incomes are decided by the views and paid by the word. In common sense terms, you cant dream about making money if your novel is less than a million characters.

In the “Cleaning the Web 2014” campaign, an online anti-porn crackdown, online literature became one of the hardest hit targets. Many novels, including erotic works, were censored and blocked, and some writers were even arrested for writing pornography. Some point to the writers themselves, but others blame a lack of a comprehensive rating system for content.

Plagiarism is another serious issue. Countless works have been involved in plagiarism rumors, even some that have been adapted into television and films.

There is, of course, also the point that these trash novels will bury quality novels, but book publisher Wang disagrees, saying that, with so many imitations, original ideas stand out.

Lax supervision is the main problem many blame for the poor quality, with some claiming that these works have a harmful effect on the young.

The China Youth & Children Research Center did a survey in six cities and polled 5679 primary and high school students. The results published in November 2015 showed that over 60 percent of the polled students have read online fiction and spent around three hours reading them every week. Nearly ten percent spent over six hours reading online fiction per week.

However, as a reader, Hu doesnt agree. He admits that 90 percent of his reading is online novels, but he doesnt think there is anything wrong with that: “I read online because its more accessible and convenient. I read and I feel happy. Why do you think these novels will affect me? They are just for fun. I am not that interested in how they are produced.”