Many of our readers aren’t aware of this, but there has actually been a tremendous amount of interest in China regarding the English webnovel scene. Below is a major news report I just translated from Southern Weekly (南方周末), which features our very own etvolare in it! There have been several such news reports, including a few focused completely on me, but I didn’t translate them as it would feel rather self-aggrandizing. This one is one of the biggest ones to come out lately, and the online version alone has been viewed by more than 330,000 people in the past day or two alone. I thought this would be of interest to the community as a whole in understanding how much attention the Chinese are paying to this stuff. An even bigger news article from the People’s Daily is coming soon, and I’ll post that as well!
Chinese Webnovels Help Young American Kick Drug Habit
Many foreign readers first learned of [Panlong] through its manga, seen below, before beginning to read the original novel. The interesting thing is, the official translation for [Panlong] is ‘Crouching Dragon’, whereas the overseas translation teams chose the name [Coiling Dragon].
(This article was first published on 03/16/2017 by [Southern Weekly] magazine. The original tagline was ‘May the Dao be with you – Chinese webnovels enter the English world.’)
“If the topic of ‘face’ comes up in the first few pages, you know the novel was written by an Asian. One of the main drivers used to push along a storyline is someone not giving someone else face.”
When English readers of translated Japanese and Korean novels got tired of their tropes, it became natural for them to turn their gazes towards the new genre of Chinese webnovels.
Because of China’s unique publishing history, webnovel industry ended up swallowing the biggest piece of cake which the traditional paper press wasn’t able to eat; genre fiction. Thanks to the enormous power of new media, webnovels have grown to become a remarkable, marvelous thing.
After American ‘Kevin Cazad’ spent half a year reading Chinese webnovels, he successfully got over his drug addiction.
In 2014, Kevin broke up with his girlfriend. He was extremely depressed and was unwilling to leave the house to meet with friends. He stayed cooped up at his home, using drugs to numb the pain. After doing this for a period of time, he started to suffer chest pains. He went to the hospital and had multiple xrays done, but the doctors were unable to find anything out of the ordinary. Kevin still felt nervous, and he felt as though the specter of death was closing in on him.
Kevin liked to read manga. One day, as he was reading some manga online, he saw a chatbox flickering nonstop at the corner of the screen. Kevin rarely got involved in these chats, but this particular conversation seemed to much more lively than the usual ones. Finally, Kevin could no longer hold back and turned his attention to it, and his fellow manga readers began to excited talk to him. “Have you read CD before?” “You’ve gotta read CD!” Kevin was so confused. “The hell is CD?”
“CD” is actually the abbreviation for Chinese fantasy novel [Panlong] (Coiling Dragon). In 2014, [Coiling Dragon] was translated by American translator ‘Ren Woxing’ into English and serialized online, broadening the horizons of many English readers.
“In the West, we have novels like Harry Potter. I’ve read all types of books in my life.” Confident in his experiences as a novel reader, Kevin casually clicked open the link he was given…and in the end, he was ‘irrevocably sucked in’. He didn’t eat or drink for an entire day, spending all that time reading five or six books of [Coiling Dragon] (there is a total of twenty-one books), which is comparable to roughly 1 million Chinese characters.
The start of 2015 was also the start of a craze which brought Chinese webnovels to the English reading world. This was when many of the first translations begun. However, some translators were slow, updating just a few thousand words per day (or even per week). This was completely unable to sate Kevin’s appetite, and so he quickly found a solution: He scoured through the internet and found three main translating websites and began to follow fifteen Chinese webnovels at the same time, much like how middle-aged American women might follow multiple soap operas.
Half a year later, after having been completely intoxicated by Chinese webnovels, Kevin had completely gotten over his cocaine addiction. “In the past, whenever I went home all I wanted to do was do drugs. Now, when I get home the only thing I think about is Chinese webnovels. They are just as addicting as drugs, but at least they won’t kill me.” This was what Kevin said to our reporter from Southern Weekly.
There are now more and more readers overseas whose minds are filled with the stories in Chinese webnovels. In March of 2017, our Southern Weekly reporter asked etvolare, the owner of the third largest Chinese webnovel translation platform in the United States, to help send out a post requesting people come in for interviews. “Within six hours, we received more than a hundred emails,” etvolare told our reporter.
These readers from from 18 different countries in the Americas and in Europe. Most of them were college students, while some of them were engineers or software developers.
“I wish to become one of the figures in the fantasy novels.”
Roughly two years ago, the author of [Panlong], the webnovelist ‘I Eat Tomatoes’ was informed of Kevin’s story. “I was seriously speechless,” IET told our reporter. “Quite a few readers also said that reading these novels gave them a new outlook on life, and some were motivated to work harder in life. I wondered if they were perhaps just joking with me.”
After being introduced to Chinese webnovels, Kevin quickly became intrigued by the main character of [Against the Gods], ‘Yun Che’, because he felt Yun Che was ‘really cool’. “Each time he reaches a new world or a new city, he’ll get the best girls there. I’m an American. This stuff doesn’t really seem ‘real’ to me,” Kevin told our reporter. “When I saw how unrealistic the lives of the people in these webnovels could be, I had the feeling that this author probably isn’t that mature. There’s no way his life is like his MC’s life, where he goes everywhere and picks up chicks wherever he goes.”
By comparison, Kevin preferred the main character of [Coiling Dragon], known as Linley. After finding his soul mate, Linley was devoted to his family and his wife. Although Linley lived in a different world and had magic powers, his lifestyle was one that was much more realistic.
Through a webcam interview, Kevin showed off a black dragon tattoo which he had gotten on his left arm. The black dragon is the form which the main character of [Coiling Dragon], Linley, assumes when he transforms.
In this story, Linley was born in a downfallen noble clan. His mother disappeared after he was born, and when he was in his teens his father was killed. Linley worked hard to train in martial arts, for the sake of one day avenging his family and restoring his clan.
Kevin lives in the Californian city of Riverside. After he was born, his parents got a divorce. His mom gave him her own surname of ‘Cazad’ for him, a surname which was different from his father’s surname or any of his siblings’ surnames. His mother hoped that he would start his own Cazad family in the future. Kevin felt that there were certain parallels between his own life and Linley’s. He was very earnest when he told our reporter, “I’d rather be a figure in a fantasy novel more than anything else.”
Kevin loved to watch Chinese martial arts movies as a kid and spent a lot of time dreaming about Tai Chi and other types of Chinese martial arts. After graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. military and spent several years in the U.S. Navy. In the military, he had the chance to learn quite a few grappling techniques. Once, when he was reading a magazine, he read the backstory and history of superstar martial artist Jet Li. He was both stunned and envious. “There are actually schools that focus exclusively on teaching martial arts?”
Alas, there are no such schools in the U.S. After retiring from the Navy, Kevin went to college and studied computer programming, then became a software developer. He first worked at AMD, then worked at Amazon and other enterprises.
Kevin was both a software developer and a huge gamer. When he worked at graphics card developer AMD, he once set up a high quality gaming rig for himself. When he read about stories like [Panlong], he felt that the main character’s growth and development was really similar to how people would level up in online games, even though the author ‘IET’ himself didn’t appear to necessarily base it off of online games. “When people my age were playing video games, I was reading novels,” IET told our reporter.
Because of his addiction to Chinese webnovels, Kevin completely got over his addiction to cocaine (picture provided by Kevin). 1
While following these webnovels, Kevin ended up making many friends. They all address each other as ‘fellow Daoist’. Some of his ‘fellow Daoists’ were just as addicted as Kevin was; they deeply desired to become characters in these fantasy novels, and they solemnly believe that the marvelous spells and creatures described in the world of Chinese webnovels actually exist somewhere.
“After enough training, people can actually visualize energy.” This was part of what Kevin shared with our reporter, regarding the fruits of his research. “When you reach a certain level of cultivation, you can see different colored chakra on people’s bodies. From this, you can tell if someone is lying or in love.”
These ‘fellow Daoists’ love to crack jokes with each other using Chinese webnovel tropes, and scoured the world for all sorts of ‘tomes on magic’, including legends from Islamic, Iceland, India, Tibet, and other places. After translating them, they are put on a website known as ‘secret documents’. Kevin describes these legends as the ‘truth of history’.
This is one of the reasons why so many people view the boring, repetitive arcs of webnovels positively. In their eyes, it is a way for them to understand what is happening in parallel universes. Through reading, they are preparing themselves for being summoned to a new world.
When our reporter discussed these readers with etvolare, etvolare was reminded of a novel [Transmigration and Reverse Transmigration]. The female main character in this novel lives in the modern world, but deeply desired to be taken back in time to ancient times. Thus, she read many ‘time travel’ novels and began to learn sword-arts, ancient poems, and palace rites so that she would be prepared if she was ever sent back in time. This novel is actually going to be translated into English as well.
During the translation process, etvolare discovered many interesting things. In China, men usually tend towards fantasy, sci-fi, wuxia, and other similar novels. This is what we call the ‘male webnovels’. Females, by contrast, prefer to read about life in school, life in the city, time travel back to ancient palaces. This is what we call the ‘female webnovels’. However, once these novels are translated into the English world, things change.
Volarenovels has translated multiple ‘female webnovels’ into English, and readers will often discuss the novels in length with the translators. Etvolare took a look at her back-end analytics and found to her great surprise that actually…many of her readers were male.
“Female writers often write about battles of wits and various schemes people employ against each other. The male readers of the English world also enjoy reading about them.” Etvolare’s analysis is that the English world hasn’t really distinguished between ‘male webnovels’ and ‘female webnovels’ yet, resulting in them not being so clearly separated [as they are in China].
The popular tv series [Three Lives, Three Lifetimes, Ten Kilometers of Peach Blossoms] was adapted from a webnovel. It has been troubled by accusations of plagiarism and mired in public dispute, but after its subtitles were translated into English it has been given nearly a perfect score of 5 points by foreign viewers. (pictures)
Ten chapters about a side character? Impossible in Western literature.
“Mr. Reporter, please forgive me for my poor English.” This is what 18 year old Colombian student Carlos Howard told our reporter when describing how he felt when he first encountered Chinese webnovels. “Why am I just finding out about this now?!”
Carlos first found out about [Coiling Dragon] from the manga, then eventually found the original novel. “When I found out how many changes the manga made to the real story, I stopped following the manga,” Carlos said.
Manga readers make up a large percentage of the English fans of Chinese webnovels. In 2014, a discussion regarding the English translation [Coiling Dragon] was posted to a Japanese manga website, and soon the website began to explode with conversations. The conversations got so out of hand they were overwhelming the manga related posts, resulting in the managers being forced to eventually delete the [Coiling Dragon] posts. 2.
Before Chinese webnovels entered the consciousness of Western readers, the most successful Asian novel exports came from Japanese and Korean light novels and manga. Japanese and Korean light novels built up a readerbase of English readers, but these readers eventually grew tired of their tropes and thus naturally turned their gazes towards the Chinese webnovels that slowly began to appear across the various forums.
Wu Wenhui, CEO of the Yuewen Group 3, has been paying close attention to the top-ranking English webnovel sites. The Yuewen Group is China’s largest webnovel platform, and it has signed agreements with the vast majority of contracted webnovelists in China, including [Coiling Dragon] author ‘I Eat Tomatoes’. Wu Wenhui believes: “In terms of raw numbers, the West generates far fewer original novels than we do, and it isn’t enough to satisfy the market. Their own webnovel culture is very weak; in fact, you can say it doesn’t really exist.”
“So what makes Chinese webnovels unique and successful?” In a conversation with author Li Jingze, assistant professor Shao Yanjun of Peking University’s Chinese Department gave this analysis: “Simply put, in the era of print publishing, we weren’t able to really develop or commercialize novels very well. We weren’t able to build up a corps of healthy, thriving genre fiction authors, much less a marketplace and avenues of sales which had clear distinctions and a specific position. After China’s market transformation in the 1990’s, almost all of our novels came in from the outside world. At this time, the internet era arrived, and webnovels began to scarf down the largest piece of commercial cake which the print press hadn’t been able to consume – genre fiction. Thanks to the enormous power of new media and more ten years of wild growth, webnovels have become a remarkable, marvelous thing.”
Once, Shao Yanjun asked her student, “Why do you like to write fanfiction?” This student replied, “Because I don’t know how to draw.” “These kids grew up watching anime, but they don’t know how to draw or animate. They have to write in order to tell their stories.” Shao Yanjun explained, “Actually, in the internet era, written works were no longer the ‘favored child’ of the literature community; they became the ‘neglected children’ of print publishing. The internet era is an era of video and podcasts. If we took [My Love From the Stars] 4 and put it into our webnovel scene, people would feel that it used a lot of stale tropes. The problem is that our production capabilities aren’t able to keep up; our anime, movie, and gaming industries have really fallen behind. [Nirvana in Fire] and [Empresses in the Palace] 5 are ‘old books’ that were written more than ten years ago.”
Etvolare ‘betrayed’ Western fantasy novels and became a reader of Chinese webnovels. Etvolare’s favorite Western fantasy authors were Mercedes Lackey (Valdemar, Knights of Ghosts and Shadows), Andre Norton (Witch World) and Tamora Pierce (Song of the Lioness). During the interview, etvolare would often glance at her nearby bookcase, noting the various titles on the books and discussing the stories they contained. Her bookcase is now completely overstuffed; there’s no place for her to even put any new books.
Etvolare mainly reads two different types of novels. The first is one where evil has taken over the world, but a savior suddenly emerges; an ordinary girl or boy who suffers through many hardships before becoming a powerful figure.
Chinese webnovel stories are often very similar to each other, but etvolare is still able to quickly distinguish between whether a novel is Asian or Western. “If the topic of ‘face’ comes up in the first few pages, you know the novel was written by an Asian. One of the main drivers used to push along a storyline is someone not giving someone else face or perhaps trying to regain face (or their own territory). This stuff is really Asian.”
Western fantasy author JRR Tolkien, who wrote the [Lord of the Rings], would spend tremendous effort in building up a world, going so far as to create entirely new languages for it. By comparison, Chinese webnovel authors spend most of their time focusing on interpersonal relations and relationships, to the point of being willing to spend time on every single supporting character.
“Harry Potter’s story revolves around the main character. The authors will write about some other supporting characters, such as Neville Longbottom, but you’ll never completely know his story.” This was an example which Kevin game. “In Chinese webnovels, you might have a chance to learn much more about every supporting character. In fact, the author might spend 5-10 chapters writing about just one supporting character.” 6
This sort of writing style is obviously connected to how Chinese webnovels make money; they get paid based on clicks and by the word. The more longer they are, the more the authors earn. “So you’ll find out that a chapter with 3000-4000 words might actually have nothing happen.” Kevin isn’t alone in saying this. When reading Chinese webnovels, etvolare also noticed that certain supporting characters would be forgotten by the author or just mysteriously vanish. 7
Yuewen CEO Wu Wenhui once spent a year reading all of the top-ranked Chinese webnovels. To this very day, he maintains a habit of reading one webnovel every week.
As Wu Wenhui sees it, Chinese fantasy novels being embraced by English readers is a huge sea change for the entire global literature market.
“Marvel brought us a wave of superheroes and alternate universe literature, and Hollywood has undergone an enormous transformation in the past ten years, turning from action flicks towards scifi movies so as to better accommodate the rampant youth interest in science fiction and fantasy,” Wu Wenhui told our reporter. Clearly, as far as the English market is concerned, not only do Chinese fantasy novels and Xianxia novels fulfill their fantasy needs, they also bring their own unique characteristics which differ from those of the stories of Marvel.
Wu Wenhui has more webnovel copyrights than anyone else. As the Chinese online literature marketplace grows increasingly heated, he plans to establish an international version of Qidian in 2017. (images provided by Yuewen Group)
How would you translate 色即是空?
Etvolare is Taiwanese. After graduating from high school, she came to the United States. When she was young, she loved reading Jinyong novels and watching wuxia TV series. High school was the first time she encountered Chinese literature.
Prior to 2015, etvolare was a ‘gold-collar worker’ on Wall Street, responsible for investment financing and advice. At the end of 2015, etvolare started to translate her very first Chinese cultivation novel.
Before translating webnovels, etvolare had worked part time to translate Chinese business documents, music educational material, computer games, and various documents. She realized that although China had some decent webnovels and games, very few of them had ever been translated into English. As for the Chinese tv series she loved to watch when she was young, the English subtitles were often gibberish and completely terrible.
In 2015, she stumbled across Chinese webnovel [Sovereign of the Three Realms]. The story starts with the main character being beaten to death because he let out a fart in the imperial palace, resulting in someone being reincarnated into his body. This ridiculous start tickled etvolare, and she decided to first translate this novel.
In the beginning, etvolare spent 2-3 hours translating each of the 3500-character chapters.
The editors on these translation websites don’t understand Chinese, but they have high levels of English language skill. When they encountered difficult-to-understand parts, they would ask the translators to better explain the original text in detail and then modify it.
Buddhist concepts often come up in Wuxia and Xianxia novels. “For example, 色即是空. Good God! How am I supposed to translate that?” Etvolare sighed as she discussed this with our reporter. Sometimes, four simple words would completely stymie her. She would have to write a lengthy summary explaining the religious meaning and implications behind those four words before she could then explain those words themselves.
Chinese webnovels often discuss the ‘道’. This is a term which English readers are now very familiar with, and it is often translated directly as ‘Dao’. Wuxiaworld set up a special page explaining Yin and Yang, the Eight Trigrams, and their connection to the Dao and other things. When readers like Kevin chat amongst themselves, they often refer to each other as ‘fellow Daoist’, and a common phrase seen on the forums is ‘May the Dao be with you.’
However, the vast majority of ‘cultivation vocabulary’ doesn’t have a solid, established foundation in the English world, causing translators a fair bit of trouble. For example, ‘修炼真元’, the phrase ‘真元’ is very hard to translate or explain. 8
After two years of hard work, etvolare now only needs roughly an hour to translate a 3500 character chapter. Even so, translating [Sovereign of the Three Realms], which has a total of more than 7 million characters, remains an enormous undertaking.
Etvolare didn’t make any money until she had translated more than 200,000 characters. This money came from the donation of a reader. “I really was making nothing. The money was maybe enough for me to buy some vegetables and that was it. However, this made me understand that perhaps there really was a future in this direction,” etvolare said.
When she worked on Wall Street, etvolare was at the office from 9 AM to 9 PM every day. After starting her part-time ‘job’ of translating, she would come home from work each night, rest a few minutes, then embark her overtime job of three hours of translation. Every day, she wouldn’t be able to rest until 1 AM. In July of 2016, etvolare completely switched her focus to her new translating career, and her monthly salary dropped by more than half as a result.
Just as etvolare was becoming a full-time webnovel translator, the website ‘Wuxiaworld’ created by ‘Ren Woxing’ had already become the 1253rd most visited website in the world, according to 03/15/2017 Alexa rankings. His daily pageviews range from 3-4 million views per day, and in the global rankings he’s actually surpassed the 20-year old Chinese webnovel website, ‘Qidian’. 9
‘Ren Woxing’ is an American Chinese. When he was 18, he started to learn Chinese because of his love for Wuxia novels. In 2014, a Vietnamese web-buddy encouraged him to read the English translation of [Stellar Transformations]. Afterwards, RWX began to read a different book by the same author, IET. This book was [Coiling Dragon]. He began to translate it and even set up his own translating platform, ‘Wuxiaworld’ 10
“Prior to that, around 2012, the English world already had its first wave of webnovel translators. Back then, everyone was translating on forums or on their personal blogs. Before RWX appeared, everyone was just doing this in a very casual fashion. Because of him, during the past few years many different translation groups and translation websites appeared, causing more and more people to start to do this full time,” etvolare said.
Let the bullets fly for a while. 11
“I underestimated the growth and potential of this market,” Yuewen Group CEO Wu Wenhui told our reporter. “We have a traditional character version of the website which is focused on users in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, but we don’t have any websites which are oriented towards the Western/European market.”
Actually, long ago in 2004, Qidian began to sell webnovel copyrights around the world. “In 2006, due to its fame, the English, French, Vietnamese, and Korean copyrights of [Ghost Blows out the Lamp] were sold to publishers around the world. However, what we were focused on was more oriented towards copyright sales,” Wu Wenhui said. The phrase ‘copyright sales’ refers to the translation authorizations and print publishing authorizations for these webnovels.
Compared to reading these stories chapter-by-chapter online, these rights clearly trend towards the older model of reading. “When you read webnovels, you read the new chapters that come out each day. You can see how authors might weave modern events or current trends into his stories. They are much more responsive than print publishing in this regard,” etvolare told our reporter.
“Traditional literature is much more stringent with regards to grammar and how the stories are constructed, which places more restrictions on the imagination.” Wu Wenhui gave us his explanation on why webnovels have risen to prominence. “By comparison, the internet is an open place, giving many people a chance to come up with and display their own strange, bizarre, and fantastic imaginations. Even if they are poor writers on a technical level or have lots of plot holes, they won’t be criticized by others.”
There is currently an enormous demand for Chinese webnovels in the English market, but there clearly is a deficit of talented translators. As a result, the interests of this narrow group of translators is the deciding factor in what readers find to be popular. “That’s why the most popular novels right now might be novels that were popular in China a few years ago but are now passe,” etvolare told our reporter. However, the ‘time difference’ is beginning to shrink.
As more and more content is being translated, the English readers are beginning to have higher and higher expectations with regards to the quality of the translated works. “Two years ago, you could rush out chapters with bad grammar and lots of spelling errors and people would still read. These days, people are a lot more picky. They care more about which writers have broader vocabularies and are more gifted with words,” etvolare said.
Thus far, all of these English translation platforms allow readers to read for free. Translator income comes from reader donations. “There are many readers who push us to translate faster, and so we came up with a solution. You want to push us to do more work? Fine, donate to show your support,” etvolare said. One rich guy actually tried to completely ‘buy out’ one of volarenovels’ translators. “Someone asked him if he could donate a large sum in order to have the entire novel be completely translated.” In the future, these websites might develop more income streams through sales of ebooks.
The translation industry is slowly starting to boom. Sometimes, after a novel becomes very popular in the Chinese world, several translators will try to fight over it. “Generally speaking, most translators will try to negotiate this stuff in private, but on occasion you will see some ugly competitive spats between translators,” etvolare said. “But in the future, once more sites get authorizations from China, these disputes will be more easily resolved. Whoever has authorizations will be whoever does the translation.”
Even though the translations are free to read, pirate sites for these English translations are beginning to appear. Etvolare and her translators have actually set up an action group to report these pirate sites, relying on the protective internet IP acts of the United States to make various search engines shut down and block off the links to these pirate websites.
“If this market ends up evolving towards a paywall model, pirate sites are going to become a huge issue,” etvolare analyzed. “Many of my readers from Southeast Asia, India, Africa, or Eastern Europe. There’s a huge difference in how much money they make compared to readers from the US, Canada, or Western Europe. If you set up a paywall, this will place a burden on our comparatively less well-off readers and result in a dramatic drop in readership.”
When our reporter from Southern Weekly interviewed these 20 readers from 18 different countries, nearly half of them (nine) said that they had given donations to translators. More than 80% of them were willing to pay to read the novels they liked, and on average they were willing to spend roughly $35 per novel.
At present, the cooperative model between Qidian and Wuxiaworld as well as other translation websites is for Qidian to give these websites authorizations, allowing them to find translators on their own, rather than have Qidian employ full-time translators themselves. Although they do have their own translation team, Qidian’s international website is more oriented towards being a platform for foreign-language readers, rather than a place to actually produce translations.
Yuewen Group CEO Wu Wenhui believes that it isn’t the right time for the Yuewen Group to flex its muscles just yet. “Right now, all of these overseas websites combined make around 1% of our total income.” As he put it to our reporter: “I think we should just let the bullets fly for a while.”
- That’s Wuxiaworld he has open! And I believe it’s ISSTH. ↩
- This appears to be a somewhat mistaken understanding of the exodus from r/LightNovels to r/NovelTranslations ↩
- This is the group that owns Qidian ↩
- This is a popular South Korean TV series from 2013 ↩
- These are recently popular TV series ↩
- Alas, then those supporting characters are never mentioned again… ↩
- I agree with this. I think Chinese novels have MUCH more filler and much less depth to its side characters than Western novels, even if a bunch of time is spent describing them, but that’s my personal opinion. ↩
- I usually use ‘vital essence’ to translate 真元 ↩
- This is a false statistic, because Alexa is EXTREMELY bad in counting Chinese pageviews due to the Great Firewall. Qidian beats the pants out of us in terms of total views. ↩
- This is a reference to he-man and his translation of Stellar Transformations, which really did get me started. ↩
- This is the tagline of a movie; it means, ‘let things develop for a while before taking action’ ↩