#16 Chinese Web Novels Launch Gold Rush for Adaptation Rights
This is issue #16 of the Magpie Digest newsletter, originally sent on 7/12/2018
Only one month into its run, a new supernatural drama series called Guardian (镇魂, pronounced zhèn hún) has crossed a billion total views, and cemented a claim as the biggest show of the summer. Guardian’s inescapable popularity cannot be attributed to its screenwriting, costume design, or cinematography (which are all panned on movie review site Douban, where the show has a middling 6.5/10 rating), nor even to the good looks and charisma of its two lead actors (who have both been propelled to stardom in record speed). Rather, its success builds on its previous life as a popular homoerotic web novel, published online in 106 chapters by an author known to fans only as “Priest.”
In fact, Guardian is just the latest output of an increasingly common production pipeline that converts stories from China’s sprawling digital serial fiction ecosystem into high-profile media properties.
Left: The “cover art” for the serial fiction work Guardian, originally published on the website Jinjiang Literature City by amateur author Priest. Right: Promotional art for the live action adaptation of Guardian, created for massive web video platform Youku in 2018.
From Amateur Writing to Professional Industry
Guardian was originally published on Jinjiang Literature City, one of the best-known online platforms for user-published serial fiction (known in China as 网络小说 or 网文, “web novels”). Alongside competitors like Qidian, Jinjiang was one of several sites established in 2002 that hoped to aggregate the serial fiction previously strewn around on BBS’s and forums. Published one chapter at a time by amateur, pseudonymous authors, the stories on Jinjiang and Qidian fulfilled a demand for creative storytelling that China’s strict and slow-moving physical publishing industry could not meet.
Anyone can write and share multi-chapter web novels for free on these platforms, but particularly promising authors (as determined by the platforms’ editorial teams) are given the ability to put portions of their stories behind a paywall. “VIP” readers pay to unlock chapters based on a word rate (e.g. 5 cents/1,000 characters); revenue is split between the platform and the author. For the most successful authors in the ecosystem, the payout can amount to millions of dollars a year.
The first 100 of the 695 chapters (and counting!) of 与天同兽, a popular work of serial fiction on Jinjiang Literature City. The first 27 chapters of this novel are free; the rest are paywalled and can be unlocked at 0.05 yuan/1,000 words, with most chapters running from 3,000–5,000 characters long.
Over the last 16 years, this direct payment business model (as opposed to the advertising-dependent model adopted by younger Western counterpart Wattpad) has allowed the serial fiction industry to professionalize, even as it encouraged sky-high word counts and strategically-placed cliffhangers. In 2017, China’s serial fiction industry brought in an estimated $2.5 billion USD in total revenue, and has all but supplanted traditional publishers when it comes to genre fiction. Tech giants Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent have snapped up the biggest platforms and rolled out their own, tightly integrating serial fiction into the e-book ecosystem at large.
Unique Genres in Serial Fiction
The stories published on China’s serial fiction platforms span many familiar genres, like mystery, science fiction, and supernatural romance, but several of the most popular genres are unique to East Asia — or sometimes even to China’s web novels in particular.
Wuxia (武侠), for example, is a classic historical fantasy genre that predates internet novels by decades (if not millennia), and has found a natural home on serial fiction platforms. Wuxia stories center on the heroic deeds of rogue martial artists, deftly weaving action and romance into plots about camaraderie, intrigue, the pursuit of justice, and power struggles between rival factions. At Alibaba, founder and avid wuxia fanboy Jack Ma asks employees to choose wuxia names as usernames for internal communications; as senior employees have snatched up all of the character names from iconic novels, newer employees turn to web novels for ideas. Over the decades, the genre has developed fairly standardized tropes and even shared characters, making it a sort of open source shared universe for new authors to play in.
More unique to serial fiction is a fantastical offshoot of wuxia known as “cultivation” (修真), in which characters slowly ascend from nobodies to gods through Taoist alchemical training and by succeeding in trials. A more female-oriented genre is time travel fantasy (穿越), in which characters are transported back in time, usually to the Tang or Qing dynasties, for hijinks and romance. Other popular genres on the platforms include reincarnation (重生), tomb raiding (盗墓), and xianxia (仙侠), a more high-fantasy variant of wuxia. Fanfiction can be found on the platforms as well: authors, readers, and tropes have passed fluidly between the serial fiction and fanfiction communities since the beginning.
The cover art for I Shall Seal the Heavens, a well-reviewed “cultivation” web novel published on Qidian that has spread over ten books and 1,600 chapters since its debut in 2014.
A Gold Rush for Adaptation Rights
In the 2010s, the impressive readership numbers and inventive plots of serial fiction caught the eye of a growing domestic film industry hungry for original storylines. In 2015, web novel adaptations were three of the top ten earners at the Chinese box office , right as the film adaptation of fanfiction-turned-serial-fiction 50 Shades of Grey became a global success. That year marked the beginning of an outright investment craze, in which entertainment companies began to hoard “IP” — specifically, the adaptation rights to turn promising web novels into TV shows, movies, games, and even stage plays and immersive experiences. As women are seen to have higher purchasing power, stories popular with female readers became especially valuable targets for film and TV adaptations. These contracts, often negotiated separately for each medium, represented massive, somewhat surprising paydays for many web novel writers.
Left: An advertisement for the 2015 TV show Journey of Flower, adapted from a 2008 internet novel of the same name published on the Jinjiang serial fiction platform. Right: Screenshot from the official Journey of Flower mobile game.
Not all of the magic of web novels survives the transition intact, however. While web novel platforms do automatically filter certain keywords, TV shows (and, increasingly, their web counterparts) invite much more rigorous scrutiny. The plot of Guardian had to be significantly rewritten to remove supernatural elements, for example, and the romantic relationship between its two main characters had to be unconvincingly rewritten into one of platonic brotherhood — leading to a new joke about rebranding male homosexuality as “socialist brotherhood” (社会主义兄弟情).
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Magpie Digest is a project of Magpie Kingdom, a consultancy that provides analysis, business advisory services, and custom research to help businesses translate their value for the Chinese market. The Magpie team (Christina Xu, Tricia Wang, and Pheona Chen) is based in New York and Shanghai.
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