China’s bookworms surfing the web to find a good read

As the readers and writers of online literature have become younger, there have been changes in narrative structures, elements and genres.


[Illustration by Li Xin/For China Daily]

January 3, 2022

A list of the best online fiction from platforms of China Literature Group, the comprehensive cultural business branch of Tencent, was released recently by consultant company Endata. It offers 20 works that are both worth reading and have the potential for adaptations.

Endata limited the time range of evaluation from January 2020, when the works were first launched, to those which kept on updating in 2021. The evaluation refers to the reading traffic, subscriptions and bookmarking data on various platforms of China Literature; discussions on social media platforms of Baidu and Sina Weibo; as well as the influence of the writers’ previous works.

It reflects the overall development trend of Chinese online literature in recent years. Consisting of two sublists, according to the preference of male and female readers, the list shows that genres such as science fiction and thriller are leading, and Chinese traditional cultural elements are also popular.

Among the works on the men’s channel, sci-fi, thriller and healing are the most popular tags, and in women’s, elements such as Chinese traditional culture, independence and workplace are the most popular.

Dafeng Dagengren (Night Watchman of Dafeng Dynasty), a detective story against a background of Eastern fantasy, topped the men’s channel.

Dizhangnyu Ta Youmei Yousa (The Eldest Daughter, She Is Beautiful and Spirited), a story about a tough and independent young female general, topped the women’s channel.

On the list are not only works by popular writers like Yuan Ye, known online as Cuttlefish That Loves Diving, but also works by new writers like Qianhua Jinluo, who was born after 1990.

It echoes the trend that more young people have started writing online fiction.

According to the 2020 Chinese Online Literature Blue Paper, which was released in May by the China Writers Association, among the new writers registered since 2018, 74 percent were born after 1995 and 50 percent were born after 2000.

The 2021 Online Writer Portrait released by China Literature in November showed that writers born after 1995 had become the biggest group, which was also growing the fastest. Among the new writers on China Literature’s platforms, 80 percent were of the post-1995 generation. The youngest star writer was 21-year-old Mo Yan, who is serializing her third novel on

Over 20 years of development, Chinese online literature is also seeing its readers change from the post-1980 and post-1990 to post-1995 generations. According to China Literature, post-1995 readers accounted for nearly 60 percent, among whom post-2000 took up more than 42 percent.

As more younger generations have become the readers and writers of online literature, there have been changes in online fiction’s narrative structures, elements and genres.

An obvious change is that post-1995 writers love creating shorter and lighter works, and sci-fi is one of their favorite genres.

Among the sci-fi writers of China Literature, the post-1995 generation account for 60 percent and light fiction has increased 370 percent in the past three years.

Male readers still love bloodcurdling adventures, but more are turning to shorter stories with more details, interaction between characters, amusing plots and witticisms.

For example, Wode Zhiyuxi Youxi (My Healing Games) is made up of short thrillers full of warm healing power. Changye Yuhuo (Ember of the Long Night) uses the loose style of a travelogue to create a dark, absurd but hopeful post-apocalyptic world.


Another trend presented by the list is that readers prefer works with mixed genres. On Endata’s list of top 10 novels for male readers, three are sci-fi; three are Eastern fantasy; three are the combination of thriller and fantasy; and one is historical fiction.

For example, Cong Hongyue Kaishi (Since the Red Moon), which touches upon the human spiritual world, is a sci-fi-like fantasy. This is a newly developed genre for online literature, says Wang Xiang, a researcher with the Lu Xun Academy of Literature under the China Writers Association. Another, Yede Mingmingshu (The Art to Name the Night), is a mixture of cyberpunk and time travel.

From ancient or modern romance, female readers expanded their preference to thrillers, crime investigation, traditional gourmet, history and commercial war. Professionalism and independence presented during heroines’ growth still resonates among young readers.

Half of the best 10 novels from the women’s channel are ancient romance, in which traditional cultural elements-such as acupuncture, tea ceremony and porcelain-frequently appear. It echoes the recent fashion trend of Chinese traditional style.

For example, Dengtang Rushi (The Porcelain Master) tells the story of a female protagonist named Song Jiyun, who was born in a family well-known for porcelain making. By innovating porcelain making through materials, temperature control and techniques, the protagonist manages to lead the family out of trouble. The writer, Zhizhi, ingeniously weaves Chinese porcelain culture with the growth of the heroine.

Another novel Mo Sang (literally Inky Mulberry) tells of how a woman, Li Sangrou, develops a small newspaper business into prosperity, an homage to the spirit of independent women.

The list showed fantasy and romance were still the most popular genres among online literature. However, as people from all walks of life become creators, online novels care more about reality.

Online writers are from all walks of life: professors, doctors, police officers, computer engineers, scientific researchers, forensic experts, lawyers, civil servants, veterans, college students and so on. The overall education level of online literature writers has improved, with about 60 percent receiving higher education, according to the blue paper.

So far, Chinese online literature covers about 188 kinds of profession. Doctors, athletes and IT workers have become the most written-about professions.

Take fiction about medicine for example. Since 2015, related works on platforms of China Literature have grown annually by 40 percent. Dayi Ling Ran (Great Doctor Ling Ran) and Shoushu Zhibojian (The Live Broadcasting Room of Operations) have become the most popular among works on professions.

Most of the medical cases and surgical operations come from real-life events. For example, the writer Shouwocunguanchi of Dang Yisheng Kaile Waigua (When the Doctor Becomes An NPC) is a doctor from a first-class hospital. Some content is even created based on medical papers.

Realistic topics have become the fastest-growing category. Personal struggles, starting a business, life in rural areas, migrant workers, marriage, reform and opening-up, education and parenting have become keywords of realistic genres.

As China eradicated absolute poverty in late 2020 and marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China in 2021, more online novels are documenting the social transformation and other changes to Chinese people’s lives. Among the new online works in 2020, realistic novels took up more than 60 percent, according to the blue paper.

After writing more than 30 books of love stories, writer Yeshenji decided to write an online novel about poverty alleviation. She started collecting material in December 2019 and interviewed a lot of cadres for poverty alleviation with the support of the local government in Sichuan province.

“I’ve heard a lot of touching stories about poverty alleviation, which inspired me to create such a realistic novel,” she said in an interview with People’s Daily Overseas Edition.

Li Wei, a professor from Nanjing Normal University, says that “as online literature’s genres diversify, especially with realistic topics, online literature is developing toward a healthier and more organized direction, which will help to improve the overall quality of online literature and to nurture good-quality works”.

Realistic foundations

The trend to describe and explore reality has helped online literature escape its marginalized status. For years it was regarded as purely entertainment and was not treated seriously by mainstream literature.

“This year, there have been comparatively more works based on reality,” said Wang Xuefeng, a supervisor to the literature research and development center for film and TV of Chinese online video streaming service provider iQiyi. He was speaking at the Chinese Online Literature+ Conference 2021 in October. “People have different definitions of realism. It should be a description that reveals the complexity of real life to a certain profound degree.”

One of the works that impressed him this year was a story set in a rundown area of Shenzhen, Guangdong province, where among the high-rises are three sisters who come to the city to make a living.

“Without the real-life experience of the writer or from the writer’s close relatives, it’s impossible to write such a work, which is realism for me,” he said.

Similarly, based on his personal investment experience, writer A Bao recently created an online novel Tansuozhe (Explorer).

It is about several engineers of the post-1980 generation starting a business to build industrial robots, during which they encounter a lot of ups and downs in terms of investment, talents recruitment and management.

The story condenses various problems that were typically encountered during China’s industrial development. With perseverance, the engineers make breakthroughs in some key technologies.

“I know much about this topic,” writer A Bao says. “What I try to write is about human nature, and highlight the positive spirits that can touch the nation, as well as people’s choices and their perseverance.”


The market value of Chinese online literature reached nearly 25 billion yuan ($3.93 billion) in 2020, with more than 21 million writers and a reader base of 460 million, among whom daily active users surpassed 7.5 million, according to China Audio-Video and Digital Publishing Association.

Online literature is not only the provider of reading content, but also one of the biggest resources for cultural consumption in China among other major forms, such as television, films, video games, audiobooks and radio plays.

The blue paper shows that in 2020, the online literature industry entered a new development stage, where total revenues on its lower stream surpassed 1 trillion yuan.

There were about 140 online novels adapted into TV series, films, video games, audiobooks and so on in 2020.

Among the most popular online TV series, 60 percent were adapted from online novels.

At the start of 2021, Zhui Xu (My Heroic Husband), a TV series adapted from an online novel of the same title, became one of the most-watched TV dramas. Its popularity resulted in the daily reading traffic of the novel multiplying almost 17 times.

The works on Endata’s list all potentially have a high value for adaptations. For example, the radio drama adaptation of Dafeng Dagengren was played more than 100 million times within three months of its online launch. The total playing traffic has now surpassed 850 million. Related anime, TV drama and video game adaptations are also in the making.

Works from the women’s channel on the list all have intense storylines, refreshing characterization and rich narrative elements. During serialization, a lot of readers follow the updates, which gives them a high potential for TV and film adaptations in the future.

These works, which carry noble ideas, are valuable for promoting Chinese traditional culture, says Li Wei, the professor from Nanjing Normal University.

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