More than two decades ago, few high-brow readers in China took online literature seriously as the bar for publishing online was so low that anyone could be a writer, not to mention the prevalent melodramatic genres such as romance, fantasy and time travel.

However, given the current numbers of both writers and readers and its influence, online literature has become an important component of the cultural life of Chinese people. It also shoulders increasing responsibilities to create good stories, encourage more people to read, and help achieve the goal of building a “strong culture” by 2035, according to a study of online literature in 2021 released earlier this month by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Based on data collected from platforms, including the China Literature Group, the country’s largest online fiction provider, the study analyzed the development of and trends in Chinese online literature from five respects, including genres, reading and creating environment.

By the end of 2021, users of online literature platforms across China hit 502 million, which accounted for 48.6 per cent of total internet users, an increase of more than 4 million compared to that in 2020.

Statistics from China Audio-Video and Digital Publishing Association released in October showed that in 2020, the market value of Chinese online literature was nearly 25 billion yuan ($3.92 billion) and more than 21 million online writers had created approximately 29 million works.

As more people from different walks of life create fiction online with their professional knowledge and working experience, Chinese online literature takes on a more realistic color, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences study.

Statistics from China Literature Group show that realistic works grew at the compound annual growth rate of 34 per cent from 2016 to 2021, becoming the second fastest-growing category on its platforms during this period. For example, in 2021, the Fifth Online Fiction Competition on Realistic Themes attracted nearly 20,000 writers who submitted more than 21,000 works, an increase of 40.6 per cent and 42.4 per cent respectively year-on-year, setting records for this annual competition launched in 2016.

As the influence of realistic works increases, more writers appear, creating multidimensional novels, with professional knowledge based on their working experience.

Among the most popular writers from the China Literature Group, above 75 per cent have received higher education, of whom more than 60 per cent studied science or engineering. Teachers, lawyers, judges, soldiers, doctors, scriptwriters or white-collar workers become writers of online literature. They have created roles from over 188 professions, and doctors, sportspeople and programmers are the most popular professions.

An outstanding trend for realistic online novels is that writers tend to set the stories against the backdrop of particular industries and combine the protagonists’ professional development with the changing times and national rejuvenation, according to the study.

Chinese online literature has become an important carrier of Chinese stories and composes a growing portion of the reading content in China, according to Liu Yuhong from the Institute of Chinese Literature of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. CHINA DAILY

Laobing Xinjing or Veteran-Turned-Policeman, by Zhuo Muxian, sets the daily work of anti-drug police against the backdrop of national security. The first work of writer Mei Shiniang’s Benteng Niandai-Xiangnan Xiangbei or A Racing Time-To the South and North focuses on the struggles and growth of a generation of young people since the reform and opening-up in 1978, recording the struggles of the generation of Mei’s father on the island province of Hainan. Fei Jia’s Beidou Xingchen or The Big Dipper tells a patriotic story of the researchers of navigational satellites, and Yin Xun’s Tayishijian Weiming or In the Name of Time narrates the story of the professionals that restore murals in the grottoes in Dunhuang, Gansu province.

Such “professional fiction” has long been a common category in online literature, and has attracted a large reader base. These works, often including rich professional knowledge, are good at leading readers into the world of unfamiliar areas with intriguing stories that have become the best vehicles to record and reflect the society and social mentality from diverse aspects, according to the study.

Despite new media and the shift toward reality, Chinese online literature is rooted in ancient folk literature and fiction of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the study says.

Chinese online literature has inherited elements of traditional ghost stories, folklore, fiction from the Ming and Qing times, romances of the Mandarin Duck and Butterfly school at the start of the 20th century, and melodramatic novels from Hong Kong and Taiwan in recent decades.

However, it has a broader vision, because it has married elements from Japanese anime, Hollywood fantasy, and detective stories from Europe and Japan, say researchers in a paper published in Modern Chinese Literature Studies in 2015.

Popular online novels in 2021 display a trendy combination of traditional culture and modern spirit. For example, Zhenyao Bowuguan or The Museum Where the Devils Are Sealed incorporates devils and ghosts from Soushenji or In Search of Supernatural, Shanhaijing or The Classic of Mountains and Seas and Liaozhaizhiyi or Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, while telling the stories in a modern context.

Another trend is the combination of personal struggles with national construction. For instance, Dizhangnyu Ta Youmei Yousa or The Eldest Daughter Is Beautiful and Spirited features a group of tough and accomplished women in a family and patriotic characters, calling for younger readers to care about the destiny of the country.

While many online writers cast their eyes on tradition and reality, others look at the future such as science fiction, which has become one of the five fastest-growing genres in 2021. Over the past five years, sci-fi writers on the websites of China Literature Group have increased by 189 per cent. In addition to the fast-growing quantity, the general quality of online sci-fi has conspicuously improved. In 2021, 22 per cent of the most popular writers from the group created science fiction, and many sci-fi works entered monthly lists of most popular works.

The rise of sci-fi online obviously results from the popularity of best-selling books of The Three-body Problem trilogy and the blockbuster film The Wandering Earth, the study says, adding that science fiction is actually closely related to reality.

Commenting on the development of Chinese online literature, Liu Yuhong, from the Institute of Chinese Literature of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says, “Chinese online literature has paid unprecedented attention to reality.

“With the change of time and social development, the social and cultural roles of Chinese online literature have also changed. With topics about reality, the genre of sci-fi for the future, and fantasies that integrate traditional elements and a modern spirit, Chinese online literature has become an important carrier of Chinese stories and composes a vital part of the reading content in China.”