Globalization of Chinese Online Literature: Understanding Transnational Reading of Chinese Xuanhuan Novels Among English Readers
IN THIS ARTICLE
Since its emergence in the 19th century, fantasy fiction has proliferated throughout the world, from the global craze of Lord of the Rings (1954) to Harry Potter (1997). As a sub-genre of fantasy based on Chinese traditional mythology and martial arts literature, Xuanhuan novels have achieved immense popularity among both critics and readers (Gai, 2006). The appearance of the first Xuanhuan novel written by Huang Yi, A Step into the Past (1994), which combined science fiction, time travel, historical military and martial art elements, started a process which has caused this genre to sweep through China. Xuanhuan novels feature intensity, immediacy, and gripping suspense, and thus, once online literature websites began to burgeon after 2000, Xuanhuan novels became the dominant genre; this format now attracts millions of readers alongside thousands of authors.
On the most popular online literature website, Qi Dian (www.qidian.com), Xuanhuan novels have attracted millions of hits; these novels have been adapted into games, TV series and films, bringing this sub-genre into the purview of Chinese literary critics. Zhao (2008) argues that Xuanhuan fiction has benefited from the Internet, which fundamentally lowered the threshold of publishing, facilitated the emergence of modern web literature from grass roots sources, and provides a highly interactive platform for authors and readers. Gai (2006), one of the first fantasy critics in China, also pointed out that adventurous and rebellious youth are likely to be attracted by these types of fantastic stories, which appease their aspiration for emotion and success. The producers of Xuanhuan novels are usually unknown amateurs, who are often criticized for lack of literary merit, mistakes in common sense, and contradictory logic, being accused of misleading youth into addictive, restless, and illusive excitement (Tao, 2006; Gai, 2006; Zhao, 2008).
Notwithstanding this criticism from academics, the scale of Xuanhuan novel consumption is now larger than ever, and it has begun to spread in the English-speaking world. In October 2016, the People’s Daily, the largest newspaper group in China, reported that Wuxiaworld (http://www.wuxiaworld.com), a leading Chinese-to-English novel translation website, was attracting attention from readers from over 100 countries and regions across the globe (Ji, 2016). Xuanhuan stories usually contain substantial elements of traditional Chinese philosophy, such as the Dao, Yin-Yang, and the Five Elements, which might be difficult for English readers to understand. Nevertheless, in line with the report, Wuxiaworld's daily number of visitors is over 300,000, with users from countries throughout the world; these are mostly former fans of Japanese and Korean manga, animation, and light novels who have become jaded with these genres (Liu, 2017).
This unexpected popularity despite apparent cultural differences has led Chinese official press and academics to explore the implicit reasons behind transcultural English readers’ consumption of Chinese fantasy fiction and to examine the underlying implications of the process. Underscoring the significance of a “networked base” and the “Chineseness” of Chinese web novels, the official press states that these Xuanhuan novels benefit from Chinese traditional elements that are alien to readers outside the Sinophone world that have, nevertheless, been resuscitated by the Internet and are well received due to the sensual pleasure of reading created by these novels (Ji, 2016). Lai (2016), the founder of Wuxiaworld, claims that the popularity of Xuanhuan novels among global readers is also a response to westernization and gamification, which bring greater familiarity to a global audience; he believes that the “Chineseness” of the genre actually inhibits its popularization.
Previous studies have analysed Chinese online Xuanhuan novels from perspectives including literary criticism, fandom studies, cultural taste, and political economy (Tao, 2006; Gai, 2006; Zhao, 2008; Huang, 2011; Lugg, 2011; Liu, 2012). However, little effort has been made to explore Xuanhuan fiction consumers outside of the Sinophone world. Studying the growing appeal of the Xuanhuan genre among global readers is likely to provoke fresh insights into the uses of online Xuanhuan fiction, which usually receives hostile criticism from academics. Additionally, although these Xuanhuan novels are a niche interest in the English-speaking world, the significance of this study is enhanced by the fact that Chinese Xuanhuan novels have begun to compete with the Japanese and Korean wave; the development of a global readership and market demonstrates significant latent capacity that should be explored (Ji. 2016; Lai, 2016; Liu, 2017).
To enhance understanding of transcultural consumption of Xuanhuan genre from a theoretical critical perspective, this paper explores this phenomenon in terms of two crucial issues: What are the underlying reasons for this genre's popularity among English readers? And secondly, what are the implications of this transnational consumption of the Xuanhuan genre?
Dozens of translation websites provide Chinese Xuanhuan novels; however, the current research focuses on the reception of English readers on Wuxiaworld, a site that offers the most popular online Xuanhuan novels by amateur translation teams and individual translators, most of who are themselves Chinese fantasy novel lovers and have Chinese cultural backgrounds.
Before discussing Xuanhuan novels, it is necessary to examine the commercial mechanisms of online literature and the Chinese market, which is itself significantly attributable to the upsurge in Xuanhuan novels. In order to establish a theoretical framework for the examination of Xuanhuan, academic discussions from literary and cultural studies perspectives are also taken into consideration. As Xuanhuan genre consumption is also highly related to youth media consumption, and the global popularity of Xuanhuan is exporting Chinese cultural products to Western countries and other developing countries, it is also necessary to review intra-Asian cultural flow and reverse cultural flow.
Chinese online literature: a reader-oriented business
As Kong (2005) points out, Chinese publications were once part of an ideologically restricted industry where administrative regulations and censorship outweighed market trends; in the 1990s, however, the commercialization of literature began to create a vibrant and open literary market. In terms of Internet literature in China, Michel Hocks (2015) further interprets the commercialization of Chinese literature in the 1990s as a consequence of “the withdrawal of state support for the literary system” and “the relaxation of state control over publishing houses” (p.27). In response to such this relaxation of regulations and the enormous potential of market demand, alongside the “main channel” of state publishing, several Chinese publishers turned to a grey area of publishing called the “second channel” as part of their book publishing and distribution (Kong, 2005). Though illegal, rather than damaging the primary market order, the second channel in fact facilitated the development of a market-driven literature industry (Kong, 2005). In the late 1990s, the burgeoning Internet also provided another platform for literature production, which enabled unknown writers without the ability to undertake the complicated publishing process to publish their novels (Tian & Ajorjan, 2016). Additionally, unlike in traditional Chinese publishing, online authors are entitled to express themselves without restriction or censorship.
Scholars display ambivalent views towards this online autonomy and the prosperity of the Chinese online literature industry (Kong, 2005; Hocks, 2015; Tian & Ajorjan, 2016). Underscoring the significance of untethering the industry from federal guidelines and the rise of multimedia production including television, film and video games, Kong (2005) believes that the new literary space stimulated online authors’ literary innovation. Nevertheless, Hocks (2015) is less optimistic about this creativity, and claims that the new literary area provided by the Internet is not a space for “high” culture, but only modern literature, with eastern fantasy, romance, and urban subjects being the most popular. Undoubtedly, the Internet has heavily influenced the literary industry in terms of its production and business patterns. Lugg (2011) points out that online fictions are usually free for readers or cost microscopic portions of member fees; thus, the commodity of literary work has become nonsignificant (p. 122).
The reason for this is that money is less worthy of attention on the Internet. Michael Goldhaber (1997) claims that the Internet functions more as an attention economy; obtaining attention, which flows from individuals, is the primary goal, though “money flows along with attention” (p.4). This means that, although writers and website owners do not earn money directly from membership fees, provided that web fictions attract a large enough readership and sufficient hits, online fiction publishing remains lucrative. Of online serial novels, online literature websites usually select the most viewed ones and release some chapters for free, setting the remaining chapters as VIP content which only becomes available on payment of a fee (Liu, 2012). Authors who become popular in this way are compelled to sign contracts with the website to ensure steady sources of new content, though the literary quality of the novels is not guaranteed.
Consequently, to obtain as many hits as possible, online authors must satisfy readers by constructing appealing and possibly sensational plot elements, including violence, boys’ love, and obscene and pornographic elements (Hocks, 2015). In addition, the websites commonly pay most web authors based on word count, which impels them to write long stories with word counts of several million and a large cast of characters (Lugg, 2011). Although there was some vulgar and long-winded fiction published by the pre-Internet Chinese publishing industry, online novels with such characteristics are produced relatively frequently and on a larger scale; they are also prone to having greater influence.
Alongside circumstantial influences on the choices of genre and story structure, readers also directly affect content through the discussion forums (Tian & Ajorjan, 2016). Hocks (2005) emphasises that the communities on discussion forum foster direct interaction across geographical distances and blur the boundaries between authors, critics, and readers, contributing to the major differences between online literature and printed literature. Several researchers are thus interested in the interactive relationship between readers and writers (Hocks, 2005; Feng, 2009; Hocks, 2015; Tian & Ajorjan, 2016). Feng (2009) conducted research on Jinjiang, another famous literary website, and found that readers and writers exchanged ideas about novel writing, talking about changes in their lives and negotiating about the plots in the discussion forum.
Although an author is entitled to delete inappropriate comments in the forum, the discussion forum was dominated by neither the authors or the readers, acting as a platform for equality that allowed both writers and readers to express themselves. Tian and Ajorjan (2016) also found that, due to the instantaneous feedback, financial sponsorship, and regard from readers, the relationship between online authors and their readers was usually more intimate, characterised by strong loyalty. The authors also admitted that readers’ positive feedback, the number of views, and their ranking motivated them emotionally and financially to update frequently (Tian & Ajorjan, 2016). When making plans about stories, authors are required to be creative and present appealing story plots; however, as online writing is intrinsically reader-oriented, these writers modify their story lines according to readers’ feedback to satisfy their audience's needs (Tian & Ajorjan, 2016). The Internet and its reader-oriented business model has thus profoundly shaped Chinese online literature in terms of genre, mode of narration, length, and literary quality.
From fantasy to Xuanhuan
Featuring characteristics of both Eastern and Western fantasy stories, Xuanhuan novels come firmly under the fantasy genre. As the great literary critic Tzvetan Todorov (1975) notes, “the fantastic” plays on readers’ hesitation between belief and disbelief of supernatural events, and stands between “the uncanny” and “the marvellous.” Instead of directly conceptualizing the genre, this inclusive but fragile definition emphasises the emotional effects of the narration and context from the perspective of readers. In a broad view, the term fantasy, which refers to a fiction genre based in other universes or alternative worlds where supernatural events that are beyond common sense can occur, is historically related to fairy tales and folklore (Nikolajeva, 2003). Tolkien (2008), who is popularly identified as the “father” of modern fantasy literature, employed the concept of “sub-creation” to describe the creative process of world-building and the invention of myths. Theodor Adorno (1997) also remarks that fantasy depends on an artist's capacity to transform imagination into “the other of the existing” (p. 172). Thus, once the writer has established the secondary worlds of magical elements such as monsters, wizards, ghosts and so on, the setting functions as a fertile source of the narrative (Tolkien, 2008).
An enormous amount of research effort has been expended on the fantasy genre in the attempt to intrinsically explore the uses and users of fantasy. The idiom “escape” has been coined in fantasy literary criticism circles, suggesting that fantasy takes readers away from reality and provide pleasure rather than provoking thought (Bettelheim, 1976; Tolkien, 2008). Psychoanalyzing fairy tales, which is where most archetypes of fantasy literature come from, Bruno Bettelheim (1976) states that escape is also one of the essential ingredients of good fairy tales. Nevertheless, Tolkien (2008) argues that escape does not rule out the inclusion of catastrophic elements including hunger, poverty, pain, injustice, and death in fairy tales to create “more profound escapism” (p. 12). To disentangle fantasy from “escapism,” Hume (1984) states that fantasy is also used in expressive literature, didactic literature, and perspectivist literature, reflecting writers' attitudes towards reality as well as their responses to reality.
With its burgeoning multiple sub-genres, fantasy fiction rapidly moved from the margins of Western culture to loom large in global popular culture (Feldt, 2016). Overwhelmingly popular book series such as A Song of Ice and Fire (1996) and Harry Potter (1997), which created mass consumption and global fandoms for fantasy, have thus captured scholars’ attention. By analysing these youth-targeted narratives, Seymour (2015) emphasises that youth characters, portrayed as rebelling against the adults in their society, are actively engaged in political or social discourse and, thus, empower youth readers. However, Zipes (2008) believes that the culture industry has commodified fantasy and transformed it into a money-making machine (2008). Zipes (2008) also proposes that fantastic elements are produced and reproduced into spectacles which impede recognition of social relations and power.
Based on Huang’s category system (2011), Chinese fantasy stories can be classified into several different subjects including Xuanhuan, Martial Arts, Historical military, Witchcraft (prototype: Lord of the Rings), Cyberspace, and Detective. Among these sub-genres, some of which overlap significantly, Xuanhuan, which is the focus sub-genre in this article, has its own individual characteristics. As with Western fantasy novels, Chinese fantasy literature originated from traditional mythology such as Journey to the West and Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, as well as from traditional martial arts books, with representative authors including Jin Yong and Gu Long (Tao, 2006).
Though these traditional mythologies may be alien to the Western world, martial arts films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and the Kung-Fu genre are well-known throughout the world, so that audiences are at least peripherally aware of the chivalrous swordsmen (Xiake) in traditional martial arts novels who practice martial arts (Wugong) which violate physics principles, are capable of flying, and have intrinsic supernatural powers. What differentiates Xuanhuan fiction from traditional martial arts books is that the protagonists, usually immortals equipped with supernatural power, practice Daoist techniques to cultivate themselves, preserve health, and gain eternal life (Huang, 2011).
Moreover, unlike martial arts and historical novels, Xuanhuan fictions are constructed in “secondary worlds” which are inextricably bound up with Chinese traditional culture rather than a particular period in actual Chinese history. In addition to mimicking the literary style of traditional Chinese myths, Xuanhuan fictions usually combine fantasy, martial arts, heroes, romance, and inspiration as fundamental elements in their narration (Gai, 2006). In terms of narratives, the thread running through these fictions is the young main character's personal struggle to rise from nobody to become a hero, from achieving nothing to saving the world, and passionate romance and solid friendship influence the storyline (Zhao, 2008).
In line with early research, criticism negating the artistic merit of fantasy and defining Xuanhuan as cynical and nihilistic at its core appeared early in the field of Chinese fantasy literature (Tao, 2006; Gai, 2006; Zhao, 2008). Tao (2006) mentions that, although the Xuanhuan genre stems from Chinese traditional martial arts novels, which are rooted in Confucian and chivalric cultures, it confuses young readers by presenting distorted moral value systems without humanistic concerns or reflections on modernity. Furthermore, instead of admiring ideal human nature, Xuanhuan novels place more weight on deviations, violence, and sex, and thus no longer function as a metaphor for reality (Zhang, 2009).
As with Zipes’ views of the fantasy genre, Zhao (2008) defines Xuanhuan novels as predominantly cultural products for mass consumption, rather than a type of artistic literature. Within a consumer society dominated by popular culture, Xuanhuan novels’ mass production and popular reception have won over the market thanks to their commercialisation, fragmentation, convenience, disposability, and entertainment value, creating a spectacle rather than aesthetic experiences (Zhang, 2009). Nevertheless, rather than completely rejecting this genre, several Chinese scholars have begun to exert diverse perspectives and thus acknowledge the unique values of Xuanhuan novels. Cai (2010) underscores the idea that personal growth plays a major role in Xuanhuan, which is the manifestation of Chinese youth’s bright prospects in terms of social status, financial stability, and happiness, rather than an outgrowth of nihilism.
Moreover, Xuanhuan novels, in which righteousness (zhengyi) finally conquers evil (xie’e), still advocate traditional value systems and promote kind-heartedness and moral consciousness as fundamental elements of success (Cai, 2010). Chinese online literature must be considered as typical popular literature, which cannot be appropriately evaluated by the same criteria as elite or realist literature. Shao (2011), recognises that Chinese online literature functions to create a utopia where young people can experience affection, growing up, and accomplishment and, consequently, assuage youths' desires and emptiness; additionally, she refutes the idea that these desires are completely vulgar and anomalous. What is important is that academics must confront and contemplate the psychological and spiritual needs of the younger generation through the lens of youth culture (Shao, 2011).
Transnational cultural consumption among the young: a diversity of cultural flows
Post-war youth subculture was initially described as the expressions of rebellious resistance to social inequality, dominant ideologies, and mainstream politics (Hall and Jefferson, 1976). By way of illustration, punk was considered an underground, iconoclastic form of liberal arts, which created a manifestation of the anti-establishment views of young people. Such discussions usually fixed to a political context. As Buckingham and Kehily (2014) state, “second- and third-generation youth researchers appear to cohere in the sphere of leisure” (p.4), turning youth culture from “meaningful social commentary” into “an exploration of pleasure-seeking individualism” (p.5). Thanks to the process of globalization and commercialization, transnational cultural flows that bring cultural products to different countries and regions have gradually become common, especially among young people. Transnational cultural product exchange has also become a significant part of youth culture, which influences their preferences for cultural products as well as cultural identities. Thus, some scholars now seek to rethink youth culture from the perspective of cultural consumption and popular culture (Buckingham & Kehily, 2014; Yoon, 2014).
In the Internet era, technical development in conjunction with globalization has allowed people to access other youth cultures across geographic boundaries; however, this freedom brings power struggles between local cultures (Yoon, 2014, p.121). Americanisation and the dominant cultural flow from Western countries to developing countries generally attract the most attention in terms of academic attention. Nevertheless, a shift in youth cultural consumption research to focus on non-Western countries and regions can be observed (Iwabuchi, 2002; Chua, 2006; Ubonrat & Shin, 2007; Adamu, 2012; Yoon, 2014). In parallel with examination of the dominant flow from Western countries, the rise of non-Western cultural products and new intra-Asian entertainment flows among East Asian youth have entered academic discussion (Iwabuchi, 2002; Chua, 2006; Adamu, 2012; Yoon, 2014).
East Asian popular culture, including various “waves,” such as Korean dramas, K-pop, Japanese animation, J-pop, and Hong Kong films, has swept throughout Asia, and thus these East Asian countries and regions have become the producers, distributors, and consumers of cultural products. Without ignoring the fact that Western cultural products still wield enormous influence throughout the world, Chua (2006) admires this intra-Asian consumption of East Asian popular culture among young people, and notes its potential to overtake the US popular culture industry. In terms of explaining this phenomenon, Iwabuchi (2002) illustrates that the popularity of Japanese dramas, comics, and J-pop in other Asian countries is the result of cultural proximity and the Japanese entertainment industry’s elimination of cultural barriers. In a study of intra-Asian cultural flow, Ubonrat and Shin (2007) found that the business of Asian popular culture is blurring national identities so that Asian youth no longer find their national identity acting as a barrier to transnational consumption.
Yoon (2014) also claims that “today’s neo-tribal and semiotic consumers” (p. 131) are more ambiguous terms of their political positions and treat Japanese media content as mere commodities. Compared to the pre-Internet era, the intra-Asian cultural consumption of young people in the region is not dominated by hegemonic national cultures or ideologies; instead, it is a hybridised and networked cultural arena that is inherently more flexible and fluid (Yoon, 2014). Thanks to international media platforms and online translation groups, transnational media consumption has become common and widespread among East Asian youth, and such consumption is pleasure-oriented rather than politically sensitive.
However, cultural proximity cannot explain the reverse cultural flows from non-Western countries to Western countries represented by the globalisation of Bollywood and, most relevant to the current study, Chinese martial arts movies. Chinese fantasy and Kung Fu have become internationally renowned; in a case study of Chinese martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Wu and Chan (2007) accentuate the importance of local cultural resources and strategic alliances with local or global companies in order to overcome obstacles when entering Western markets.
Alongside the perspective of political economy, a westernized narrative and cutting style helped contribute to the film gaining wider acceptance with global audiences (Wu & Chan, 2007). Though the martial arts universe is ubiquitous in China and alien to audiences outside of the Sinophone world, the emotional and sensuous satisfaction of martial arts movies is the same globally. Fantasy and supernatural power create spectacles in and of themselves. In Drouillard and Dresang’s research (2009) on young people’s motivations for reading Harry Potter novels (2009), they found that fantasy and adventure books are most teens’ choice of reading for pleasure while they are growing up. This may explain why martial arts, as a sub-genre of fantasy, could facilitate this kind of reverse cultural flow. Xuanhuan novels, which resemble and contain martial arts alongside more westernized elements, could be considered therefore to be simply a continuation of the globalisation of martial arts movies.
As stated in the literature review, scholars hold widely disparate views of the fantasy genre in general, and Xuanhuan novels in particular. Rather than appreciating the authors’ creative imaginations and respecting the claims of empowerment for young readers (Tolkien, 2008), trenchant criticism mainly points towards its promotion of “escapism” and the ways in which it distorts young people's perceptions of social and political power relationships (Bettelheim, 1976; Zipes, 2008; Seymour, 2015). From the perspective of political economy, fantasy can be considered to have been commodified into a money-making machine which is gradually paralysing readers (Zipes, 2008). Various Chinese literary critics (Tao, 2006; Gai, 2006; Zhao, 2008; Zhang, 2009) also note that Xuanhuan novels are shoddy cultural products and trash literature, catering to low tastes. However, the popularity of Chinese online literature is a manifestation of young people’s psychological and spiritual needs, which need to be faced (Shao, 2011). Furthermore, it is an important sign of reverse cultural flow from China to the global market, which could have wider consequences.
Based on this important factor, the current research sets out to explore the reasons for English readers’ consumption of Chinese Xuanhuan novels on Wuxiaworld. Although other sub-genres, including martial arts, are also translated and published at Wuxiaworld, this research concentrates on Xuanhuan fiction; in addition, the term English readers refers to readers who are capable of reading English, rather than restricting attention to English native speakers. However, readers from the Sinophone world who read Chinese are not part of the study. There are thus two main research questions:
Data and Methods
According to Ritchie and Lewis’ "Qualitative research practice: A guide for Social Science Students and Researchers" (2003), qualitative research aims to provide “an in-depth and interpreted understanding of the social world of research participants by learning about their social and material circumstances, their experiences, perspectives, and histories” (p.16). Owing to the importance of analysis of readers’ reception of the genre in this research, which is therefore complex and requires an explanation of the underlying social phenomena, qualitative research methods are used. To understand the underlying reasons behind the global consumption of Chinese online literature, the researcher conducted semi-structured interviews and non-participatory observations throughout the period of research. During the three-month study, the researcher joined the website under investigation as an anonymous member and invited other participants to participate in online interviews. These were transcribed, with permission, to enhance the validity of the research and enabled analysis of the replies to the research questions. As Legard, Keegan, and Ward (2003) point out, the role of the researcher is that of “a facilitator to enable the interviewee to talk about their thoughts, feelings, views and experiences” (p. 147). In addition, semi-structured interviews combine structure with flexibility and allow interactivity (Legard, Keegan, & Ward, 2003).
Participants were recruited from the discussion forums on Wuxiaworld, which provided a list of active participants. The researcher randomly sent invitation letters to registered subscribers through messages on Wuxiaworld, with the exception of users who had noted that they were Chinese. The participants were given the choice of an instant video interview or a text-based interview over Skype. Given that Wuxiaworld has more than 8,000 subscribers, the number of potential participants was considerable, as 12 to 15 participants as a smaller sample size (and certainly fewer than 20) are considered ideal for qualitative research, particularly for in-depth interviews (Crouch & McKenzie, 2006). When considerin the number of participants, it is more important for the researcher to be “intensive and thus persuasive at the conceptual level, rather than aim to be extensive with intent to be convincing” (Crouch & McKenzie, 2006, p. 494).
In total, 55 invitations were sent during the two-month research period, and 15 subscribers responded, including three respondents who only accepted an open-ended question list to fill in. The 15 interviewees included one Netherlander, two Russians, one Pakistani, one Australian, two Indians, one Nepali, one Turks, two Brazilians, and four Americans. Of those who agreed to full interviews, the researcher interviewed each of the 12 respondents once or twice times, with each session lasting approximately 2 hours. Although previous scholars have emphasized that face-to-face interviews are more efficient, and allow researchers to acquire more information and meaning (Ritchie & Lewis, 2003), only one interviewee chose the video interview format on Skype; the other 11 respondents only accepted a text-based interview. All of the non-native English speakers refused video interviews as they were not confident in their ability to instantly answer questions in English, and thus felt more comfortable with text-based interviews. The researcher prepared 16 questions in advance for each interview, and in each case made more detailed enquiries based on the specific situation.
The question list mainly referred to the interview outline created in fandom research conducted by Chen (2009), A Study of Fantastic Fiction Fan’s Reading Behavior, which contains questions regarding interviewees’ personal reading experience, reading behaviours, and attitudes towards fantastic fiction. Nevertheless, since the fandom under study is relevant, and the objects of study are from different backgrounds in this research, the researcher made adjustments so that the final questions concentrated more sharply on the Xuanhuan genre reading experience, cultural obstacles in terms of understanding, attitudes towards Xuanhuan fiction, and future expectations for Wuxiaworld.
Alongside the semi-structured interviews, non-participatory observation was carried out on the discussion forums of Wuxiaworld throughout the research period. As stated in the literature review, the discussion forums on literary websites enable readers to express themselves and negotiate with authors concerning storylines (Feng, 2009; Tian & Ajorjan, 2016). As the translator teams on Wuxiaworld merely translate Chinese writers’ work into English, rather than recreating stories, these readers cannot influence the plot in this way; however, English readers on Wuxiaworld also share their opinions regarding plots, settings, and main characters, which are valuable revelations of their attitudes towards Xuanhuan novels. Consequently, the non-participatory observation functioned to validate the consistency and trustworthiness of the results of the semi-structured interviews. The results of data analysis of both semi-structured interviews and non-participatory observation are thus demonstrated in the findings.
To facilitate comprehensive data analysis, all transcripts of participants’ interviews and the posts on discussion forums from March 2nd to May 4th 2017 were initially included. Then, in order to reduce the data to a manageable level, several important statements and phrases about the research questions were extracted from each transcript, per scholarly recommendation (Spencer, Ritchie, & O’Connor, 2003). During this qualitative research, the researcher ensured that ethical issues were considered: before the interviews, the participants were well-informed about the purposes of the research and told that their interviews would be recorded and transcribed by the researcher for research use only. These written reports and transcripts would be available if participants requested, and the participants were informed of their right to remain anonymous, such that irrelevant personal details mentioned in the interview would be omitted. Participants were also entitled to withdraw from the research at any moment without any negative consequences.
Findings and Implications
Before examining the ways in which the data addresses the research questions, it is essential to illustrate the background information and reading experience of the respondents. Of the 15 respondents, ten respondents were university students or high school students, five work in the IT industry, and one is a government consultant. It is noteworthy that the 15 respondents were all males, aged from 19 to 26 years old, though this gender domination is not surprising and accords with prior studies by Chinese scholars (Liu, 2012). Furthermore, the researcher also found that the respondents were generally heavy readers: with the exception of one respondent who had read only five Xuanhuan novels, the others had finished at least 20 novels each, with the heaviest reader having completed 82 novels when interviewed. Despite being generally heavy readers, 13 out of the 15 respondents never communicate with other Wuxiaworld subscribers or participate in any of Wuxiaworld’s other online or offline activity. Their low participation in typical fan activities, together with the scant number of Wuxiaworld subscribers1, suggests that the English readers of Xuanhuan novels have not yet formed a solid, organised, and large-scale fandom.
It can be inferred from the interview results that the main features that appeal to these interviewees in terms of reading Xuanhuan novels are the fantastic worlds, supernatural elements, powerful main characters, and the flow of the stories. A more detailed analysis of the underlying reasons for English readers choosing to read Xuanhuan novels is provided in the next section.
Xuanhuan and the masculine utopia
Hegemonic masculinity suggests that men are strong, tough, aggressive, intellectual, responsible, and heterosexual; it acknowledges that males are dominant in society and justifies the subordination of females (Connell, 1995). Using this definition, most online Xuanhuan novels mirror their authors’ worship of hegemonic masculinity in several ways. The leading characters in adventures in these mysterious worlds are invariably heterosexual males. Faced with responsibility for his clan, family, and friends, whether the protagonist is initially strong or not, he is doomed to grow up to be a guardian, fight for his people, and, in the end, dominate the world. In contrast to the dominant role of these male characters, subordinate females are portrayed as submissive and marginalised, generally appearing together as a “harem” that is dependent on men. Admittedly, such submissive women also appear in Western superhero comics; nevertheless, this the harem mentality renders the worlds in Chinese Xuanhuan novels even more patriarchal. Notwithstanding the ways in which some female characters influence the main thread, they still function as the male protagonist’s emotional support or represent an ordeal through which the male character becomes mature. Furthermore, Xuanhuan novels also idolise and justify strength and violence. The common supernatural power over human physical bodies in the violent scenes could be considered an extension of masculine power; indeed, Xuanhuan authors are experts in creating violent scenes. Ricardo, a reader from Brazil states: “Fighting scenes was one of the first things to appeal to me on Chinese novels. I mean in other novels you rarely see entire mountains or even planets be destroyed by a sword attack or some fire attack.” To display the main character’s growth of strength, authors repeatedly present violent scenes in the plot. One reason that authors take the trouble to write these scenes, in addition to the purpose of increasing word count to increase their pay, is that they are exciting and appealing to readers. Male readers in particular enjoy the exciting violent scenes.
These authors have clearly created a fantasy world specifically for young male readers that allows them to experience adventure, strength, power, and emotions without worrying about actual competition. Unlike playing video games, the readers are completely outside of the cruel world in the novels, and can watch the main characters fighting and obtaining strength. Although the main characters face difficulties and challenges, generally, they sail with the wind and beat all their enemies, which means that the readers do not even have to worry about the outcomes. It could be argued that, in these stories, hegemonic masculinity prevails for no reason, creating a masculinity utopia where the readers' images of masculinity are justified, worshiped, and practiced without any challenge. Thus, male readers feel comfortable escaping to this utopia regardless of nationality or culture.
In addition to the fight scenes, the nature of the main characters is the most significant element which determines the attitudes of English readers towards Xuanhuan novels. English readers expect the main character to fight for his lover bravely, and they enjoy the process whereby the main character gradually gains strength and finally becomes the most powerful person. Nevertheless, outside of this power system, they have different images of masculinity. Here are two explanations from respondents for their preference for Leylin, the main character in Coiling Dragon (2009):
Here Leylin attracts their attention with his consistency, bravery, determination, intelligence, and even his vulnerabilities. With regard to the female characters, English readers acknowledge the existence of the “harem” mentality, but also praise the kindness and responsibility of male character towards the females. What makes this observation interesting is that their emphasis on intellectual skills and humanity correspond to traditional Chinese values of masculinity. Theorizing about the model of masculinity in China, Louie (2002) points out that there are two types of masculinity within Chinese traditional culture: the “scholar” (wen) and the “soldier” (wu). If bravery, martial strength, and supernatural power in Xuanhuan novels represent the “soldier,” the intellectual side of the main character could represent the “scholar.” Within traditional Chinese values, the “scholar” side of ideal masculinity is superior to the “soldier” side, with the most regard reserved for one who has both qualities (Louie, 2002). Additionally, Confucian culture also centres responsibility and goodwill of humanity at the heart of “ethics” (de), which also corresponds to these readers' images of masculinity. In traditional Chinese values, being a “scholar” and having “ethics” are more important than being a “soldier.” In terms of respondents’ preferences for the main male characters’ “brains,” “emotions,” and “responsibility for his people,” it might be appropriate to claim that these English readers have adapted themselves to the underlying Chinese value system.
Self-cultivation system: “an interesting concept”
The idea of self-cultivation originates from an indigenous Chinese religion, Daoism, which recognizes the psychosomatic reality of human existence and seeks to cultivate immortality by means of traditional practice (Komjathy, 2014). Daoist practice involves balancing stillness (jing) and movement (dong), and in this way, Daoists seek to purify their consciousnesses and spiritual discernment, strengthen their bodies, and facilitate numinous pervasion (Komjathy, 2014, p.132). Different Daoist communities have different rationales and advocate different approaches; however, Komjathy (2014) summarises general Daoist religious practices into three types: observation, ingestion, and expression. Observation emphasises the emotional and intellectual emptiness that enables its cultivators to think without mundane disturbance until they reach stillness (Komjathy, 2014). Ingestion relates to Daoist ascetic diets that may involve grain abstention (bigu), and alchemy (dandao), which refers to a therapeutic diet that features refining herbal and mineral formulas into medicinal pills (Komjathy, 2014). Such diets function as physical and dietetic ways to purify oneself. Moreover, the expression of these diets also includes ethical practices, ritual performance, and health and longevity techniques, including physical activities (Komjathy, 2014). In Daoism, self-cultivation is regarded as a therapeutic process that promotes longevity and immortal status, and self-control, ethics, and enlightenment are of the greatest significance. In Xuanhuan novels, this religious idiom has been adapted into a hierarchical system and endowed with new meanings; an example is found in the synopsis of one most popular Xuanhuan novel on Wuxiaworld, Wu Dong Qian Kun (2013) (Tiancantudou, 2017, May 5):
Within the self-cultivation culture of online Xuanhuan novels, the apotheosis of power and strength is made manifest. A common set of terms used to quantify the progress made in such cultivation is “Early-stage,” “Middle-stage,” “Late-stage,” and “Peak,” terms that distinctly classify the secondary world of the story into a strict hierarchy. Cultivators at higher levels are justified in plundering, bullying, and oppressing those at lower levels, for whom the only way to survive is to strengthen themselves to reach the higher levels. Initially the main characters may have other reasons to gain strength, such as to take revenge on those who deceived, bullied, or bereaved them; nonetheless, when they become entangled in this cultivation system, they always aim to become the most powerful, and clearly enjoy the power. Thus, rather than promoting moral and ethical cultivation, strength becomes the only and most significant outcome of self-cultivation, acting as a representative of power.
This process is interminable, with the main characters continuing to level up throughout the story, even once they are immortal. Superficially, the main characters are rebellious; however, their resistance is merely against powerful antagonists rather than the system or power itself. To some extent, the world of the self-cultivation system reflects the real world, where financial stability, social status, clan, and social capital are primary, and economic and discourse power are distributed based on these criteria (Chen, 2015). However, the authors oversimplify real world social and power relationships and represent the self-cultivation system with an excessively simple logic; it is this oversimplified representation that makes Xuanhuan novels understandable for readers outside the Sinophone world.
For English readers, the self-cultivation system is an interesting and mysterious concept which differentiates Chinese Xuanhuan novels from other fantasy fiction without being too difficult to comprehend. Compared to the multidimensional practices of Daoism, cultivators in Xuanhuan novels mostly dive into rudimentary cultivation methods and repeatedly practice them, with the assistance of spiritual energy from elixirs, herbs, and spirit stones, which facilitate their processes of levelling up. Statistical mechanisms in the novels further intensify their game-like feeling, with all of the beasts, medicines, cultivators, and immortals being labelled with different numerical grades. The self-cultivation system resembles the rewards system in role-playing games (RPG), where the player-controlled characters upgrade by conquering different enemies and obtaining experience points (Chen, 2015).
Notwithstanding English readers' lack of prior knowledge of Daoism, they fully understand, and may even become obsessed with, the self-cultivation system within a very short period. Based on the brief introduction of Xuanhuan terminologies provided on Wuxiaworld, the English readers require little effort to familiarise themselves with the cultivation system due to the gamification of the scheme. Just as in RPGs, once the cultivation system is established in a novel, the characters can continuously level up if they work hard enough or have lucky encounters. This simplified self-cultivation mingles eastern religious sources with contemporary game reward systems, making it an intriguing way to represent character growth and the pursuit of power.
As one of the respondents stated, this game-like process of killing and obtaining treasure, together with the sense of achievement that comes the feeling that “everyone else is beneath me, under my control,” are also essential reasons for English readers’ obsession with Xuanhuan literature.
From spectacles to the pleasure of reading
Among the reasons for their reading preferences, an essential factor mentioned by the respondents, which accords with previous research, is that young readers have gravitated towards Chinese online novels because of the pleasure of reading (Zhang, 2009; Shao, 2011; Liu, 2012; Shao, 2015). As mentioned in the literature review, the interactive relationship between authors and readers, together with reader’s power to influence the plot, is key to the success of Chinese online literature (Tian & Ajorjan, 2016). However, since the translation team merely translates the works uploaded to Wuxiaworld, English readers have no similar means of negotiating with the writers about the narrative. Due to Xuanhuan novels’ current niche market status outside of China and the language problems of non-native English speakers, few of these English readers have close friends reading these novels, and they know few of other fans on Wuxiaworld. This means that such reading behaviours do not facilitate the social function utility.
Nevertheless, these English readers are still dedicated to online Xuanhuan novels. They usually visit Wuxiaworld several times a day, as long as new chapters are released. Besides consuming many new Xuanhuan novels on Wuxiaworld, these English readers also repeatedly read their favourite stories. More interestingly, these readers are aware of the shortcomings of the novels, such as the long-winded narratives, fancy phrases, depreciation of females, undue numerical grades, and incoherent plots. The heavy consumption of Xuanhuan genre, coupled with the admitted awareness of its low literary quality and disfranchisement of interaction with the authors and within reader groups, makes their consumption even more pleasure-oriented.
Undoubtedly, English readers’ acceptance of the Xuanhuan genre benefits from the spread of Western fantasy and martial arts movies, which had previously opened markets for such genres. Xuanhuan novels, involving elements of both Kung-Fu and fantasy, appeals to these global enthusiasts naturally. In addition, a number of English readers are initially fascinated by martial arts or Chinese myths, and their increased interest in Daoism and Chinese culture after reading can be observed from the interview results. From another perspective, although these readers aren’t necessarily knowledgeable or interested in Chinese culture and Daoism before reading, this does not affect their choices, as what they are consuming is fantasy and pleasure rather than the culture itself. An anonymous user on Wuxiaworld stated as much on the discussion forum:
This interest is not in China or Chinese culture, but only in the tropes, magic system, adventures, and discoveries within the novels. Novelty and pleasure explain why these readers turn to Chinese Xuanhuan novels; however, these could also be the reason why they leave. While within the intra-Asian market, Chinese online literature appeals to English audiences have previously been fans of Japanese cartoons and Korean manga within the adventure genre, there may be a lack of sustained change in terms of their preference for cultural products from other countries. The adoption of this literature seems to be merely the inevitable outcome of the considerable demand by young people for the consumption of fantasy which brings pleasure on reading. This can therefore not be defined as a reverse cultural flow from China to Western countries. Moreover, this community is still very niche in the global market. Compared to the dominant cultural flow which creates political and economic ideologies, the cultural flow of Chinese online literature remains at a very low level.
However, the pleasure of reading has broken cultural barriers in terms of the transitional consumption of Xuanhuan genre. As Professor Shao (2016) claims, in terms of cross-national marketization of cultural products, even Hollywood relied heavily on the sense of pleasure to establish a market abroad in the initial stages (p. 108). “If Chinese culture is simply mysterious spectacles for non-Chinese readers, through reading these novels, these readers are getting to a secondary stage: enjoying the pleasure of reading” (Shao, 2016, p. 108). Thus, Shao (2016) acknowledges this phenomenon's potential contribution to future reverse cultural flows from China. While English readers are initially hooked by wish fulfilment and the novelty of the Xuanhuan stories, they stayed for engaging narratives with characters they like.
They have begun to adapt to the Chinese mode of narration and appreciate the original imagination of the authors and the efforts they take over these novels. This may also help explain their heavy reading patterns and motivation for further reading. Thus, the popularity of Chinese online literature among these English readers demonstrates the positive effects of fantasy and Xuanhuan novels, which supports further study into this field. Compared to other visual media such as TV, films, manga, and video games, fictions of this type lack visual advantages and thus may have difficulty gaining a larger non-native reader base. However, Chinese online literature, relying on imagination, intensive narration, and reader-oriented business mechanisms, has continuously grown its market across the globe. Its popularity outside of the Sinophone world has also verified the success of the commercial mechanisms underlying Chinese online literature.
This article demonstrates some reasons behind transnational consumption of Xuanhuan novels from various perspectives. The masculine utopia of the Xuanhuan novels, where hegemonic masculinity is justified, preserved, and practiced, appeals to the predominantly male readers. Moreover, by combining a contemporary game reward system and the religious practice of Daoism, the self-cultivation system within the novels creates intense reading pleasure and a feeling of familiarity for English readers, enabling them to enjoy the novels without additional background knowledge. In terms of consumption, this transnational cultural consumption by young people is intrinsically an inevitable result of their enormous pleasure-oriented demand for fantasy rather than an ideological reversal of cultural flow. Nevertheless, the contribution made by Xuanhuan novels to future reverse cultural flows from China, and the success of the commercial mechanisms of Chinese online literature must be recognised. This niche market also has a great deal of potential to expand based on the constantly increasing number of readers, heavy consumption by current readers, and the number of posts “looking for recommendations” on Wuxiaworld.
However, the limitations of this research are self-evident. In terms of collecting data, the researcher failed to conduct face-to-face semi-structured interviews which would enable respondents to provide complete answers to each question; thus, the research ended up with comparatively fewer pieces of data for analysis. In addition, alongside the issue of the small nature of the sample, all the respondents are males, which may be because the researcher did not achieve a truly random selection process. As the result of this sampling limitation, the research has no data on female English readers and their perspectives. Finally, by focusing on explaining transnational consumption of Xuanhuan novels, the researcher did not analyse the results of this phenomenon from a critical perspective.
To further confirm the claim that English readers of Xuanhuan novels are consuming for the pleasure of reading rather than absorbing culture, it would be worth comparing the motivations for reading between readers in and outside of the Sinophone world, as well as between audiences of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese fantasy-related cultural products. Moreover, future research could further examine translation and its function in transnational cultural consumption. As this niche market is expanding gradually, researchers may also be able to delve further into the political economy of this transnational cultural consumption in the future.
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1.) As of Oct 3rd, 2017, Wuxiaworld had 8,553 subscribers according to its public data. Compared to the number of international readers of other fantasy sub-genres, this number is rather small.
Prepared questions in semi-structured interviews
1. Your age, educational background, occupation and nationality.
2. How many Xuanhuan novels have you read?
3. What initially made you interested in Xuanhuan novels?
4. For you, what’s the most important element of Xuanhuan novels? the narrative, language, characters or other elements?
5. Which is your favorite Xuanhuan novel?
6. Who is your favorite character in this novel? Why do you like him?
7. Is there anything obsure to understand about the novel? Eg, the translation, the plots, the values, the setting?
8. What do you think of the “cultivation system”?
9. How often do you visit Wuxiaworld?
10. Do you know other fans and communicate with them on Wuxiaworld?
11. Do your friends read Xuanhuan novels?
12. Why do you choose Wuxiaworld to read those novels?
13. Do you like other fantasy novels such as The Game of Throne? Why?
14. Do you like Japanese manga or video games? Why?
15. After reading these novels, are you more interested in Chinese culture/history/language?
16. What’s your future expectation for Chinese novels and Wuxiaworld?