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Inside China’s fiction factories Bribery and plagiarism are the key to success

The CCP needs a hero (VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

The CCP needs a hero (VCG/VCG via Getty Images)


March 29, 2022   6 mins

“I want to influence the world with China’s intellectual property.” This is the great ambition of Tang Jia San Shao, 41, who wants to build the “Disney World of China” — a gigantic theme park inspired by his stories. But Tang Jia San Shao is not in the movie business. He’s one of China’s wealthiest online authors, who was last reported to earn $18 million a year.

China’s vast lucrative web novel industry, the largest in the world, brilliantly illustrates the peculiar nature of “Chinese socialism” in recent years. The combination of unfettered economic growth with often severe restrictions on free speech has transformed online authors from writers into aspiring tycoons. The result is a consumerist vacuum, where authors hoping to follow in Tang Jia San Shao’s footsteps churn out vast quantities of work with little literary value or originality.

Tang Jia San Shao is known for both for his epic xianxia (immortal hero) fantasies in which lowly “cultivators” rise up the ranks to unmatchable omnipotence, as well as his dogged work ethic: he holds the Guinness World Record for 86 months of daily serialised chapter updates on Qidian, a webnovel platform backed by Tencent, one of China’s most influential tech giants.

He may be one of the rare success stories, but he has inspired millions of xieshou (writing hands) to churn out thousands of words a day in the hope of selling their own IP. As a rule, titles with the highest number of readers within a pay-per-view system, including Ashes of Love and The Untamed and Duolou Continent, are turned into lucrative TV dramas, computer games or manga series.

Tech companies such as China Literature and Qidian have morphed into shameless “IP cultivation” empires, overseeing a somewhat psychotic, dog-eat-dog world in which popularity is the only metric that matters. “Help readers fantasise about what they lack,” instructs the testosterone-heavy platform Qidian in its writing guide. With an estimated 450 million active readers, and as many as 25 million titles to choose from, competition is merciless and exhausting. If a title doesn’t get enough eyeballs, the platform cancels the book.

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Writers, desperate to keep readers, often resort to brazen and desperate tactics — offering “red packets” (bribes) or plagiarising so they have more content to post. One trick to getting more views is to make novels insufferably long, with some online books exceeding six million words. Another is to turn each chapter into a cliff-hanger. Owing to its trashy, short-term thrills, Chinese readers dub webfiction yiyin or “YY” for short, a phrase that has evolved to mean “mental porn” or an addictive, guilty pleasure.

Writers’ grasping tactics are mirrored in the personalities of their status-obsessed and borderline sociopathic protagonists. Heroes are known for their “shamelessness” and for intentionally humiliating (“face-slapping”) their opponents. Many will stop at nothing to acquire wealth and status, smiting anyone who obstructs their path to becoming the richest tycoon in the world or the most supreme being in the universe. In short, online fiction is often a fantasy in which brute individualism pays off, written and read by self-described diaosi — “penis hairs” or “losers” — for whom reality is a communal struggle.

Last year, all this suddenly ground to a halt when beleaguered and exhausted writers downed tools following a regime change at Tencent. By temporarily making content free to read and taking over the copyright of all works until 50 years after the death of the authors, Tencent planned to both strip writers of their revenue and deny them any hope of precious IP.

The dispute was eventually resolved, but it lit an old ideological fire amongst writers who are both victims, and advocates, of this mercenary genre of fiction. “This is class struggle,” said one writer. “The bourgeoisie and capitalists only pursue profits, their pores ooze dirty blood, they squeeze the proletariat for every drop of oil they can.” And they are not wrong.

This is a time of yawning differences between rich and poor in China, with the old Communist guarantee of lifetime employment — “the iron rice bowl” — a distant memory. The CCP has failed to protect gig economy workers from exploitation by big Chinese corporations. An obvious example is the country’s 300 million “floating” migrant workers, once foregrounded by the socialist revolution, who work gruelling hours and are denied basic rights in Chinese cities.

People have been trying — and failing — to remind the CCP that it is supposed to be a Left-wing party for some time. This may explain Xi Jinping’s current “Common Prosperity” drive promising to close a gaping wealth divide in Chinese society — and re-assert the primacy and socialist credentials of the Party. Actors, representative of a burgeoning idol culture and the new uber-class of celebrity, have become a soft target: they are conspicuously rich and have legions of adoring fans.

Thirty-year-old Deng Lun, swooning star of hit TV show Ashes of Love, is just the latest celebrity to be put in the stocks in China for tax evasion, resulting in a grovelling public apology, a $16.6 million fine and the suspension of all his online social media accounts. He seems to have got off lightly: Alibaba’s Jack Ma, tennis star Peng Shuai and actress Vicki Zhao all briefly disappeared. The CCP doesn’t take kindly to any individuals, except the great leaders of course, having that kind of kudos. Popularity or influence can be as dangerous as dissidence.

Yet Xi’s crackdown extends well beyond celebrities. Chinese writers are also being reined in, with the CCP insisting that all art needs to “take patriotism as its muse” and “serve the people and socialism”. Unsurprisingly, given the popularity of online fiction and its TV spin-offs, the government has imposed “socialist ratings” upon online writing platforms, and a “rectification” process if the score is too low. Tang Jia San Shao’s latest novel about a cultural relic restorer is apparently intended to support an application for Beijing’s World Heritage Status.

Writers are now encouraged to write fantastical tales about “red heroes” to support the CCP’s re-booted socialist agenda. “Heroic figures that save the world and humanity, as created in the work of many internet writers, are in essence or spiritually the same as the heroes in red stories,” says the deputy general of the Shanghai Writers Association, Xue Shu.

What’s more, online writers and readers are incentivised to personally censor any inappropriate content they come across: suicide, effeminate men, the past, politics, sex or, in fact, anything below the neck. A moral society is seen as integral to the legitimacy of the Party, following an ancient Confucian principle that the government should uphold good behaviour. This is one of the main reasons why Chinese literature has long been co-opted as a didactic, rather than artistic, medium.

So, what is left when cultural industrialists and authoritarian governments have had so much control over content? Both have contributed to the homogenisation of mainstream Chinese culture, gutting it of distinct, individual voices and replacing it with dull, lifeless tropes. And both big business and Big Brother keep asking young writers to effectively saw off the branches they are sitting on.

One online writer, who goes by the name of Tiaowu, tried second guessing what would prevent his webnovel from being censored: he removed any details involving fights, religion, or lesbians. But chunks of his story kept disappearing. “You can cut off the leaves, you can cut off the branches, and the tree will live,” he wrote. “But they had me f**king cut off the entire f**king trunk.”

But there is still hope. A number of Chinese artists and writers follow neither the restless opportunism of the market, nor submit to the ever shifting and growing demands of the Party. These people, according to novelist Ge Fei, “go the other way”, often using publishers in Taiwan or, until recently, Hong Kong.

There are the surrealists born in the Fifties and Sixties — Yu Hua, Yan Lianke, Can Xue, Su Tong Mo Yan — who grapple with censored history and the absurdity of the present day in an innovative and bewitching mode known as May 35 (the imaginary date of the Tiananmen Square Massacre), in which they use metaphor, satire, surrealism, and fractured time frames to address difficult topics. Yan Lianke’s novel Dream of Ding Village is a haunting account of China’s hushed-up AIDs crisis in rural Henan, written as fiction to avoid censorship.

Meanwhile, lowly migrant workers sublimate their unacknowledged hardships on the production lines into beautiful verse in self-published magazines. Cheeky comic book writers foreground strangely subversive themes such as laziness and mediocrity as a way to poke fun at both online superheroes and the hard-working and tech-savvy youths that throng propaganda posters. And science fiction writers conjure up future societies that sit beyond the reach of political correctness and accountability.

It is unlikely these writers will ever build their own Disney World — let alone earn $18 million a year. But that’s not their aim. The diverse, not often read, landscape of Chinese fiction is full of free spirits, who stay under the radar to paint a truer portrait of Chinese society than economics and party politics reveal. According to an ancient Chinese proverb, which might be banned were it written now: “The twisted tree lives its life, while the straight tree ends up in planks.”


Megan Walsh is an arts journalist and author of The Subplot: What China Is Reading and Why It Matters.


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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

This is a very fine article, imo. As I turn away from the increasingly politicized offerings of Hollywood, I watch more foreign movies and TV series. Conspicuous by their absence are any offerings from China except for a few “Sword and Sorcery” movies which are pretty good if that’s what you’re into.
My suspicion was such an authoritarian regime wouldn’t allow original moviemakers to flourish, and that appears to be the case.
I love the idea that “lowly migrant workers sublimate their unacknowledged hardships on the production lines into beautiful verse in self-published magazines.” I wonder if English translations of any of these self-published works have found their way to the West? I would like to read them.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

My suspicion was such an authoritarian regime wouldn’t allow original moviemakers to flourish, and that appears to be the case.

Most certainly. It’s also cultural and a direct cause of communism. In a country that has been under the grip of authoritarianism for 75+ years – it doesn’t pay and is actively dangerous to think for yourself or be individual. In anything.
Taking the initiative and making decisions are far more risk than its worth. Just keep your head down.
Add that to the already more traditional, conservative, collectivist mindset inherent in Eastern cultures and you will have a recipe for creative stagnation.*

*I do not intend this as a slight – there is much to be learned from the positive flip side of Eastern cultures – importance of family values and community above individualism. Just in this case in combination with communism (and therefore erosion of family, privacy and anything other than the state) it’s fatal.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

It may not be a ‘slight’ as you say, but it does explain rather neatly how a bunch of decidedly unwashed Europeans managed to initiate the conquest of the world five centuries ago.

How else can one explain how a small bunch of Portuguese buccaneers sailed from Lisbon in 1500’s arriving in the Pearl River Estuary in 1511, and setting-up shop in Macau by 1535? Or put it another why did no Cantonese or for that matter Gujarati merchants do the opposite and set up their stalls in London?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Fair points, but historical narratives are never quite so clear cut. You are I’m sure aware that Vasco da Gama met a Gujarati merchant Kanji Malam in 1492 at the old Arab slaver colony of Zanzibar off the east coast of Africa, where he was trading spices, timber and diamonds, and he guided da Gama back to the west coast of India, finally establishing the sea route to India that European traders had been looking for for a long time. Vasco da Gama then apparently faced a hostile reception at Calicut when he got there from the local trading community, and so in typical gunboat diplomacy style took a fleet over a few years later to bring the area to heel.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
AA
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Indeed, and as writing an Epistle to UnHerd is not the same as an essay for All Souls one has to be brief.
I am sure you are also aware that in reality Vasco da Gama & Co were rather latecomers to the Orient.
Strabo*, writing at the time of Augustus is impressed by the amount trade being carried on by the Roman Empire with India, via the Red Sea ports of Berenice and Mythos Hormos. He is also scrupulous to tell us this trade originated with the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt some century or so before.
So Vasco and chums was well over a thousand years late! But got there in the end, heaven be praised!

(* 64/3 BC -24 AD.)

Prashant Kotak
PK
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Not sure it’s an authoritarian thing per se. I look at the Indian media production factories (movies, cable, serials, soaps, gameshows, print and online writing, and so on), which generate a sea of total rubbish in much the same way: plagurised, poorly performed, cartoon quality crap, depicting two dimensional human sensibilities with zero depth. If you want to see possibly some of the worst acting ever tacked on to the most plastic storylines imaginable, then turn on a popular Indian soap on ZeeTV or somesuch (but caution, you are not Indian and therefore lack the requisite innate genetic protection, so you will likely experience the urge to scratch the skin off your face with your bare nails after a few minutes).

Like the Chinese but in a different way and for different reasons, Indian social culture leads to originality and arts production that is severely lacking – the high arts culture is ossified and the pop culture is derivative. Eastern intellectual culture is slow moving to the point of being almost static – unless prompted by the West, whose techniques and output are ingested, transformed and regurgitated in a different form, at a material level with sometimes spectacularly good results (patently China) but a vacuum at an intellectual level – mass scale content production that is in fact, contentless.

Neither culture creates the conditions where large numbers of individuals seek to explore and push boundaries – and this leads to a lack of any shock-value or originality or a forward-moving intellectual climate. I genuinely look forward to the day when a creator of pop content in the East is bold and brazen enough to tunefully proclaim that their genetalia tastes like a fizzy sugar drink, without fear of reprisals or ostracisation.

Last edited 2 years ago by Prashant Kotak
Sean Penley
Sean Penley
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Some years ago I saw an interview with Chinese filmmakers. A couple of them mentioned the then-recent movie “Invasion: Los Angeles.” If you haven’t seen it, pretty standard summer blockbuster stuff. Aliens invade LA, a small team is fighting its way through the city and stumbles up on the way to defeat the aliens in the course of like one or two days. Not a great movie, but a decent popcorn action flick.
One of the Chinese filmmakers mentioned that movie could never be made in China. He said the reason was because in the movie the government was struggling to deal with the alien invasion and the Party cannot be depicted as not having all the answers or being unprepared. I was struck by how ludicrous that the Party could actually feel threatened by the idea of people thinking it might not be prepared for an alien invasion, given how it is completely impossible for us to guess the nature of technology of aliens, or if they even exist. If I wanted to get into pop psychology, I would say they have severe insecurity issues.
It also reminded me of the Chinese trolls on news sites in the early 2000s. Back then they were not very sophisticated. Any article that mentioned anything going wrong in China would be flooded with trolls calling it ‘racist’ or ‘anti-Chinese.’ I literally saw this on articles that did nothing more than mention a flood in X city or a drought in X region or a typhoon making landfall. No criticism of government response or anything, but lots of trolls insisting it was racist to talk of a flood in China. Then with the filmmaker interview it kind of came together. The Party needs to imply it can control everything, and even acts of nature make it seem weak. Years later I read about how in Imperial times too many natural disasters in short order could create the impression the dynasty was losing the mandate of heaven. I think the CCP has inherited that mentality.

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
2 years ago
Reply to  Sean Penley

…and that too is now the mentality of the ruling cliques in the Angloshere at least. Shut the gate, stay inside do what mummy tells you. Mummy knows what’s best.

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago
Reply to  Sean Penley

Anyone who ever experienced communism would agree with your comment.
Even if China is no longer communist in any meaningful sense apart from being dictatorship.

Dapple Grey
ST
Dapple Grey
2 years ago

I don’t know whether they watch it legally or not but Kdrama is huge in China – as it is becoming increasingly successful all over the world. The CCP was envious of Korea’s huge success in pop and film and drama and wanted China to rival this success.
However censorship has inhibited the brilliant creativity of the Korean drama industry and also as mentioned in the article, the CCP has forbidden the ‘girlish’ looks of some Korean stars which are adored by young Chinese

Raymond Inauen
Raymond Inauen
2 years ago

Only a few have the talent to stand out, which seems to be a global phenomenon without cultural boundaries.

Last edited 2 years ago by Raymond Inauen
Dapple Grey
Dapple Grey
2 years ago

‘Yan Lianke’s novel Dream of Ding Village is a haunting account of China’s hushed-up AIDs crisis in rural Henan, written as fiction to avoid censorship’
Interesting. I read a fascinating article (frustratingly I can’t remember its title or author) about how East German authors wrote so that readers read between the lines as there was strict censorship as in China.
Apparently once the Wall came down and they had carte blanche to write wheat they wanted, for some writer’s block descended.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

What is meant by “cheeky” in the phrase “cheeky comic book writers”?

What does “foreground strangely subversive themes” mean?

I think “cheeky” here means daring; and “foreground” here means peddle.

And I think to poke fun at certain people in China is a daring thing to do. Is that indicative of there being nothing of humour to read? Are riotous escapades and slapstick verboten? Are grandeur and importance all the rage instead? At least officially?

Is this giant book club industry a bit like the 1930s German equivalent of “sterilised swing music, military marches, and Viennese waltzes corrupted into vehicles of National Socialist feeling,” as Philipp Blom puts it, in his book, Fracture (Life And Culture In The West, 1918 – 1938). Going by what he also says, that “Jazz became the soundtrack of an age, the incendiary charge flung into society, igniting tensions, stoking sensuality, and sapping the old order,” it’s clear enough that the more, say, degenerate art forms are denied the youth, the more miserable and desperate they become.

It’s as if big government wants to steer its subjects into a sea of mediocrity in which they will be too busy wallowing to notice the new grooves and the new styles that speak of class and freedom.

Anyway, there is just something so Swiftian about this enterprise of fiction in China. A kind of a strange floating island perhaps?

John Lee
John Lee
2 years ago

Rarely have I read an article in which I am less interested.