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Narratives of Chinese online literature expand

MA JI | 2022-01-06 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Chinese online literature has won wide readership among the rapidly growing number of internet users at home and abroad with its unique mass narrative literature. Photo: CHINA DAILY

In the second half of the 20th century, all over the world popular literature and art began to flourish. Hollywood movies, Japanese anime, and South Korean TV dramas, each with its own characteristics, added diversity to the global entertainment market. In this context, Chinese online literature opened a new pathway, winning wide readership among the rapidly growing number of internet users at home and abroad with its unique mass narrative literature. 

In the field of online narrative literature, in addition to conventional literary research methodologies, two research possibilities stand out: One is the influence of digital space, and its preferred modes for reading and writing; and the other is the diversity of texts, such as the similarities and differences between online texts, paper texts, and Intellectual Property (IP) texts.
Typologic literature
In narrative literature, online literature could be classified as typologic literature, but due to virtual transmission and differentiated reading and writing preferences, it has spawned a new aesthetic paradigm, featuring mass aesthetic appeal, entertainment purposes, fragmentation and flattening of reading, as well as traffic-orientation and transmission homogeneity. 
Originating from typologic literature, online literature stands out with its mass narratives and its deep compatibility with the contemporary spirit. For example, web novel Wukong is inspired by the Chinese classic Journey to the West and the movie A Chinese Odyssey. It retains the story and characters of Journey to the West, namely the master and the disciple, and adopts the language and narrative of A Chinese Odyssey. In the web novel, the plot traces a modern westward journey with the same characters as in ancient times, but updated with a modern way of thinking and conceptually set in a modern world. The narrative, which combines ancient tradition and a modern spirit, makes it a classic in online literature.
Since VIP online paid reading became the norm in 2003, online literature has been dominated by full-length novels. With growing length, the narratives have gradually shifted from spirituality-dominated to plot-based writing. Due to the large number of characters (usually several hundred), core narratives have shifted from character-building to a presentation and description of events. In several popular web novels, it can be found that online literature has a relatively complete concept of space, while time is often diluted, blurred, and even restructured, becoming fragmented and unrestricted, which caters to the expanding consumption psychology seen in contemporary society where we “trade time for space.”
Many xuanhuan (fantasy featuring adventures and warfare), xianxia (immortal heroes), and historical novels, draw a geographical map which is in parallel to the real world or offers an alternate history, with virtual time. In other words, there is no limit to life’s cyclical nature, which is also in line with the hypothesis from modern cosmology that “the connotation of time is endless and eternal.” 
Time travel is widely used in fantasy novels and historical novels, but it is different from the concept of time and space in science fiction. In short, hyperspace and space-time shifts are often the purpose of science fiction, but they are only plot devices for xuanhuan, xianxia, and historical fiction. Sometimes time travel novels overlap with xuanhuan and xianxia novels to a small extent. For example, interstellar travel and otherworldly lands are similar in narrative fiction, but generally speaking, time travel novels mostly appear in historical narratives. Different from the “parallel world,” the main purpose of time travel is not to create a different world, but to achieve a spatial transfer, so that there is some connection between two spaces existing in different time periods. 
In particular, female-dominated time travel novels tend to focus on content structure, and the correlation between form and content is evidently higher than in male-dominated novels. Therefore, it is commonly said that it’s best to read “male characters for alternate history, female characters for time travel,” which is a concise summary of online narrative literature.
In recent years, online literature has become more down-to-earth and realistic themes have been vigorously advanced, reflecting ordinary heroes in different industries. A decade ago, the emergence of techno-streaming fiction was a revelation, changing the perception that online fiction lacked authenticity. 
At the same time, a number of high-quality narrative works emerged, such as Gu Jian’s Yuan Hong, which follows the life of protagonist Ding Cunkou from the age of nine to 35 in the 1970s water town of northern Jiangsu Province, and A Nai’s All Is Well which depicts conflicts and problems among Chinese family members discussing issues like traditional Chinese families’ preference for boys over girls, kenlao (adult children who depend on their parents financially), and generational conflicts when it comes to providing care for the elderly. These works are not only accessible, but also touch on acute and profound contradictions in society. It is worth noting that online literature is learning from the narrative style of traditional literature, which is close to reality and truly reflects the times.
Due to the characteristics of online literature, male-dominated novels and female-dominated novels have obvious differences, which must be discussed separately. In fact, apart from creating a “sense of substitution” or “resonance” that is similar to traditional literature, online narrative literature is constantly changing. Basically, the form has changed from simple to complex, the content has changed from single to compound, and the structure has changed from planar to three-dimensional pluralism.
Male-dominated novels
The first stage of online literature is exemplified by Wukong (2000), Jade Dynasty (2003), and Buddha Is the Dao (Fo Ben Shi Dao) (2006). The second stage includes Fights Break Sphere (2009), Fighter of the Destiny (2014), and The Mysterious Lord (2018). The golden 18 years of Chinese online literature departs from traditional Chinese narrative literature, and returns to it upon the immersion of Western fantasy and the pressure and promotion of IP orientation. This has been a difficult fission process, where web novels survive by never stopping their tenacious struggle, through the transformation and evolution of narrative fiction. 
As an early masterpiece of xuanhuan novels, Jade Dynasty takes into account the characteristics of both Eastern and Western fantasy narrative works, wining wide readership. This great work opens up a new path for the narrative of online fantasy literature. In 2006, a new phenomenological text, Buddha Is the Dao, appeared. It returns to Chinese classical literature, and establishes a grand narrative in line with contemporary cultural demands by means of absorption, emergence, and reconstruction. 
Fights Break Sphere had obvious IP characteristics in its narrative style, such as a strong narrative plot, reduced descriptive words, characters’ actions are clearly pictured, and a more inclusive and open design of characters. This shifting narrative is the fundamental reason why Fights Break Sphere has become the literary hegemon of the 4G era. In this sense, the originality emphasized by web novels explores how to expand information levels in text with the aid of technological progress, which is also an essential IP attribute. 
The rapid upgrade of online literature IP not only changes the singular narration of the genre, but also speeds up resonance between online literature and traditional literature in artistic essence. This comes from the requirements of online literature itself, and is also the only way forward when mass literature hits the ceiling. 
In the past decade, the emergence of works such as Douluo Continent and Fighter of Destiny make it clear that digital reading is no longer an insurmountable goal, and IP-based online literature leads the call for the 5G era’s arrival. Compared with previous phenomenal works, such as Jade Dynasty and A Record of a Mortal’s Journey to Immortality, this evolution embodies the two-way extension of technology and content, and new narratives play an extremely important role in it.
Female-dominated novels
Web novels where female characters play a leading role are more attentive to social issues. They often focus on the character and depict her family and professional life, with romance as the core. Through the subtle perception of change in the protagonist’s inner world, they reflect different gradients of social life. In terms of narratives, romance among characters is particularly important, and love stories endure. No matter whether set in historical or modern times, whether shaped by workplace or palace intrigue, all themes are rooted in female youth and growth. The emotional dynamics of characters become the main way to depict characters. 
In female-dominated web novels, “Mary Sue” is a common trope of the typical female protagonist, whose is the essence of female fantasy. However, this literary trope does not just appear in CEO romances, but also in classic web novels. The female protagonists in classic web novels are mostly talented and beautiful, but they are not “blondies.” From Zhen Huan (Legend of Zhenhuan) and Mi Yue (Legend of Miyue) in ancient times to Du Lala (Go LaLa Go!) and Andi (Ode to Joy) in modern times, and time traveler Ruoxi (Scarlet Heart), they all fit the super “Mary Sue” image. They are independent with a complete personality, and demonstrate a feminine tenderness, liveliness, constancy, grace, and wisdom.
In terms of narration, web novels have formed a relatively independent literary world when depicting this theme. Among various forms of expression, tragic love shows distinct gender characteristics as a very important narrative strategy in female-dominated online fiction. In fact, tragic love has its profound cultural soil and gender consciousness in Chinese literature. There is a narrative mode known as “bitter drama” in ancient Chinese operas. As the bearers of suffering, often women criticize patriarchal society and protect the weak. The purpose of tragic love is to enhance the drama of the story and the reader’s reading experience.
After more than 20 years of online literature creation, it is those works who have mature and independent ideological values, and can distill the origin of life from infinite imagination, which finally stand out. Online writers are probably the most active people in the 21st century and the most sensitive to new things. In the massive texts they create, we can see that their exploration of the field of fantasy and urban narratives is a remarkable achievement.
Ma Ji is from the Institute of the Chinese Writers Association Online Literature Research. 
Edited by YANG XUE