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The dying art of reading books and onslaught of online fiction

SO what else is new? Young people don't read books, certainly not the classics, not even classic martial arts. It's gotta be real simple, weird and online, writes Yao Minji.

Roger Zhou was shocked to find only two classic martial arts novels in Shanghai Book City on Fuzhou Road, the biggest bookstore in Shanghai. In the martial arts section, however, Zhou did see a large number of fantasy martial arts novels with video game-type jackets, and pen names like "Eagle in the Dust" and "Addicted to Your Pale Cheek."

Still, the section attracted many readers, mostly in their teens. Sci-fi fantasy martial arts are an emerging genre.

A shop assistant confirms that Zhou didn't miss any classics - there were only two new martial arts novels by Malaysian-born writer Wen Rui'an - and nothing by legendary Jin Yong (Louis Cha) or Gu Long (Hsuing Yao-hua), traditionally the best-known and best-selling writers.

Zhou's frustrating search for classic martial arts in print - and the emergence of online sci-fi fantasy martial arts - is a story in itself about the dying love of reading good books for pleasure. It's also about the onslaught of online novel publishing as millions of young people grind out primitive pulp fiction in hopes of making it big.

It's not true that young people don't read printed books - but they have to be utilitarian, improve their complexion or help them pass exams. Who wants to read old Lao She anyway? All you need to know for the exam is that he wrote "Rickshaw Boy" and "Teahouse." As for the classics, just watch the movie or buy a cheat sheet.

Now, on with Zhou's search for martial arts that he loved in high school.

Zhou, a 30-year-old student, is studying in a US graduate school and returned to Shanghai for winter break. As he browsed through his high school pictures, he suddenly wanted to read martial arts again. After all, China is the land of classics.

"When I was in high school and college, martial arts novels were so popular that many students hid books so they could read them in class," Zhou recalls.

"Back then, every bookstore had shelves of martial arts novels. Jin Yong and Gu Long would each take a shelf and people were crowded about and reading in the store," he says.

Although mostly written in the 1960s-70s, those martial arts novels remained popular and contained fascinating details about history, custom and manners. At the time parents and teachers considered them pulp fiction and a bad influence because of they contained violence and because they were so addictive.

Each of Cha's novels has been adapted into movies and TV dramas. The dramas still come out, faced-paced and action-packed, but the books and words are missing.

Astonished and dissatisfied, Zhou visited three more large bookstores. The bookstore on Nanjing Road E. (now branch of Shanghai Book City) used to be the biggest in the city before the book city was built, and it occupied four floors of a building. Now, the building has been turned into a shopping mall and the bookstore has been relegated to only one outlet on the corner of the third floor.

Although it's a Chinese bookstore, the entrance is filled with popular English novels like "Harry Potter" or English-language books about Chinese culture and tradition. A shop assistant who declines to be identified says the books are displayed this way to attract passing expats because "it's more likely that foreigners will buy books."

Popular nonfiction

As in most other bookstores, popular nonfiction about health and skin care, exam and finance books are most prominently displayed.

The shelves labeled "Youth/Campus Novels" and "Fantasy/Martial Arts" - many with lurid, tantalizing covers - represent the two biggest sections.

The shop assistant admits they don't sell too well. Most people just read them in the store instead of taking them home because "after all, you can find most of those books online," he says. Many were online novels before they were printed.

Our martial arts seeker Zhou finally found the familiar books in a bookstore near Fudan University, quite away from Nanjing Road and Huaihai Road.

However, the books he seeks are locked in a large glass cabinet with a sign saying "Classic Martial Arts Novels," right next to another locked shelf of "Classic Contemporary Chinese Novels." That shelf contains the great names, such as Lu Xun, Lao She and Cao Yu.

Our reader goes looking for an assistant to unlock the cabinet. Bookstore manager Zhang, who declines to give his full name, says it's no trouble at all. "Very few people ask for those books and the shelf is more for display."

Zhang adds a more correct answer. "Well, they are such classics that everyone probably has one at home. We put them on the shelf as a tribute to the authors."

It's true.

Very few people buy the classics. It's not true, however, that everyone has a copy at home.

Last Tuesday was the 110th anniversary of the birth of Lao She, one of the great novelists and dramatists of the 20th century. His play "Teahouse" is always the sold-out show in the Beijing People's Theater.

Many bookstores opened a special shelf for Lao She for the anniversary, but they were rather like exhibitions. Very few people bought the books.

"He is just too far away from us and we only need him in exams for Chinese literature," says Dennis Chen, 20, a junior at Shanghai University.

"I can write his name and I know his most famous works are 'Rickshaw Boy' and 'Teahouse,' more than enough for the exam.

"How do you expect us, who grow up in one of China's richest city when the country's average economic growth rate stays at two digits for years, to understand how the poorest of the poor suffer in a bad era?"

Chen's argument is endorsed by many young people and apparently his parents. He says they agree he only needs to know the names and the basic information to pass the exams - and "maybe watch movie or drama for most of the works."

In other words, the classics are boring and complicated.

Not only is Lao She too tedious for modern readers like Chen, but so is pulp fiction martial arts master Cha.

When our determined reader Zhou went to school, Cha's books were considered bad influences because they were not "real literature," like the older or ancient classics.

It's the same old question down the ages about the merits of popular literature. The hugely popular books of Alexander Dumas, like the "Count of Monte Cristo" and "The Three Musketeers," were also considered pulp fiction for the masses. Now it's hard to get many young people to apply themselves to his great adventure yarns.

Cha is beloved by his older fans who like to dig into a good book and don't need fast-paced whiz-bang action and dialogue like thought-bubbles.

According to reluctant reader Chen, those "bad influences" of older martial arts books are like a sign of knowledge among his friends. They have all seen the movies, but hardly anyone has read the book.

"Actually, I am quite proud of myself for having read two books by Jin Yong," says Chen who read them online.

At least he read the originals.

Reading online - and virtually never the classics - is common for students and young adults. Although online "literature" has only been around for less than a decade in China, it has become the norm, especially for students and young white collars.

Thousands of Websites specialize in online literature - registration, posting and reading are free. Some people post classics, but many more post their own creations.

Over the past five years, such originals have become extremely popular, in terms of volume. Quality is another issue, of course. Popular online novels, however, frequently get published on paper. They are the majority in bookstore sections feature "Youth/Campus Novels" and "Martial Arts/Fantasy Novels."

Large well-known "literature" Websites often have thousands of contracted writers, ranging from 12-year-old middle school students to people in their 50s. They are selected from among registered users, based on the click-rate of their pages and novels. Then they become VIPs and users pay to read them.

Contracted writers assign all rights to the Website. In return, the Website upgrades them to VIP writers, who receive a monthly payment based on their popularity.

"When we started writing online, it was totally for personal interest and sense of achievement," says 31-year-old HR manager James Chu who started writing suspense novels online in 1998. That was long before any specialized lit Website emerged and the idea of online writers was new. Online writing began to develop after 2000.

"It feels so great to know that thousands of people are waiting for me to continue my story," says Chu.

"It's the same as those famous writers who had their columns in newspapers, like Jin Yong in the 1960s," he says. "No newspaper would take my story at that time, so it was a hugely pleasant surprise to write online. Back then, it was never about money."

As of the first group of Chinese online novelists, Chu has written under many pen names that he prefers not to mention these days. Many Web names from that period have become legends in online literature. And like Chu, many of those early writers just dropped out of sight, leaving their stories unfinished.

"As online literature got popular, more people started writing, I suddenly lost my passion," says Chu. "Many tried to find who I am in real life, and many people contacted me for possible partnership."

But all that shifted him away from his original direction. "I suddenly found that I couldn't even continue my story. I'm all dried out," says Chu, who mysteriously disappeared from the virtual world five years ago.

Others who are willing to emerge from the virtual world have become big name, thanks to their legends and online reputation, such as famous publisher Lu Jinbo and celebrity script writer Ning Caishen.

"It's a much more complicated world today, compared with what they faced 10 years ago," says 20-year-old art student Jane Luo, a contracted writer for Qidian Literature Website, one of the biggest.

She signed three years ago, giving up all rights to her fantasy martial arts novels and committing herself to handing in at least 150,000 words every month, not an easy job for a full-time student.

Luo says that many new online writers rush into the virtual world every day because posting is free and because they are lured by the news of millionaire online writers.

Unlike Chu in his earlier day, many online writers have great expectations for payment in the future. More than half are university students or new grads.

"Everyone hears the story of those who earn a million a year by writing online and believes it," says Luo. "The story might be true but those are the exceptions. It's like Bill Gates. There are so many software developers in the world, but there is only one Bill Gates." Last year Luo earned around 1,000 yuan (US$146) per month from the Website - that's close to the survival line in Shanghai.

In general, an online writer earns around 1,000-3,000 yuan per month, turning in 100,000-200,000 words per month. That's much lower than most people's expectations, especially given the high workload.

Predictably, many problems arise. A top online writer, who has published more than 10 books and enjoys a click-rate of more than 1 million, recently was accused of plagiarism.

Internet users not only found her paragraphs in many earlier online novels, but also some from the Chinese Wikipedia.

And faking the clicking rates, usually with software, is even more common since they determine income and publishers' interest.

It's widely reported that click rates for some of the best-known online novels were faked by publishers or Website organizers for promotional reasons.

As a pioneer, Chu still visits old forums and the new specialized Websites where he used to post. Of course, he has abandoned all his old user names. He also browses popular online offerings and gives his observations, in this case about fantasy martial arts.

"The vast majority are very long stories with violence involved, written in extremely simple and direct language, very short sentences," says Chu.

This is a result of Websites' payment systems and stiff competition. A writer has to keep it simple and direct to get more readers. Martial arts writer Cha wouldn't make it online as most people read online for fun, or to destress from daily pressure, they definitely don't want much detail or complicated sentences, nothing fancy.

And compelled to write an average of 5,000 words a day, online writers tend to be straightforward and grind it out.

For the same reason - getting clicks and pleasing people - stories always involve violence. That's supposed to make the tale exciting, and release tension, as with video games and manga books.

"That's why today's martial arts novels always involve supernatural power because pure kung fu is not exciting enough," says Chu.

Characters often have supernatural powers and are moved by the hidden hand of destiny. "This makes them more tragic and easier for readers to identify with," says Chu.

And the story never ends, because then writers won't get paid - they'd have to begin a whole new story, and it's easier to continue with new adventures for the hero.

Because popular stories often involve supernatural power, those who die can return to life. A hero may find himself in love with his sister or in a fight against his brother. He could have 30 lovers in one story to keep it running, or he could turn into a woman for another series. Logic is beside the point, the more outlandish a story, the better.

Of course, some quality works do float to the surface of the online ocean of "literature," such as Murong Xuecun, who just published his new book after disappearing for three years at his peak. Although he writes online, he was nominated for the prestigious Man Asia Prize last year, along with established traditional writer Yu Hua. His books about the high-pressure life of urban office workers have also been printed.

In 2007, the award was given to Jiang Rong for his controversial and best-selling novel "Wolf Totem."

Although Murong didn't win, the nomination made him a hero in the field of online literature as recognized by the traditional literary world. Some of his early novels will also be translated and published in English.


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