By Iris Yim


Recently, when I took my 11-year-old daughter to a Barnes & Noble at the Southpoint Mall in Durham, NC, I came face to face with a bookcase at a prominent location on the first floor full of anime books. To my surprise, I found translated novels and the anime versions of these books by some of my favorite Chinese online novel authors such as Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, Priest, Wu Zhe, and Meng Xishi. This is North Carolina, which doesn’t have a high concentration of Asian population. So I have to assume that these books are popular with immense appeal to the general population, prompting the bookstore manager to place them in a prominent location.


Chinese online novels are a unique cultural phenomenon that has been ongoing for the past two decades, serving as a major source of inspiration and entertainment for numerous popular TV drama series in China. In recent years, Chinese online novels have gained more attention due to the popularity of Chinese dramas based on these novels, available on Netflix (for example, Eternal Love, Ashes of Love, The Untamed, Yanxi Palace) and numerous others on YouTube with English subtitles. However, I didn’t expect to see these books translated and prominently displayed at Barnes & Noble in North Carolina. For me, this is the harbinger of a new global cultural phenomenon following the Korean Wave/Hallyu.


In the wake of the massive global success of the Korean Wave, characterized by K-Drama and K-Pop, a new cultural tide is rising from the East. Chinese dramas and online novels are fast becoming the latest global cultural phenomenon, captivating audiences worldwide with their rich narratives, deep cultural roots, and innovative storytelling.


The phenomenon of Chinese online novels, which began in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the rise of internet usage in China, has evolved into a major source of content for numerous popular TV drama series. These series not only showcase traditional Chinese elements but also innovative narratives that resonate globally. This new wave is riding on the back of established platforms and fan-driven translations, spreading Chinese cultural narratives far beyond their borders.


Chinese dramas such as The Untamed 陳情令, Nirvana in Fire 瑯琊榜, and Eternal Love 三生三世十里桃花 have not only dominated domestic markets but also made significant inroads internationally, particularly through streaming platforms like Netflix and YouTube. These dramas are adapted from equally popular online novels, creating a synergistic effect that boosts both readership and viewership.


This burgeoning interest in Chinese cultural exports comes as a refreshing shift in the global entertainment landscape, introducing themes of fantasy, romance, and historical intrigue through a distinctly Chinese lens. Just as the Korean Wave brought K-Drama and K-Pop to the global stage, the rise of Chinese dramas and novels heralds a new era in international entertainment, marking the arrival of what might be considered a “Chinese Wave.”


As this trend continues to grow, it not only enriches the global entertainment tapestry but also fosters a deeper understanding and appreciation of Chinese culture, contributing to a more diverse and interconnected world cultural economy.


Here is a brief introduction to the Chinese online novel phenomenon, including its origins, introduction outside of China (thanks to the sheer labor of love by volunteer translators because the stories are so addictive), and the popularity of Chinese dramas based on Chinese online novels, which in turn bring new readers to the world of Chinese online novels.


Chinese Online Novels – A Cultural Phenomenon



Chinese online novels have become a significant cultural phenomenon, captivating millions of readers worldwide. These novels are typically serialized on internet platforms, where authors release chapters on a daily or weekly basis, allowing for ongoing interaction between readers and writers. Here are some key aspects of Chinese online novels.


  1. Genres and Themes: These novels encompass a wide range of genres, including fantasy, romance, historical, martial arts (wuxia 武俠), and xianxia 仙俠 (fantasy tales involving magic and immortality). The stories often feature intricate plotlines, detailed world-building, and elements of traditional Chinese folklore and mythology.
  2. Interactive Platform: Unlike traditional publishing, the serialization format of online novels allows for reader feedback, which can influence the development of the story. This interaction fosters a dynamic community of fans who discuss and speculate on future plot developments.
  3. Monetization: Authors monetize their work through various means, including pay-per-chapter services, donations, and subscriptions. Successful authors can make a significant income, which incentivizes high-quality writing and regular updates.
  4. Global Reach: While these novels are rooted in Chinese culture, their appeal extends globally. Many are translated into various languages, either officially or by fan translators, making them accessible to an international audience. This has helped popularize Chinese storytelling techniques and cultural elements worldwide.
  5. Influence on Other Media: Popular online novels often transcend their original format, being adapted into comics, games, movies, and TV series. These adaptations can become major cultural products in their own right, further extending the reach and impact of the original novels.


The phenomenon of Chinese online novels showcases the potential of the internet to revolutionize storytelling, creating interactive, evolving narratives that engage readers on a global scale.


The Origin of Chinese Online Novels


The origin of Chinese online novels can be traced back to the late 1990s and early 2000s, with the rise of the internet in China. Here are a few key factors and developments that contributed to the birth and growth of this phenomenon.


  1. Internet Penetration: As internet access expanded in China during the late 1990s, more people began using it as a platform for expression and communication. This provided a fertile ground for aspiring writers to share their work with a broader audience.
  2. Bulletin Board Systems (BBS): Initially, many writers began posting their stories on BBS forums. These forums were popular for discussing various topics, including literature. Writers would serialize their stories, posting chapters regularly and gaining feedback from readers. This interactive format proved to be incredibly engaging.
  3. Emergence of Dedicated Platforms: As the popularity of online writing grew, dedicated platforms like Qidian 起點, Jinjiang 晉江文學城, and others emerged. These platforms specialized in hosting serialized novels, providing tools and support for writers to publish their works more effectively. They also introduced systems for readers to vote for, comment on, and donate to their favorite stories, incentivizing writers to produce more and better content.
  4. Influence of Earlier Forms: The tradition of serialized storytelling was not new in Chinese culture. Historical forms of literature, including classical novels originally published in serial forms in newspapers or as pamphlets during the Ming and Qing dynasties, influenced the serialized format of online novels. Furthermore, the martial arts (wuxia) novels of the 20th century, popularized by authors like Jin Yong 金庸 and Gu Long 古龍, were serialized in newspapers and magazines, setting a cultural precedent.
  5. Commercial Success and Professionalization: As some authors began to achieve significant commercial success, the hobby of writing online novels transformed into a professional endeavor for many. This attracted more writers to the platforms, further enriching the diversity and quality of available content.


These factors combined to create a robust ecosystem for Chinese online novels, allowing them to evolve from simple forum posts into a major cultural and commercial phenomenon that influences global media and entertainment industries today.


The Global Spread of Chinese Online Novels


The global spread of Chinese online novels has been facilitated through various channels and strategies, significantly impacting international audiences and contributing to the broader phenomenon of the globalization of Chinese culture. Here are the primary ways these novels have reached readers around the world.


  1. Fan Translations: Enthusiastic fans have played a crucial role in translating Chinese online novels into different languages. Initially, these translations were shared on blogs, forums, and dedicated fan sites. While not always officially sanctioned, these translations helped build a global fanbase for Chinese novels, especially in genres like fantasy and martial arts.
  2. Official Translations and Licensing: Seeing the potential in international markets, Chinese web novel platforms like Qidian International (under its global brand Webnovel) began offering official translations. These platforms provide professional translations and legally distribute content worldwide, often through agreements with the original authors.
  3. Adaptations into Other Media: Many Chinese online novels have been adapted into dramas, anime, movies, and web series, some of which have garnered international acclaim. For instance, shows like The Untamed, based on the novel Mo Dao Zu Shi 魔道祖師, have become global hits, available on international streaming services like Netflix and attracting viewers who might not typically read online novels. I, for one, dived into the Chinese online novel world after watching the first few episodes of The Untamed. I then read Heaven Official’s Blessingby the same author (Mo Xiang Tong Xiu 墨香銅臭) and went on to read the novels of other established authors such as Priest.
  4. Partnerships and Collaborations: Chinese companies have partnered with international book publishers and media companies to distribute and adapt these novels globally. This not only includes translations but also adaptations into various formats that are more accessible to international audiences.
  5. Social Media and Online Communities: The rise of social media platforms and online communities focused on discussing and promoting these novels has also contributed to their global spread. Platforms like Reddit, Twitter, and specialized forums host vibrant communities where fans discuss chapters, share translations, and explore adaptations.
  6. Cultural Export Strategy: The Chinese government recognizes the soft power potential of cultural exports like literature. Online novels, with their vast thematic diversity and appeal, form part of China’s broader strategy to influence global culture and increase its cultural exports. Ironically, the government has tightened censorship in recent years, which has had a negative impact on online novel writing, and the quality has deteriorated significantly.


These elements combined have enabled Chinese online novels to reach a diverse global audience, creating a unique cultural bridge and sparking interest in Chinese traditional and contemporary culture, language, and storytelling techniques.


The Increasing Popularity of Chinese Dramas Based on Online Novels


Chinese dramas based on online novels have seen significant commercial success and popularity, both domestically and internationally. These adaptations often capture the intricate plots and rich character development of the novels, translating them into visually engaging series that resonate with global audiences. Here are some notable examples.


  1. “The Untamed” (陈情令): Based on the novel Mo Dao Zu Shiby Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, The Untamed has become a global phenomenon. The drama, which delves into fantasy, martial arts, and the complex relationships between its characters, gained a massive following internationally. It’s available on platforms like Netflix, contributing to its global reach. The series was particularly praised for its storytelling and production quality, and it has cultivated a dedicated fan base that engages with the series through fan fiction, art, and social media discussions.
  2. “Nirvana in Fire” (琅琊榜): Adapted from the novel by Hai Yan, Nirvana in Fireis hailed for its intricate plot and deep political intrigue. The show became a major hit in China and received critical acclaim overseas as well. It was praised for its high production values and compelling narrative, leading to significant viewership on streaming platforms internationally.
  3. “Eternal Love” (三生三世十里桃花), also known as Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms: This drama is based on the novel by Tang Qi. It combines elements of fantasy and romance in a story about gods and immortals. The show was hugely successful in China and has found a passionate audience abroad, particularly in countries across Asia. It was one of the most expensive Chinese TV series ever made at the time of its release, and it paid off with high viewer ratings and strong merchandise sales.
  4. “Joy of Life” (慶余年): Based on the novel by Mao Ni, Joy of Lifeblends historical drama with humor and intrigue. It received high ratings in China and caught the attention of international viewers for its unique storytelling style and engaging plot. The show has been available on platforms like Tencent Video and YouTube, facilitating its access to a global audience.
  5. “Word of Honor” (山河令): This series is adapted from the BL novel Tian Ya Ke 天涯客by Priest. Like The Untamed, it falls within the BL (boys’ love) genre and has enjoyed immense popularity, particularly for its portrayal of the relationship between the two male leads. The show has been successful on international streaming platforms, attracting a large fanbase that appreciates its character dynamics and storyline.


These series exemplify how Chinese online novels have been successfully adapted into dramas that appeal not only to domestic viewers but also to a global audience. Their success is evident in their high viewership statistics, extensive fan engagement, and the way they have spurred interest in the original novels and Chinese culture more broadly. Here are some of my personal favorites in no particular order:

  • Ashes of Love
  • Yanxi Palace
  • The Untamed
  • Word of Honor
  • Princess Agents
  • Ever Night
  • Nirvana in Fire


Be careful—after you start a drama series, you may stay up a few nights binge-watching until you finish it. This is one of the comments for Princess Agents Episode 1 on YouTube: “I think I am watching this for the 11th time but the feelings and emotions in it don’t change no matter how many times I re-watch it … Just a masterpiece.”