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Chinese Fanfiction is Entering Into (and Upsetting) the Mainstream

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Earlier this year, two popular TV dramas centered around tomb raiding were released in China. In April, Candle in the Tomb: The Lost Caverns premiered on major streaming platform Tencent Video; later in the summer and fall, two seasons of Reunion: The Sound of the Providence came out on rival sites Youku and iQIYI.

Both series are adaptations of successful online novels, and are credited with starting the Chinese tomb raiding story craze that is still ongoing. Peculiarly, both online novels began serialization in 2006, and both of them have an overlapping character, Chubby Wang. Given these similarities, it’s natural to wonder whether one of these authors plagiarized the other.

But it wasn’t plagiarism — the two series are the result of fanfiction. 

Chinese fanfiction has been in the spotlight this year thanks to the huge AO3 scandal involving The Untamed star Xiao Zhan and certain sections of his fanbase, but this is just one indicator of how popular fanfiction has become in the country — and how it is beginning to spill over into the mainstream.

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It Came From Japan

The Chinese word for fanfiction, tongren wen (同人文), is a direct adoption of the Japanese term for fanfiction through its kanji form. The development and history of modern Chinese fanfiction is a relatively recent phenomenon, but as is so often with the case there are some ancient precedents. For example, Romance of the Three Kingdoms — one of the four great classic novels of Chinese literature — is often regarded as a fanfiction of Records of the Three Kingdoms, a historical text. The former appeared in the 14th century.

In author and Grinnell College professor Jin Feng’s discussion of danmei (BL or “boy’s love”) novels in China, she briefly touches on the subgenre of BL fanfiction. In her article “Addicted to Beauty,” Jin traces the tradition of egao, or spoofing, from Japan, and its gradual flow into Chinese cultural works via Taiwan and Hong Kong. She not only cites examples of fanfiction that spoof landmark novels like Dream of the Red Chamber (another of China’s four classics), but also contemporary works such as martial arts novelist Jin Yong’s Legend of the Condor Hero

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These origins in spoofing, combined with genre’s emergence online (often looked down upon by traditional publishing houses), has led to Chinese fanfiction being marginalized in some respects. And though fanfiction has made strides toward the mainstream in recent years, another significant factor limiting this progress is the ambiguity that surrounds the rights (or lack thereof) to rework original stories and characters.

While it is common for authors to pay homage to their literary forebears in their own original works, sometimes it is difficult to tease out what is a nod to the masters and what is fanfiction in disguise. Similarly, the laws around fanfiction and the right to commercialize popular names, characters and storylines is still unclear in China. 

Unclear and Untamed

For an example of how these lines get blurred, we need look no further than one of the most popular — and most frequent headline-generating — dramas of the last 18 months: The Untamed. The Xiao Zhan- and Wang Yibo-starring TV series was based on online novelist Moxiang Tongxiu’s Chinese animation work Modao Zushi, a work that to some reads like a fanfiction spin on Jin Yong’s Smiling, Proud Wanderer, one of his best known wuxia novels.

A number of commentators have highlighted the similarities between Modao Zushi’s main character Wei Ying and Smiling’s protagonist Linghu Chong, both of whom are avid drinkers with fun-loving, boisterous personalities. Wei Ying’s character development and life events are very similar to those of Linghu Chong, as he goes from orphanhood to become a leader in exile, and deals with the demonization of thinking outside the box. Meanwhile, Wei Ying’s dedication to his adopted elder sister mirrors Linghu Chong’s relationships with his adopted mother and adopted sister, though Linghu Chong’s temporary romantic interest in his adopted sister early on in Jin Yong’s novel is not replicated by Wei Ying. 

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While numerous other commonalities can be drawn between Linghu Chong and Wei Ying, the most important tie between the two works is actually how Modao Zushi “course corrects” the tragedy that Smiling opens with: the doomed friendship of the characters Liu Zhengfeng and Qu Yang, who occupy opposite sides of an important alliance in the book.

This reframing of the story shown in Smiling is a prominent characteristic of fanfiction in general, with stories under this genre tending to change aspects of an original story that the writer or readers are unhappy about. 

However, when it comes to the legal right of writers to protect their intellectual property, the laws are not entirely clear. One of the more prominent cases surrounding fanfiction and the protection of rights actually involved Jin Yong, along with fantasy writer Jiang Nan.

In 2017, Jin Yong sued Jiang Nan for copying names used in his novels, contending that the use of these names, their relationships and their personalities were adapted without permission and constituted copyright infringement and unfair competition. Because the IP laws surrounding the issue were vague, the court ruled that it did not constitute copyright infringement, as the character names were set within different worlds and different timelines from those in Jin Yong’s stories, but that it did constitute unfair competition.

The result was that Jiang Nan and his publishing company were ordered to stop publishing and distribution, thereby establishing a dangerous and murky precedent for fanfiction writers in China.

A Fanfiction Reckoning

The recent Xiao Zhan and Archive of Our Own controversy provides another level of fascination within the complications of the Chinese mediascape and its interconnectivity with fandom.

Archive of Our Own, also known as AO3, is a popular international fanfiction platform for writers and readers. One can search up any title in any language, and usually discover at least a dozen fanfictions written about it over the last ten years. Fanfiction on this platform ranges from real person fanfiction to those that take original works in a new direction. One particularly rich seam is of course the works of fanfiction regarding the bromance depicted in Modao Zushi and The Untamed, but there are also many real person fanfictions that play up the romance between actors Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo rather than simply their characters — content which ended up having wide-reaching consequences. 

AO3 was banned in China in March of this year due to a targeted effort from a section of Xiao Zhan fans, who were unhappy with some of the fanfiction involving their idol. That subsequently led to AO3 fans countering with attacks on Xiao, resulting in the actor losing a number of high-profile brand endorsements. Even now, months later, the controversy continues to dog the young star.

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With the PRC’s stringent measures in controlling the internet and “inappropriate” content, the actions of these fans have brought about real life consequences, not only in the form of policy changes, but also in the daily lives of those who accessed AO3 for posting or reading fanfiction on a regular basis. The incident has also derailed Xiao Zhan and his team’s career in recent months, despite their innocence. What is written on the internet does not stay on the internet. 

The question of whether fanfiction should be considered literature may never have a definitive answer, but it is undeniable that Chinese fanfiction has taken up an important place on the internet, as well as having real life impact on fanfiction writers and readers — and beyond.

Header image: “Reunion: The Sound of the Providence”

Gladys Mac
    Gladys Mac received her Ph.D. from USC. She wrote her dissertation on Jin Yong’s fiction and their visual adaptations. Her research interests range from Asian popular culture to ancient history, and everything in between. She is currently teaching at Pepperdine University.