Though China spends billions every year to boost its soft power abroad, the results are often not encouraging. However, the soft power of Chinese culture is spreading organically without any push from the state thanks to the growing popularity of online literature.
The history of online Chinese literature dates back to the early years of the Internet in the 1990s when amateur authors would post their stories either on personal websites or bulletin boards. During the early 2000s, China already had a decent online publishing industry. A Chinese company called Qidian launched the country’s first “pay to read” system where users had to make a payment to unlock chapters of a serial novel.
In 2015, the company merged with a few other entities to become a part of the publisher China Literature, which ended up accounting for over 70 percent of the online literature market in the country. According to estimates, the number of foreign readers for Chinese online literature was around 7 million last year. And this number is only growing. Not only are foreigners reading translated Chinese online literature, but many are also actively creating such content.
Webnovel is an English language website owned by China Literature. The company has hired over 200 people to translate high-quality Chinese works into English. It is also hiring foreign writers to submit original stories and has received thousands of submissions. While these works span different genres, what is common to them is that they are influenced by Chinese cultural themes.
Interest in Chinese literature is not limited to online works alone. Translated works of Chinese authors are becoming more popular internationally. Traditionally, foreign language books only make up about 3 percent of the English-language book markets. But in recent times, things have been changing pretty quickly. Foreign books accounted for more than 5.5 percent of all books in the British market in 2018, with annual sales of such translated works bringing in well over £20 million.
The translated books used to be of European origins, like French, Scandinavian, and so on. However, Chinese fantasy and sci-fi, with their blend of martial arts, are starting to carve a significant presence in the market. Jin Yong’s A Hero Born and Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem are a rage among readers who are fond of foreign literature. “Reading fiction is one of the best ways we have of putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. The rise in sales of translated fiction shows how hungry British readers are for terrific writing from other countries,” Fiammetta Rocco, administrator of the Man Booker International Prize, said to The Guardian.
China’s soft power
Though China’s influence across the world has grown significantly over the past decade, its soft power has not. This is largely said to be the result of an authoritarian government that ends up culturally repressing people’s artistic expressions. Even the movies and music promoted by Beijing fail to make any significant cultural impact, since people tend to stay away from them, knowing fully well that these works are being promoted by the state with sinister intentions in mind. This is why despite China pumping in billions to create soft power, it has failed terribly in this regard, especially in the West.
A study by Pew Research Center shows that “most Western Europeans had unfavorable views [of China], ranging from 53 percent in Spain to 70 percent in Sweden. In nearly half of the countries, there were double-digit declines, with Sweden’s score plunging 17 percentage points and the Netherlands and Britain down 11 points. Negative views of China predominated in both the U.S. and Canada, where 60 percent and 67 percent respectively saw China unfavorably,” according to the South China Morning Post.
Beijing would do well to understand that soft power is created by individuals who have creative freedom. Soft power is not the product of an authoritarian state. In fact, there has never been an instance in history where a state that is seen as an oppressive force ever held any kind of soft power sway over other people.