China's mobile phones lead a reading revolution


Mobile phones are becoming pocket libraries for millions of avid readers in China, writes CLIFFORD COONANin Beijing

THE PERSON sitting opposite you on the subway in Beijing or Shanghai may look like they are staring dumbly at their mobile phone, but chances are they are engrossed in a thrilling novel specially created for their device.

Millions of Chinese have abandoned traditional books for mobile phone novels, and as smartphones start to become more popular in China, the genre is getting ever more popular. The novels are punchy and pacy, the whole process is wildly interactive and it’s transformed reading in China.

“The appearance of mobile phone literature may revive the declining mid-sized novel and poem in China,” says Zhang Yiwu, a literature professor at Peking University and one of China’s most respected commentators.

Written Chinese is a character-based language, so each word is a concise pictogram, rather than a lengthy English word of several letters which takes up more space. This makes Chinese a great language to write mobile phone novels in, as you can communicate a lot of words in a relatively small area of space.

“Mobile phone literature needs an intense outline, a shallow writing style and a lively atmosphere. I think the length is not the real trouble,” says Shen Haobo, president of Beijing Motie who published the popular book The Story of the Ming Dynasty.

The idea came from Japan, which also uses Chinese characters in one of its writing systems, but Chinese authors and readers have gone for it in a major way as it avoids the censorship that interferes with content in traditional formats. Tens of thousands of writers publish their works for free online to be downloaded by readers on to their phones.

Most have a small readership, but some get thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of readers and at that point, the big online publishing houses start to show an interest. One of the biggest publishers of mobile phone books, Shanda, gets hundreds of millions of hits to its websites every day. Readers often text messages back to the authors to complain about plot development or characters.

The rights to film one popular mobile phone novel, Ghost Blows Out the Light, went for millions of yuan. Data shows that almost half of Chinese adults read books, in different forms, and about 25 per cent of readers – some 220 million people – read electronic media.

Of these, almost 120 million people use their mobile phone to read, and almost 25 million people only use their cellphones to read books.

Mobile phone books break down into two categories in China. The first are regular novels that would normally be read in hard copy form, but which China’s increasingly mobile and fast-moving society prefers to digest on their mobile phones.

The biggest sellers in this genre are writers such as Guo Jingming, Liu Liu and Han Han a dashing figure who sidelines as a race car driver and who is probably the world’s most popular blogger. The other kind is the genuine mobile phone novel, a work of fiction specifically written for the mobile phone.

The first-ever mobile phone novel in China was “Out of Town”by Qian Fucheng in 2004. It was groundbreaking at the time. The book has 60 chapters, with 70 characters in each chapter, for a total of 4,200 words. He sold the rights both to mainland China and Taiwan, and earned more than 500,000 yuan (€58,000), earning him the reputation as the writer with the most expensive words in China.

“When I started to write this novel, I was excited, I was thinking the text message on a mobile phone should be more than just simple jokes, it should work on a higher level of literature,” he told local media. “The way of writing is totally different, because 70 characters is not enough for one sentence in the traditional novel, so I tried to discover a whole new area of literature, and to go carefully.

“I always remind myself – less conversation and less description. As it’s a novel, I need to tell the story in a good way, but I also need to save space, I cannot waste a single word, or even punctuation marks,” said Qian.

There were more than 800,000 subscribers to Out of Town, each of them receiving a chapter twice a day, and the book made millions for the publishers.

There is considerable debate about what length the mobile phone novel should be. Some traditionalists say it should be longer, rather than shorter, whereas others believe brevity is what sets them apart.

According to data published by the China Internet Network Information Centre, 38.7 per cent of mobile phone users want to read fresh content specifically for their phones, rather than mobile versions of hard-copy novels.

Longer novels of between 300,000 and 500,000 characters, or even mid-sized novels of between 100,000 and 200,000 words, may not be suitable for mobile media.

“A noisy reading environment and the fragmented reading time mean that reading a mobile phone book should not be the same as reading real book,” Xia Lie, director of Sheng Da Literature Research Centre, told the Shanxi News.

“Mobile reading is now creating a new literature model – it should not make people feel tired to read, each episode should not surpass four lines, and each episode has to contain a funny sentence or joke to inspire the readers not to give up, not to stop reading. This means love stories, historical stories and horror stories, as well as novelty books are the main categories of mobile phone books now,” said Xia.

The website is China’s first website which acts as a platform for writing, reading and communication of original literature based on the mobile network.

“We found that novels of between 100,000 and 300,000 words are the most popular, since it costs the same to subscribe to one novel with 10,000 words as it does to subscribe to one with 100,000 words,” a spokesman for the website says.