As Li Ke tells it, the police station in the steel-mill county of Xiangyuan is like any other in central China. The air is heavy with industrial dust. Steam rises from mugs of tea. At their desks, idling officers, cell phones in hand, scroll absorbedly through the latest installments of their favorite online novels. Huddled with them is Li, a shy, chubby policeman with a schoolboy buzz cut. Unbeknownst to his colleagues, the 29-year-old also happens to be a prize-winning Internet author whose latest tale features a cop with superpowers who leads a double life. Once, a fellow officer asked Li whether he had ever heard of a writer named Red Eyes, the pen name Li uses online. "Yes," he replied, with a grin. "I've heard he's very handsome."
Web publishing is booming in China, more than anywhere else in the world. For the first time in the People's Republic's history, there is literature of the people by the people. After all, despite its economic transformation, China is still an authoritarian nation, where the government places more emphasis on molding public opinion than embracing a diversity of voices. Yet with more than 510 million Chinese tethered to the Internet, the online arena is the freest space in China today, even if the Great Firewall blocks some sensitive information. Anyone with an Internet connection can write a serialized novel by logging on to one of hundreds of self-publishing websites. Millions of Chinese from migrant workers and officials to housewives and the odd cop have tried their hands at what is known in Mandarin as wangluo wenxue, or "network literature." "The Internet is where Chinese can truly express themselves," says Zhang Yunfan, CEO of Zongheng, an online-publishing website that gets 35 million page views per day. "If you want to know what Chinese are thinking and feeling, read online novels."
It's a big business too. In a society in which economic advancement is seen not just as an ambition but as an imperative, hundreds of thousands of amateur writers are making decent money by posting serialized fiction online. Yu Xiaoming, for instance, was working as a gastroenterologist in Shanghai and in his spare time posted novels inspired by the online game World of Warcraft. Last December, the 30-year-old quit his day job because he makes double his old $1,600 monthly salary by posting daily updates of his fantasy fiction. An online novel can sell for as little as 30 cents, with readers often paying only for later chapters of a book. But with more than 200 million Chinese reading e-fiction on cell phones, tablets and computers, the money adds up. Cloudary Corp., which owns six user-generated literary websites, reported net revenues of $48 million in the first half of 2011; each day, an average of 58 million Chinese characters are uploaded onto its sites. "It's a grassroots movement," says Chen Aiyang, a 26-year-old chemistry graduate whose fantasy novels generate tens of millions of hits each. "Chinese want entertainment, and the Internet is the best place to deliver it."
The impact of e-publishing resonates far beyond the virtual world. Successful e-novels have sparked a frenzy of print versions and related record-breaking TV shows, movies and video games. Famed director Zhang Yimou's 2010 offering, Under the Hawthorn Tree, originated from an online novel. "We're always looking for new stories, and the Internet is one of the best places to find them," says Lee Kwok-lap, a Hong Kong director who brought to the TV screen Every Step Surprises Your Heart an e-novel that had garnered 100 million hits with its tale about a modern-day woman who time-travels to the Qing dynasty. "Online, people just write from their imaginations and there are no boundaries or restrictions."
The success of online publishing is directly related to the failures of China's straightjacketed book business. The Middle Kingdom may have invented paper, but the communist state has long regarded books with suspicion. During the Cultural Revolution, Chinese classics and foreign fiction alike were tossed onto bonfires and burned. Today, some state-run publishing houses still see literature as a propaganda, educational or self-improvement tool, not a vehicle for something as crass as entertainment. Although a thriving trade now exists in online novels turned into paper books, many of the juicy tales that lure online readers, like risqué campus romances or brawny detective stories, would have little chance of making it to print first. In the offline world, a manuscript can only be published after censors scour each page for hidden references to sex, politics or other taboo topics. If for some reason a sensitive passage gets printed, a publishing house can be fined or even shut down.