Posted by Joel Martinsen on Saturday, October 14, 2006 at 1:14 AM
A young, slightly shy and awkward girl has a crush on the star athlete in her class, a handsome, smart, slightly dangerous young scion of a moneyed family who normally wouldn't give her the time of day. But for some reason she gets plucked out from among her more popular classmates and the two of them live happily ever after, the envy of their peer-group.
A classic Cinderella story, as told by Gwiyeoni, or Ming Xiaoxi, or Xiao Nizi, or Guo Ni, or any number of other young adult authors whose novels appear on newsstands and bookshelves every month like clockwork. Plotted to make anyone over the age of 17 turn away in disgust, and written using language that will have anyone over the age of 20 reaching for a copy of the Guide to Chinese Netspeak, these novels claim incredible sales, but questions have been raised about authorship, circulation figures, and the free gifts that are included with every purchase.
Who writes these books? Guo Ni (aka GirlneYa), for example, published six titles in the first half of this year, and in August said that her publisher, looking meet rising demand in the second half, upped her contract to require her to write one-and-a-half books a month (around 130,000 characters apiece). This pace naturally raises suspicions of creative teams and ghostwriting.
Guo's editor at the 21st Century Publishing House said that there was an authorship team behind the novels, something that Guo's personal assistant denies. The series' designer Lu Jinbo said that while there is a creative team, it does not replace Guo as the actual pen behind the books, telling The Beijing News, "Some write outlines, some work marketing, and some collect letters and material from readers."
This last part is apparently pretty important: "When the protagonist died in 23 Angel Street III, we received 500 letters a day all wanting the protagonist not to die. So we had him resurrected for part IV."
Guo herself reportedly worked as part of a YA fiction creative team before striking out on her own. While attending Hunan Normal University, Guo Ni worked ghost-writing young-adult novels, and when she graduated from the journalism department in 2003, she and some of her former colleagues started working on the Xiao Nizi line of novels. In an interview with The Beijing News in late August, Guo Ni said that she had formerly been the lead writer on that project. "We chose the name 'Xiao Nizi' because that had been what I was called as a kid." Later, she said, since the publishers wanted Xiao Nizi to be a group effort, they completely reworked all of her writing, she left the project in disgust.
The publisher tells a different story, however. Guo Ni was just an assistant to Xiong Jing, the writer behind Xiao Nizi, and never actually participated in any part of the creative process. "Xiao Nizi" is merely a term of affection in the Changsha dialect and has nothing to do with Guo Ni's name at all.
And many members of the Xiao Nizi creative team were taken from the journalism department of Hunan Normal University, where a training base, "Merry Product," had been set up for young writers. Zhou Yiwen, head of the publishing group behind Xiao Nizi and a lecturer at the university, said that Guo Ni couldn't write worth anything: "She never even finished her graduation thesis, and never even graduated. I bet she can't even write a 500-word essay." HNU records show that Guo Ni did graduate; evidently there's bad blood between the two book lines.
Xiong Jing intimated as much speaking at a press conference in September:
Guo Ni is not the only one that's been trying to profit off the Xiao Nizi brand. Like other popular literary properties, Xiao Nizi's novels are surrounded by books whose authors are suspiciously similar - "Nizi" and "Xiao Ni'er", to name two.
Most of these books are priced at around 25 yuan, not too expensive in isolation, but when many of the novels are multi-parters, expenses can escalate fairly quickly for the typical middle-school fan. And there have been recent rumblings that publishers are taking advantage of the purchasing habits of their audience by including stickers, journals, bookmarks, and other "free gifts" to increase the price.
Here are the contents of the package that includes Wall Flower Girl (壁花小姐奇遇记1), Guo Ni's July publication:
· Book (Wall Flower Girl part 1)
For comparison, here are the gifts included with Ditty March (G小调进行曲3), Xiao Nizi's May effort:
· Book (Ditty March part 3)
Purely by quantity, the advantage would go to Guo Ni, but in my general impression, Xiao Nizi provides cleverer diary/planners and cuter stickers - or perhaps the junk in the GirlneYa package is simply less understandable to readers outside the target audience. Xiao Nizi also cleverly traps her readers in an upgrade cycle - they've bought the conclusion to Ditty March, but they'll have to buy the first installment of the next novel to get the continuation of Lolita Knight.
I'd like to mention in passing the excellent editing job the Xiao Nizi group did in their handbooks, since we've mocked the use of English in Chinese publications on Danwei in the past. From the Princess edition's bilingual list of "Golden Phrases" ("Don't look down on those people whose mouths are all honey and sugar; they have in their hands the world's most dangerous weapon - words!"):
Unfortunately for our male readers, there is not a corresponding phrase list in the Prince edition.
The inclusion of all this extra material led the Beijing Times to ask if readers were "buying books or buying office supplies," and speculating as to how much the price would come down if the packaging were simplified.
The emphasis on design also means there's more talent involved than in the production of a standard publication. Ditty March credits the publisher Beiqiu Arts, the Hunan Normal University-based writing group Merry product, and a design group Sol Bianca, while the back flap of Wall Flower Girl lists creation by GIRLNEYA works, planning by XinYeah Planning works, arrangement by 12 Feather Edition works, design by Thunder Design works, and painting by SOL.Castlevania Art works.
Are the books selling well? The TBN report, which does have something of the feel of a hatchet job, quotes Guo Ni's publisher claiming sales of 2.05 million copies of her first six novels this year were sold through August. This figure is hard to substantiate; sales at bookstores were markedly lower than her primary competitors, and even other YA authors like Han Han, not to mention major authors like Yu Hua, moved more books in the first half of the year at many bookstores. Bertelsmann's book club reported orders for 100,000 copies of Guo Ni's novels, but this figure represents the combined sales volume of all six books.
These books also tend to do a large portion of their business at non-bookstore outlets, where figures are hard to gather. My local newsstand, in a prime location down the street from a middle school, has twenty-some of these books on display alongside several large posters for some of the latest releases; the attendant told me that Korean authors sold best. Gift shops and fashion jewelry shops also carry Xiao Nizi and friends.
Ok, but what are these books really like? Here's an excerpt from the cliffhanging closing to Wall Flower Girl Part I, whose back-cover teaser reads "I say, God, you're a bastard!" Our heroine, Cai Xiang, a second-year student at Guosheng Academy, a girls' school, is onstage with Jiang Youchen, a second-year student at the Yinglun Academy, a boys' school. The previous day Jiang had been photographed in the act of embracing Cai, who was attending the Yinglun sports meet dressed as a boy. In this scene, she is her school's representative sent to give an adoring hug to Jiang, the winner of the sports meet and the "prince of Yinglun":
I heard Lin Zihao's words and my heart stopped beating. I didn't know how to answer, but Jiang Youchen nodded happily and in front of the astounded eyes of everyone, walked straight in front of me, extended his arms, and embraced me!
"It's a pleasure to see you again. This is great!" Jiang Youchen's voice sounded gently in my ear.
No, no! My heard was about to leap out of my throat!
"Your heart's really beating!" Hugging me gently, Jiang Youchen whispered softly to me, like a child. How could he be sensitive enough to feel the beating of my heart?!
I hurried to push him away, gently, but I kept my head down, not daring to look at him.
"You....you...." Lin Zihao, standing at the microphone with his mouth in an O shape, found his voice. "Apparently, our Yinglun prince isn't interested in girls. He's pushed her away. Perhaps this blurry photograph is actually real...."
It was obvious that I pushed Jiang Youchen away! But he said that Jiang Youchen pushed me away! That little rat! I glared angrily at Lin Zihao, but he just laughed harder!
"Right, I think it was this morning that I saw a strange photograph posted up..."
"Jiang Youchen can't be like what the rumors say, with those peculiar appetites..."
The students offstage listening to Lin Zihao started talking among themselves. Oh, no, if rumors continued like this they'd become reality!
"Originally, I didn't want to tell you all, but the way things are now, there's no way I can keep from saying it!" Yin Diyuan's voice came over the loudspeaker. "First, thank you to all students for giving Jiang Youchen this opportunity. I want to speak for Jiang Youchen to announce an important piece of information - this student here is Jiang Youchen's girlfriend!"
Speechless, I lifted my head and stared at Yin Diyuan standing solemnly in front of the microphone. He looked as if everything was normal, and turning to look at Jiang Youchen - my God! He was looking at me with that mesmerizing smile of his!
Crushed Lin Zihao, Yin Diyuan with that card up his sleeve, beaming, satisfied Jiang Youchen, the jealous, shouting idiots in front of the stage....and An Yufeng standing among the crowd, shot me a look with with such an unreadable expression that I couldn't meet his eyes....
I suddenly couldn't hear any of the sounds surrounding me. Standing dumbly at the center of everyone's gaze, blank, hypnotized....
Me, Cai Xiang -
Someone forgotten by God!
Could possibly become the girlfriend of the first prince of Yinglun?!
Oh, God, I haven't prayed to you, why must you tease me so!
I'm not dreaming, am I.......
Links and Sources
Jobs in China
Henry on The Eurasian Face
Caroline W on Big in China
Michael on Julia Lovell on translating Lu Xun's complete fiction: "His is an angry, searing vision of China"
Brandon K. on Clueless academic takes on popular fantasy novels
China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
Books on China
The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Korean history doesn't fly on Chinese TV screens (2007.09): SARFT puts the kibbosh on Korean historical dramas.
+ Religion and government in an uneasy mix (2008.03): Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊) article from October, 2007, on government influence on religious practice in Tibet.
+ David Moser on Mao impersonators (2004.10): I first became aware of this phenomenon in 1992 when I turned on a Beijing TV variety show and was jolted by the sight of "Mao Zedong" and "Zhou Enlai" playing a game of ping pong. They both gave short, rousing speeches, and then were reverently interviewed by the emcee, who thanked them profusely for taking time off from their governmental duties to appear on the show.