Since its emergence in the 19th century, fantasy fiction has proliferated throughout the world, from the global craze of Lord of the Rings (1954) to Harry Potter (1997). As a sub-genre of fantasy based on Chinese traditional mythology and martial arts literature, Xuanhuan novels have achieved immense popularity among both critics and readers (Gai, 2006). The appearance of the first Xuanhuan novel written by Huang Yi, A Step into the Past (1994), which combined science fiction, time travel, historical military and martial art elements, started a process which has caused this genre to sweep through China. Xuanhuan novels feature intensity, immediacy, and gripping suspense, and thus, once online literature websites began to burgeon after 2000, Xuanhuan novels became the dominant genre; this format now attracts millions of readers alongside thousands of authors .
On the most popular online literature website, Qi Dian (www.qidian.com), Xuanhuan novels have attracted millions of hits; these novels have been adapted into games, TV series and films, bringing this sub-genre into the purview of Chinese literary critics. Zhao (2008) argues that Xuanhuan fiction has benefited from the Internet, which fundamentally lowered the threshold of publishing, facilitated the emergence of modern web literature from grass roots sources, and provides a highly interactive platform for authors and readers. Gai (2006), one of the first fantasy critics in China, also pointed out that adventurous and rebellious youth are likely to be attracted by these types of fantastic stories, which appease their aspiration for emotion and success. The producers of Xuanhuan novels are usually unknown amateurs, who are often criticized for lack of literary merit, mistakes in common sense, and contradictory logic, being accused of misleading youth into addictive, restless, and illusive excitement (Tao, 2006; Gai, 2006; Zhao, 2008).
Notwithstanding this criticism from academics, the scale of Xuanhuan novel consumption is now larger than ever, and it has begun to spread in the English-speaking world. In October 2016, the People’s Daily, the largest newspaper group in China, reported that Wuxiaworld (http://www.wuxiaworld.com), a leading Chinese-to-English novel translation website, was attracting attention from readers from over 100 countries and regions across the globe (Ji, 2016). Xuanhuan stories usually contain substantial elements of traditional Chinese philosophy, such as the Dao, Yin-Yang, and the Five Elements, which might be difficult for English readers to understand. Nevertheless, in line with the report, Wuxiaworld’s daily number of visitors is over 300,000, with users from countries throughout the world; these are mostly former fans of Japanese and Korean manga, animation, and light novels who have become jaded with these genres (Liu, 2017).
This unexpected popularity despite apparent cultural differences has led Chinese official press and academics to explore the implicit reasons behind transcultural English readers’ consumption of Chinese fantasy fiction and to examine the underlying implications of the process. Underscoring the significance of a “networked base” and the “Chineseness” of Chinese web novels, the official press states that these Xuanhuan novels benefit from Chinese traditional elements that are alien to readers outside the Sinophone world that have, nevertheless, been resuscitated by the Internet and are well received due to the sensual pleasure of reading created by these novels (Ji, 2016). Lai (2016), the founder of Wuxiaworld, claims that the popularity of Xuanhuan novels among global readers is also a response to westernization and gamification, which bring greater familiarity to a global audience; he believes that the “Chineseness” of the genre actually inhibits its popularization.