It was midnight but Ahmed Rifshan had no desire for sleep. He was entrenched in finding out Linley's destiny, the main character of Chinese Web novel Panlong (Coiling Dragon), which immerses the reader in a fantasy world filled with dragon blood warriors, immortal beings, unimaginable power and magical beasts.
"Reading the novel is so addicting that you will want to stop everything you are doing and spend as much time as you can on it," said Rifshan, 21, an IT student who also works for an IT company in Maldives.
Coiling Dragon is a Chinese fantasy light novel (a style of Japanese novel primarily targeting middle school and high school students) by Zhu Hongzhi, a young Internet-based author with the penname, I Eat Tomatoes. One of the most popular works in Chinese fantasy, or xuanhuan and xianxia, Coiling Dragon is among the first complete translated Chinese xuanhuan novels available on foreign websites.
Distinguished from Chinese wuxia (martial heroes) fiction, which features the personal strife, fights and romances of ordinary people from real martial arts schools like Shaolin and Wudang, and are set in a background mainly based on reality and history, xuanhuan and xianxia create a more imaginary, mysterious Eastern based fantasy world with immortal beings, superpowers, demons and ghosts.
The Chinese style fantasy novels, which have flourished by winning huge popularity among China's young readers in the past decade, are becoming the latest cultural export product, beginning to draw a growing number of foreign fans.
Initially, Rifshan was an anime lover who liked reading mangas (a style of comic books and graphic novels), especially the Japanese and Chinese translated ones. Later on, he found that some of the Chinese mangas that he is obsessed with, were based on novels that are much more detailed, vivid and complete.
"That's how I started reading my first Chinese novel Coiling Dragon," said Rifshan, who further entered the Chinese fantasy literature world by reading more novels including Xingchenbian (Stellar Transformation) and Jiuchong Shen'ge (The Nine Godheads).
A search of Chinese xuanhuan and xianxia on Google yields dozens of websites and links that provide English translated reading materials. On Reddit, there is a special page to explain the Chinese terms in wuxia, xuanhuan and xianxia novels under the group of Novel Translation. The website Wuxia World, where Rifshan accessed Coiling Dragon, is the pioneer and the most influential platform for foreign translators to publish their latest translated chapters.
The website, launched by Chinese American Lai Jingping, known by his nickname RWX (Ren Woxing, a character in wuxia classic Xiaoao Jianghu (The Legendary Swordsman), has nearly 3.5 million page views daily. Most of the readers are men under the age of 35. About 28 percent of the readers come from the U.S., followed by the Philippines, Indonesia, Canada and India.
Lai, a former diplomat with the U.S. government, is also the translator of Coiling Dragon, a novel that mixes Western plots and Chinese elements, published on Wuxia World two years ago and gained great popularity.
Born in Sichuan Province, Lai moved to the U.S. when he was three. He started reading and translating wuxia novels a decade ago. "It's a way to reconnect more deeply with my heritage and to improve my Chinese," he said.
Lai's early translations of classic wuxia novels, however, were not received well by foreign readers. When he worked on Tianlong Babu (Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils), sometimes a week would pass without a single comment, and maybe just a few dozen views.
"The wuxia classics are too Chinese for brand new readers," he said.
At present, Wuxia World has 18 projects with dozens of translators working on them. The ongoing projects include Nitian Xieshen (Against the Gods), Woyu Fengtian (I Shall Seal the Heaven), Wanmei Shijie (Perfect World) and Manghuangji (Desolate Era).