The fantasy genre is not new to China. Most Chinese, if not all, grow up reading The Classic of Mountains and Seas, which was written at least 2,200 years ago and is filled with mythical creatures (about 450 of them), mountains (550 at least), and bodies of water (around 300). Deities, spirits, and supernatural beings roam exotic locales in three realms—earthly, heavenly, and subterranean—throughout the 18 chapters of this ancient text.
In the real world, archaeologists have found inscriptions about Chinese mythology on shells and bones that dated from more than 3,000 years ago. Ancient bronze pieces, created around the same time, also alluded to old myths. Furthermore, China had its first emperor entombed in an underground necropolis, supposedly surrounded by a mercury-filled moat and an arsenal of booby traps—and has yet to be excavated. Suffice it to say that there is much fodder for inspiration in the Chinese culture, history, and literature for aspiring fantasy writers.
So while Harry Potter and his Nimbus broom might have cast a magic spell on the Chinese children’s book market back in 2000 and gotten fantasy writers all revved up, the ideas and sparks were already in place long ago. “Traditional Chinese culture is filled with mythology and fantastical elements, and what we really need are some imaginative minds to blend what is already in our history and culture and bring it into the contemporary world,” says Li Xin, v-p and general editor at Thinkingdom Children’s Books. “Pure Chinese-style fantasy works do not travel well outside the country. The plot needs to be more universal to transcend cultural and geographical barriers.”
The success of Harry Potter in China both promotes and hinders the growth of the children’s original fantasy genre, says Bai Bing, editor-in-chief of Jieli Publishing House. “It sets a very high standard, which can also be daunting to aspiring authors, who have to be extremely innovative and creative to stand out. They have to find new materials and ways to plot their narrative. While authors have to derive inspiration from the present state of life and its challenges and possibilities, illustrators must also be equally imaginative to sketch out the scenarios.”
Fantasies are about picking the mood and engaging the mind, Li says. “Fantasy titles need boundless imagination on the part of the creator. A fantasy title would not touch the reader’s heart if it only speaks to its creator. So fantasy authors need to understand their readers, and their inner thoughts and needs are paramount. They need to ask themselves two big questions: How do children view the world around them? What are the biggest difficulties children encounter in life? Finding fantasy authors that are original, imaginative, and kids at heart is a major challenge.”
Thinkingdom has published several fantasy novels in recent months, including Wu Yuzhong’s The Monster School, Huang Jiajia’s The Oracle Bone School, and Li Rong’s The Snowstorm Beast; all are aimed at primary school students of eight years and older. The Oracle Bone School is a major success: published in January 2019, it went back to print nearly every month for the first 10 months. Sales have exceeded 78,000 copies. This has prompted Li and her team to get the author to turn the story into a longer series, of at least eight volumes. The third volume, focused on Li Bai, one of the greatest poets of the Tang Dynasty, has just been completed. (Thinkingdom’s catalogue is dominated by single-title publications.)
The Oracle Bone School plot revolves around history. “Many children are reluctant to learn history, thinking that history books are nothing interesting, just a jumble of dates, figures, and events,” Li says. “But what if we let young readers go back in time and experience a historical event for themselves? How about getting them to sit down for a meal or to enjoy a game of Chinese chess with specific historical figures? If we can do that, then the history becomes alive, interesting, and immersive. Author Huang Jiajia has been able to accomplish that with ease in this series.”
Interestingly, the Oracle Bone School is Huang’s debut work. “She has conducted massive research to unearth relevant historical data and has diligently and cleverly fine-tuned her ideas to make the stories work with young readers,” Li says, adding that her team had a difficult time promoting the title when it first came out “because, in China, it is always tough to promote a single title, and even more so for a fantasy title, which tends to be in a series.”
But good content wins the day. “We also did a lot of marketing activities for schools, including having the author visit primary schools, give talks, and getting children interested in learning history,” Li notes. “Teachers and parents, who really want their children to love history, welcome this approach, and this book is now on the recommended reading list for many primary schools across China.”
Over at Jieli Publishing House, Leon Image’s Monster Master, now in 21 volumes, is its major fantasy bestseller. The second edition was launched last July and the total sales have now exceeded 20 million copies, spawning a dedicated website and a fan club. Two other bestsellers are the series White Fox Dila and the King Book, with sales of 120,000 and 60,000 copies, respectively.
The first title of the White Fox Dila series, now available in English from Chicken House, made the Financial Times’ list of the best children’s books of 2019. Rights have been sold to France, Germany, Mexico, and the U.S. As for the King Book, author Cao Wenxuan, who is the first Chinese to win the Hans Christian Andersen award, needs little introduction. This series, Cao’s only fantasy work, took him eight years to create and revolves around a shepherd boy who became the king during a tumultuous period.
The Jieli team launched a comprehensive mobile marketing plan for Monster Master and strove to make fan communication faster and simpler. “We redesigned the website to fit mobile devices and launched it last July,” Bai says. “By November 11, it recorded over 1.2 million page views, with about 426,000 unique visitors. More than 100,000 viewers registered to view videos on the series, and more than 5,000 logged in to watch the author’s live broadcast.” Bai’s team also organized a campaign titled Write a Letter to the Author (held in 43 major cities across China), a prelaunch coloring competition, and an exhibition of original illustrations and fan works.
The promotional campaign for Chen Jiatong’s White Fox Dila was just as broad, including special print editions, marketing freebies, and author tours and talks. “For online marketing, we rely on KOLs [key opinion leaders] on major platforms to reach the target audience,” Bai says. “We sold upwards of 3,000 sets using this method within three weeks. There were also more than 30 WeChat groups exchanging information about the series, indirectly fanning interest and pushing sales.” Bai’s team introduced a special WeChat public account for fans to dissect the plot and talk about fantasy titles.
Last month, Bai launched the Master of Memory by Zhuang Haiyan, a former champion Rubik’s Cube solver. “We explore new directions for fantasy literature with this author and leverage his expertise and imagination to entertain children, as well as help to improve their learning and memorization abilities,” he says.
For Bai, publishing fantasy titles does not stop with just the book edition. “We want to turn each title into a versatile IP that can be transformed into formats such as animated features, language courses, and merchandise,” he notes. “We want to give such a work a pair of wings and, as befitting its fantasy genre, let it live in different worlds and amaze us anew in each one.”