A still from Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, a TV drama adapted from Jin Yong‘s wuxia fiction of the same name. Photo via Weibo

A man in a flowing robe from ancient China holds a red-tasseled spear as he rides a magnificent horse is depicted in an ink portrait. It is an image one could picture of a chivalrous warrior 1,000 years ago, except for his crew cut and glasses. So who is this man?

He is former American diplomat Lai Jingping, who is now an entrepreneur of a website called Wuxia World. He wants to feed the hungry horde of readers with translated Chinese online wuxia fiction.

An increasing number of readers today in North America, Western Europe and Southeast Asia are starting to understand the genre of Chinese martial arts: wuxia.

Different from their kung fu movie cousins, which are more realistic and contemporary, wuxia fiction takes fans on martial arts adventures with fantasy elements in the historical setting of ancient China.

It started with a kick

Are fans fascinated with this martial arts genre because of how characters can leap incredibly long distances across rooftops and skip lightly across water? Or are readers attracted to the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, Taoism and Bodhi in Buddhism?

“People are driven to new things,” said Lai, who moved to California at three and grew up in America. The 30-year-old recalled the moment when he fell in love with a new culture he had never seen before – the fight scenes in The Return of the Condor Heroes, a popular Hong Kong wuxia TV drama in 1995. And this was despite the fact that he could neither understand the Cantonese dialogue nor the Chinese subtitles.

A teenage Lai was desperate to understand the story, but he became frustrated when he could hardly find any English versions of the original wuxia novel on the internet. Existing translations were either abandoned halfway through the story, or too difficult for people from another culture to understand.

Armed with his passion for wuxia, Lai finally made the decision to pick up the Chinese language. At first he turned to his parents for help, and later he minored in Chinese during his studies in international relationships at University of California, Berkeley.

In college, Lai started to translate popular wuxia novel series, such as Coiling Dragon on the SPCNET forum, and continued to do so after becoming a diplomat. At the time, he was flattered to find that his translations did matter. Some readers left messages: “Send me your Paypal account. Could you speed up if I give donations?”

In December 2014, Lai wanted to continue his translations and a new website dedicated to the genre was born, Wuxia World.

From zero to four million fans

Lai is better known as RWX on Wuxia World. It is the abbreviation of Ren Wo Xing, the name of his favorite character in The Smiling, Proud Wanderer written by Jin Yong, a renowned master of wuxia fiction. “I appreciate Ren’s heroism,” Lai added.

The two-year-old website soon grew into a community of loyal fans. They logged in to read the latest chapter as soon as the translation was published, and left comments urging translators to work harder. Wuxia World now has 3.9 million page views per day.

“We have 350,000 unique IP addresses from 115 countries, which could be counted as individual visitors, accessing our site every day,” said Lai, quoting the metadata from Google Analytics.

Also, Lai is no longer the lone fighter like in a wuxia novel. he has rapidly expanded now employing an army of 23 teams of employees who run the website. Generally, each team has one translator and two editors, who are responsible for one project.

Screen shot of the home page of the Wuxia World website

Lai hit back at critics who say he is simply doing translations. He believes he’s doing something more entrepreneurial such as developing a culture where online fans are chasing writers and the serialized novel. “Literally, we are creating a new market,” Lai said.

The entrepreneur believes the market for web novels doesn’t really exist in the West. Western countries have well-established publishing systems, which had a different organizational structure compared to China’s web novel industry, said Lai.

Websites like qidian.com and 17k.com in China gather hundreds of millions of writers who are paid to serialize their novels chapter by chapter to feed hungry fans.

It has rapidly grown into a mature industry, with the market valued at an estimated 9 billion yuan (US$1.31 billion) by the end of 2016. On average, an increasing number of web writers have written 60 billion words and more than 100,000 novels per year.

As of June 2016, the number of readers has already exceed 308 million, according to data released at a forum hosted by the China Writers Association in September last year.

It is sort of a different path I could take to strengthen the bond between the two societies

Lai Jingping

In the West, publishers usually sign book contracts with writers, so it is a series of novels are released book by book. Though some writers have begun to serialize their stories in public forums or on personal blogs, platforms for online serialization have yet to be explored.

Lai believes he can be the pioneer to develop the Western market for web novels. What he has been doing could help Western audiences to develop a habit of fans pursuing writers to produce new chapters. In the foreseeable future, the translated novels on Wuxia World will remain free, with the website relying on the advertising business model and donations from fans in the short-term. Lai believes putting up a paywall may kill the market.

Secrets to market success

Apparently, Lai is not the only one who has an eye on applying this emerging business model to overseas markets.

In 2010, Tencent-backed China Reading began translating original novels on qidian.com to cater to Singaporean readers, but it failed to strike a chord and was later shut down. Qidian.com is the largest online reading and literature platform in China, with more than 2 million writers creating nearly 40 million words per day.

China Reading chief executive Wu Wenhui did not want to comment o the difficulties it faced back then. But his industry counterpart, Lai, attributed their failure to the lack of quality translations.

Just like how every martial artist has a killer move, Lai believes his team has the advantage to dominate the market.

“The secret is in our translators,” said Lai. Ideally, wuxia fans with Chinese heritage are the perfect candidates Lai is looking for. But his team is more diverse, including a Cuban American who studied Chinese.

For every translator he recruits, Lai will cross check their work with the originals. He wants to make sure they are not “lazy translators” who simply use Pinyin when they encounter difficult concepts, instead of looking for terms shared between Chinese and Western culture to better describe the passage.

The ever-growing network of fans on Wuxia World has thus become a talent pool of translators for Lai. It is this resource that other rivals can hardly copy, though it is difficult to gauge how large the community will become and its limitations. He also said the only way to keep the group growing, was to strictly maintain the quality of translations.

Lai Jingping, the founder of the Wuxia World website, had worked for the US Department of State from 2008 to 2015.

“You can say that we are spreading Chinese culture across the globe,” said the ambitious man, who had once dreamed of becoming a diplomat and aimed to contribute to the Sino-US relationship.

“It is sort of a different path I could take to strengthen the bond between the two societies,” Lai told himself after he quit his diplomat job at the end of 2015. He finally could put his heart and soul into a genre that captured his imagination as a teenager more than 10 years ago.

His parents felt a great loss over their son’s bold choice to say goodbye to a decent job, but Lai is more confident about his future. “If I didn’t see the potential [of Wuxia World], I wouldn’t have been bold enough to give up my diplomat career,” he added.

And the screen name he chose in the beginning, RWX – which means “my will, my way” was a signpost to the adventurous journey he would eventually take, just like a hero in a wuxia novel.

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