“Tolkien in China”

by Jialuo Yu

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is undoubtedly one of the foremost influences on modern Western fantasy literature. However, this work only became well-known in China from the beginning of the twenty-first century with the release of the Lord of the Rings films (2001-2003) and the publication of the first official Chinese translation of the books (2010).

Tolkien’s delayed influence was in part due to an issue of genre expectations. In China, fantasy works like The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series are classified as 童话 or tonghua literature, a term that literally means “stories for children.” Such “stories for children” are expected to be didactic tools: moral lessons that teach children about concepts like justice, beauty, and peace. As such, many Chinese readers argued that the violence and betrayal in The Lord of the Rings rendered the books unsuitable for children. This enduring debate, which was exacerbated by strict publication policies in China, delayed the publication of the Chinese translation of The Lord of the Rings.

Cultural and generational differences also impacted Tolkien’s influence. For a work to become popular in a certain region, it is important for the readers to feel connected to the content. Although the background story of The Lord of the Rings is set in an imaginary world, it is still based on Tolkien’s childhood memory of a traditional British village. Thus, while older Chinese readers struggled to connect to the unfamiliar world depicted in the series, the generation that came of age after the reform and opening-up period (改革开放 or gaigekaifang) had more exposure to Western culture and were more open to reading Western fantasy works. Still, there were some limitations. Tolkien’s trilogy includes war- and religion-related elements unfamiliar to younger readers. When the book was translated into Chinese, the translators purposefully downplayed these themes.

Although Tolkien and his work did not have a major influence on Chinese readers until more recently, and while several aspects of the books were altered when translated, the series may have directly led to the emergence of online Chinese fantasy fiction. The largest Chinese online novel website, Qidian (起点中文网), was founded immediately after the release of the film in 2002, followed by the establishment of numerous Chinese fan forums and fantasy websites like Zhangyue (掌阅小说网), Shuqi (书旗小说网), and 17K (17K小说网). Such online works are now a very popular form of Chinese-language literature, with more writers emerging each year. (For an overview of Chinese speculative fiction publishing venues, check out this great overview in Strange Horizons).

Several online Chinese fantasy works attempt to mimic Tolkien’s legendarium by setting their stories in a world populated by dragons, dwarfs, orcs, wizards, and other fantastical Western creatures. However, since many Chinese writers and readers lack a professional understanding of Western religion, history, mythology, and tradition, these works are often not very successful. On the other hand, fantasy novels with Chinese themes such as wuxia (martial arts chivalry), Daoism, and Chinese history tend to be more popular, the obvious reason being that Chinese readers are far more familiar with such topics. For example, the popular online novel, What Happened in the Ming Dynasty《明朝那些事儿》by Dangnianmingyue (当年明月), discusses the history of the Ming Dynasty of China (1368-1644 AD) in a humorous and engaging manner. This novel was ultimately so popular that it was later published as an eight-book collection.

Overall, while delayed translation and cultural differences initially limited Tolkien’s influence in China, the later popularity of the film version of The Lord of the Rings eventually made many Chinese writers and readers realize the untapped potential of the online fantasy market.

About the Author

Jialuo Yu graduated from the M.S. in Global Media and Cultures in 2023. His thesis and short documentary explored environmentalism in the work of Miyazaki Hayao.

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