The past decade witnessed the introduction of the Harry Potter books, the Twilight series and the Hunger Games trilogy to the Chinese world. While adults also enjoy these novels, there is no doubt that teenagers are the major reading group.
Take the Hunger Games trilogy as an example. The books first appeared in Chinese in August 2009, and had sold more than 200,000 sets (i.e. 600,000 copies) in Taiwan as of March 2012. Most of those who purchased the books are between the ages of 16 and 22.
Meanwhile, the four Twilight books first appeared in Chinese in December 2008, and had sold more than 700,000 copies in Taiwan as of November 2009. The seven Harry Potter books have also done well -- since their first appearance in Chinese in June 2000, more than 6,500,000 copies had been sold in Taiwan as of May 2010.
The popularity of these books among the Chinese readers has long prompted Chinese authors and literary critics to ask the inevitable question, "Why are these foreign books so popular among Chinese teenagers?" Indeed, for a practical people such as the Chinese, magic and supernatural creatures such as vampires and werewolves have never been a part of their culture. Neither have today's Chinese teenagers experienced anything that is remotely close to war, famine or dictatorship.
Does this mean that precisely because the characters and events portrayed in these books have nothing to do with the real life lived by the Chinese teenagers, their reading experience has become particularly enjoyable? In other words, do Chinese teenagers find in these foreign books a channel through which they can escape from their seemingly ordinary real life?
Perhaps an even more important question is, "Can there be any Chinese novel that is equally popular among Chinese teenage readers?" However, what is the use of asking such a question, if it is true that Chinese teenagers read foreign books in order to escape from their own Chinese reality?
Can any Chinese novel portray a series of characters and events that are familiar but still attractive to Chinese teenagers? Author Qin Zhongzheng attempts to provide an answer with his novel The Mystery of the Man in Black. The protagonist Qin Kefang is a 13-year-old boy who has just stared high school. During a trip to Southern Taiwan to celebrate the Chinese New Year with their grandparents, Qin and his sister discover something that looks like a "zombie" wandering through a neighbor's farm in the middle of the night.
Author Qin relies on the popular Chinese folk belief of "zombies" to attract the attention of Chinese teenagers. Folklore has it that in China's Hunan Province -- where the neighbor in the story has come from -- those who died in other provinces can be led back to their beloved hometown for burial. These corpses "sleep" during the day and "walk" during the night, and it is only with a series of complex and powerful rituals that one can command them.
Is it possible that this neighbor is bringing back home his wife, who passed away just weeks ago? Can the long-lost Chinese folk rituals be revived and put to use in modern-day Taiwan? Author Qin encourages his teenage readers to discover how Qin and his sister find the truth through diligent investigation using straight logic.
Author Qin admits his aim is to write a series of teenage novels that have "distinct Chinese characteristics". However, The Mystery of the Man in Black is not a novel that sets out to appease Chinese teenagers. While the book's style is plain, straightforward and homely, it does not contain any unusual character or plot. More importantly, the suspense is created through the process of finding the truth. Instead of risking anyone's life through the battle between good and evil, in games and riots, or via pure love, Author Qin simply wants his ordinary teenage protagonist to confront a mystery and search for an answer.
It is evident that Author Qin tries to converse rationally with his teenage readers and treat them as adults. His use of daily household items, events, activities and discussions in The Mystery of the Man in Black can be seen as an attempt to encourage Chinese teenagers to discover the extraordinary aspects of their seemingly ordinary life. It is almost like he is posing a challenge for his young readers to use their heads. Instead of simply swallowing whatever has been fed to them, Chinese teenagers should think for themselves and make their own decisions.
While more books of the Qin Kefang series are expected, one thing is for sure. Although it is unlikely that teenager Qin will one day be as famous as Harry Potter, Edward Cullen or Katniss Everdeen, at least he will never be murdered, lose his loved ones, become broken hearted or have to kill someone else. After all, as a people, the Chinese are practical.