How Disney and Tencent plan to make China fall for Star Wars

China’s first Star Wars novel will be released chapter-by-chapter and it’s all canon.

Photo by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash Photo by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash

The world and story of Star Wars has been shaped by plenty of artists, like JJ Abrams, Ron Howard, and Jon Favreau. Now you can add a new name to the list: His Majesty the King.

That’s the name used by a Chinese online author tasked with writing a new Star Wars novel just for China. And Tencent’s China Literature, the country’s biggest online publisher, confirmed that the book will be canon.

What does that mean? Well, think about it this way. Remember Han Solo’s death at the hands of Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens? (Uh, spoilers!) That means any Star Wars stories set after The Force Awakens — whether film, book, comic or game — can’t show Han alive and well, because he’s dead. And any story set before The Force Awakens can’t show Han getting killed by, say, Chewbacca, because that’s not how or when he dies.

That same principle extends to whatever happens in the new Chinese novel, and it means that any future Star Wars stories will have to account for the events of His Majesty the King’s work.

“His Majesty the King will follow Star Wars’ overall worldview, and if other authors are involved with the history and stories created by His Majesty the King, they will need to follow his settings,” a China Literature spokesperson said.

It’s a remarkable club for any author to join, let alone one who made his name on a unique reading platform built on user-generated content.

Anyone can sign up to be an author on China Literature and start publishing, but only a few — like His Majesty the King — stand out and earn the big bucks. They need to release the first 100 or so chapters of their work for free at first, according to the South China Morning Post, and will only be offered a contract with the platform if they gather a sizable following.

With Star Wars struggling to catch on in China, it’s no wonder Disney is hoping Tencent’s popular reading platform can give them a boost. There are 7.8 million authors who have collectively published over 11 million stories on China Literature. In all, the country’s online literature industry has more than 454 million users.

Star Wars, on the other hand, struggles in China. In 2016, The Force Awakens only earned USD 124 million in China, the world’s second-biggest film market, while it grossed over USD 2 billion globally. And it only got worse. Rogue One made USD 69 million in China, The Last Jedi made USD 42 million and Solo grossed just USD 16 million.

In comparison, China contributed USD 614 million to Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame, more than all four Star Wars movies combined.

Many put this down to Star Wars arriving late in China, making it hard for newer viewers to come to grips with a series whose first instalment hit US cinemas over forty years ago. It’s a view echoed by someone who’s had a close look at both sides — the Hong Kong actor and star of Rogue One, Donnie Yen.

“Marvel is a lot easier to understand,” said Yen. “Star Wars, there’s a whole universe out there.”

The new novel will try to accommodate local tastes. A report posted by the official Star Wars Weibo account said last week that the new book will be an “authentic Star Wars story with Chinese characteristics.” The author elaborated slightly on this.

“Using a Chinese building, a Chinese name or a Chinese face is not enough,” said His Majesty the King. “Within the (Star Wars) system, there’s no limitation on writing a story of Chinese people.”

(China Literature at first agreed to, then declined, our request to interview His Majesty the King. Lucasfilm did not respond to our request for comment.)

His Majesty the King previously published four web novels on China Literature platforms. Notably, only one of the stories is science fiction. Two of them are xianxia novels, a genre similar to China’s famous wuxia martial arts stories, but with more fantasy elements.

In an author’s note for one of the xianxia novels, he said that writing web novels helped relieve his ennui from working at a state-owned enterprise and that he quit his job to become a full-time author. He now has around 420,000 followers on web novel platform Qidian.com.

He also said at the Star Wars announcement event that he would add many “online literature elements” that are popular among young people in China. China Literature confirmed to us that the new Star Wars book will be serialized by chapter, common for web novels in the country, where readers pay for each chapter.

Jo Lusby, co-founder of Pixie B, a Hong Kong-based consultancy focused on media and publishing, previously told us that the payment-by-chapter business model means that the works are highly commoditized.

“The writing style is designed to be read in interim on a mobile phone on a crowded subway train,” Lusby told Abacus. “They can be exhausting if you try and read them in a linear form because there are constant climaxes to keep people on the hook, to make sure they come back for the next section.”

If it succeeds, the new novel won’t just be good for Disney and Star Wars. Some think the deal is more strategically important for Tencent and China Literature.

Wen Xue, a research director at entertainment industry consulting firm EntGroup, told us that science fiction has proven to be a popular genre in China in recent years, judging from the popularity of blockbusters like The Three-Body Problemand The Wandering Earth. The Star Wars franchise would be a suitable addition to China Literature’s portfolio, according to Wen.

“Building a relationship with Disney through Star Wars — I think that’s the bigger strategic significance.”

This article first appeared in Abacus News.