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Harlequin Harem Romance Novels: to Be or Not to Be
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Publisher Hou Kai has been very busy this summer. Lately he's been putting out four to five new books every month to meet the publishing market demands. In January 2006, Hou founded his own publishing firm that specifically targets female readers.

Hou said that his firm has printed 36 books so far.  Ninety percent of them are Harlequin romance stories set in ancient Chinese imperial harems. All are popular and all have made him a pretty profit. Some of his books even got screenwriting bids from TV producers.

In 2004, TV series called War and Beauty, produced by the HK-based TVB station, was widely broadcast on the mainland and received high ratings. The 30-series TV drama depicts a palace romance and many harem intrigues. Since it was aired many online novels of same genre have begun to appear on the Internet.

Chinese palace stories, like Western Harlequins, always portray the eternal story of Cinderella meeting her Prince Charming. These books sell because they fulfill female fantasies. In fact, there is always a pressing global need for more of these stories and hundreds of Chinese e-books are now being written and updated online.

An online serial story called Dream Back to the Qing Dynasty has been among the top 50 popular books for 812 days in the hot book ranking. Another novel, Palace Harem, has already been reprinted eight times, with over 200,000 copies sold. The author's blog has received five million clicks inside of a month.

Some Chinese experts are worried about the new reading trend. They feel anxious due to the submissive psychology in these romances and they wonder how such plots will affect young girls with no exposure to any feminist principals. These experts feel that the stories might addict readers to scenarios urging them to act obsequiously, thus mirroring the yielding concubine heroine who eagerly seeks the protection and favor of a powerful man. Psychologists wonder if reading these books could create dependent personalities and negatively impact on contemporary Chinese female characters.

But Mr. Hou sees it differently. "Our readers are females between the age of eighteen and thirty-five. They have great self-awareness. Nonetheless, these women currently face more stress than ever before, both in the workplace and in their daily emotional lives. Urban life is very different than it was decades ago. Women need more approval, praise and admiration than they get in real life.

"Most girls think: 'I am excellent but I've not been recognized.'" Hou Kai added, "These books apparently meet the basic emotional of female readers. That's why they're an immediate hit."

Women today have new demands for their Prince Charming. First, he must be powerful and distinguished: an emperor or a prince can definitely fit the bill. Next, he must unlimited financial resources:  a member of the royal household can be as romantic as he pleases without ever considering cost.

Harlequin harem stories always follow these patterns. Each novel adds novelty through embellishments. Each plot resonates to female fantasies, experiences and emotions.

Interestingly, many novelists in this genre are so young that they are out of touch with real life. Their writing simply projects personal fantasies.

"It's not appropriate to blame the young women. It's not them but their father's generation that should be held responsible. Chinese society has engendered an on-going spiritual crisis among young ladies. They're in a quandary and they want to escape from reality," said Prof. Wang Yipei from the Renmin University of China. "We are responsible; we must contemplate these matters."

Hou Kai dislikes his novels being called "harem stories". He prefers the adage: "marching-out-of-time novels" and he feels that these literary observations of ancient palace ladies, meshed with a contemporary viewpoint, have the power to inspire modern girls in their real lives. "Our novels are more positive than negative," Hou explained.

Literary critics call this genre pulp romance fiction, Prof. Wang said. "We're not against encouraging this genre. China's classic works like The Plum in the Golden Vase (Jin Ping Mei - also translated as: The Golden Lotus) are actually good examples of it. But when readers immerse themselves in literature that depicts constant intrigue, when they dive into superficial tit-for-tat dialogues that have no basis in reality, it poses a pertinent question. Why is the Chinese public hiding in fantasy, far away from the basic problems in our society?"

"The current phenomenon can be summed up like this: when a child is eating mud, you should give him chocolate instead of slapping the mud off his hands. But at present we have no chocolate for our children," Wang remarked. 

( by Wang Zhiyong August 16, 2007)

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