Light Novels in China, South Korea, Taiwan and other East Asian countries

Pictured: 1/2 Prince by Yu Wo















I will be the first to admit that I don’t know a lot about this subject. I can’t read a word of Chinese or Korean and I’ve never stepped foot in China, Korea or Taiwan (although I would certainly love to one day!). Still, light novels interest me greatly, because I think they offer a great way of thinking about how digital publishing has influenced literature around the world.

This is a subject I expect that you’d be able to teach me a lot about, especially those of you who have an East Asian background. To demonstrate my ignorance, here is a brief list of things which I know about light novels in East Asia. As you can see, it’s not a lot:

  • Japanese pop culture (not just anime and manga but also music and dramas) enjoys widespread popularity in China, Korea and Taiwan. Although Japan’s relationship with other East Asian countries continues to be heavily politicised, the pop culture is widely embraced – with caveats. For example, in China it is quite common for certain anime and manga to be censored or banned. Not that this stops the bootleggers in any way.
  • Translations are popular in the book markets of these three countries, especially when compared to the Anglophone markets. On average, translated titles represent 7.73% of the total number of new titles published in China per year. The figure is a whopping 31% in South Korea, although that’s probably because this figure counts graphic novels. (Manga makes up a HUGE share of the market.) Taiwan has similarly high numbers. Most of the translations are from English or Japanese.
  • Web novels are huge in China and Korea and are only getting huger.
  • I am told that Chinese and Korean translations of light novels tend to be superior to the English equivalent. This probably has something to do with how the market for LN translations is more competitive, leading to better translations overall.
  • Like how Chinese manhua and Korean manhwa are derived from Japanese manga, there are plenty of Chinese and Korean-language light novels that borrow from the style of Japanese LNs. In Korean, they’re called “라이트 노벨” (laiteu nobel), while in Chinese they’re called “輕小說” (qīng xiǎoshuō). Although Chinese and Korean writers draw a lot of influence from the Japanese light novel style, what is interesting is that they bring a lot of their own genre and literary influences to the light novel format.
Wuxia novels, a genre featuring martial artist warriors in ancient China, are very popular among young Chinese readers today
Wuxia novels, a genre featuring martial artist warriors in ancient China, are very popular among young Chinese readers today

In LN fan translation circles, it’s not uncommon to bump shoulders with people of a Chinese or Korean background. In fact, many of the English fan translations you read are probably translated from the Chinese version, not the Japanese version. I suspect that LNs managed to catch on so quickly in English because LNs already had a strong following in East Asian countries. Chinese translators in particular helped push out so many translations at a time when light novels were still obscure to the English-speaking anime fandom, so we have a lot to thank them for.

These days, the LN fan translation scene has changed somewhat, though, especially as Chinese and Korean web novels are becoming more popular. Japanese novels are more likely to be translated from the original Japanese, while Chinese and Korean translators are more likely to focus on translating novels written in their own tongue. There is also a greater reliance on machine translation for web novels than ever before, probably for two main reasons: 1) There’s more demand for translations, especially speedy translations, because web novel authors tend to update their novels pretty frequently; and 2) It’s easier to put a web novel through an MT program than a printed novel or a DRM-protected eBook.

I don’t read Chinese or Korean web novels myself, so I can’t comment much on the fanbase, but from what I gather, they do appeal to a very specific sort of niche interest. I think I would find these translations particularly appealing if I came from a Korean or Chinese cultural background but could not necessarily read a novel fluently in the original language.

More than anything, the spread of light/web novels and the evolution of the fandom indicates the international flavour of the light novel community. Whereas the English fansubbing groups have always felt rather America-centric, both in their outlook and their translation approaches, LNs appear to be more popular outside Anglophone communities. What is it about light novels that is so appealing to these readers? Perhaps it has something to do with the close literary ties between Japan and its neighbours, or maybe it has more to do with the simplicity of the language. After all, it’s not just people with an East Asian background who enjoy light novels.

Whatever the case, light novel translations are a really interesting example of how English doesn’t always mean Western, and that the flow of information can work in all sorts of directions. Globalisation is a very complicated beast indeed.

(Also, do they read light novels in North Korea? :P)

Edit: See Aorii’s comment for some clarifications and extra information about the Wuxia genre.



  1. I have yet to read a non-Japanese Light Novel. Indeed importance of Chinese is clearly visible, currently I’m reading Gifting which is translated from Chinese.

    Sometimes I also wonder about Light Novel popularity and availability in non-English speaking Western countries.

    • How are you enjoying Gifting? The synopsis made it seem like pretty typical LN fare, so I never got around to reading it (so many other prime candidates), but I heard it’s getting an anime next year.

      LNs appear to be most accessible in East Asia. In the English-speaking world, North America’s in the lead. I don’t know much about the state of LN publishing in the rest of the world. I know that the titles that are really popular in English also get translated into other languages, but not everything that’s published overseas is in English. I know that there is a Polish translation of Hakomari for some reason. I also know that Absolute Duo is out in Indonesian:

      • I started to read it because I’m preparing anime previews on one Polish site. It is better than I expected, to be honest I expected it to be pretty crappy. Apparently this is a quite self-aware parody of genres (fantasy game world / moved to other world after death / harem) and a comedy. It also fast paced action, it is not dragging too much. Pretty nice bus time-waster. I guess final verdict depends on reader sense of humour.

        Well, currently in Poland different publishers started with LN’s. First was “All you need is a kill”, but by not manga related publisher (movie). Then a yaoi manga publisher started with SAO, it went well, so they also published “Gekkou”. and they are trying get other tittles. Other publishers decided try LN’s too, one pick up “Toradora!”, other Hakomari (because is high on Mal), maybe it also was cheap or something.

  2. I wish it were easier to find info on Korean comics in particular. I’ve been getting into Korean MMOs over the last few years and it’s a common enough thing for the people playing them to compare Japanese fiction with Korean fiction. The comparison between Korean comics and Japanese manga comes up in Blade and Soul because of Kim Hyung-tae and his work on the game. Problem is those conversations usually happen in global chat and the weeaboo defense antics bully people away from wanting to share their favorite Korean stories. Ever since the whole censorship of the localization thing got noticed It’s hard to even ask about Korean comics in the game.

    Blade and Soul is a Korean wuxia setting MMO that is currently in beta for a western release. I’ve been surprised at how compelling the story is. I’d like to see what else Korean fiction has going for it for myself. Do you have any recommendations? Even recommendations on where to find recommendations are appreciated at this point. It’s a curiosity I’ve been wanting to satisfy for a few years now. I have the motivation, but I don’t have time for the same approach I used to get into anime.(which was basically consume EVERYTHING)

    Some of the common claims I’ve read are neat if true. More maturity as well as a higher level of demand and appreciation for mature themes. More weight and consequence in stories. An incredibly high standard for pretty artwork, and of course the claim that Korean artists draw the prettiest waifus. Surprisingly, that is one of the least contested claims.

    Anime fans outnumber fans of Korean comics 100 to 1 inside the US release of a Korean game. Sometimes they even go as far as treating it like a second rate game simply because it’s a Korean game… It’s an incredibly frustrating stigma. I doubt most of them would even able to tell the difference if not for the label. I’ve also received the whole OUR COMICS ARE TOO EXTREME FOR YOUR WESTERN PALETTE excuse when I’ve asked someone who actually claims to be Asian for recommendations. /shrug It’s easy to talk about Japanese or even Chinese comics by comparison. Bring up Korean comics while playing a Korean game? It summons the wrath of Cthulhu. Then again, the wrath of Cthulhu is kind of a cheap whore in MMO global chat… You probably get my point.

  3. I doubt they read light novels in North Korea. They’re too busy making required watching propaganda videos about how people in America drink coffee made of snow while actually filming Europe.

    … That being said, I don’t think I can actually answer that question. As far as I know, information going in is heavily restricted, but China has a fairly strong relationship with North Korea. I wouldn’t be that surprised if people sneak Chinese light novels across.

  4. Whereas the English fansubbing groups have always felt rather America-centric, both in their outlook and their translation approaches, LNs appear to be more popular outside Anglophone communities. What is it about light novels that is so appealing to these readers?

    Obviously it’s because America is the greatest nation on Earth and everyone else has shit taste~~~

  5. Japanese culture seems to be pretty popular in Asia. In Vietnam, we also have a active light novel fan-translation scene. I just checked and the translation quality looks decent enough. There’re legal translation,too. According to Vietnamese news site, all 4 best selling light novels have anime. They are:

    1)Byousoku 5 Centimeter
    2) Bungaku Shoujo
    3)Wolf Children
    4)Sword Art Online

    All the above have fans outside of the anime circle, thank to the general lack of weirdness and premise contain other things romance or video game world.

    I also see other published: Suzumiya Haruhi, Welcome to the NHK, Death Note, some detective Conan tie-in novels… Welcome to the NHK’s Vietnamese translation is excellent. Haruki Murakami novels are very popular, far exceed any light novel’s popularity. In fact, Japanse culture is more and more popular in Vietnam, while geeky Western stuffs haven’t gained many fans . The European comics (Tintin, Asterix, Donald and Friends, Smurf, Lucky Luke), which used to have a big fanbase in the 80s and 90s, aren’t able to compete with manga. American comics and cartoons fanbase are pretty much non-existent. I saw the Simpsons on TV a few years ago, but nobody in Vietnam gave a shit about it. Hollywood movies do well in the box office, but they don’t create hardcore fanbase. Literacy novels and western classics are well-regarded, but those are main stream.

  6. These days, the LN fan translation scene has changed somewhat, though, especially as Chinese and Korean web novels are becoming more popular.

    Count the webtoons, too. With the mass development of mobile apps, webtoons are spreading like wildfire–and they’re becoming a niche business supporting the illustrators behind them.

    Anyway, I’m not sure if I should mention this, but in the Philippines, there’s this thing called “illu-novel”. Yep. It’s basically a novel with a few B&W illustrated pages here and there, and titles can have several volumes. Sounds familiar? Though the idea for its presentation obviously comes from light novels, the big factor behind the boom in our “novels” are the popular Wattpad titles. Yes, you’ve read that right.

    I haven’t taken a close look at these novels but, what with the frequent code-switching and several grammatical errors, they seem to be pretty amateur-ish for me. I especially find it hard to consume them /because/ of the code-switching, even though it should be natural as we casually code-switch during irl conversations too. Somehow, seeing this in written form lowers a work’s merit a bit. >_>

  7. It’s not just better market or better translators. Both the Chinese and Korean languages are linguistically and culturally closer to Japanese, especially Korean since it’s the same proto-language group as Japanese — Altaic. They have far less of that literal vs localized translation issue, and the terms simply come across easier.

    Also, Wuxia novels aren’t light novels, nor do they have to be focused on martial arts. Several of the most famous Wuxia novels actually involve protagonists who don’t know any martial arts at all. The best way to translate Wuxia is “Martial Chivalry”, so, think Arthurian tales, except less questing / damsel-saving and more factional politicking (because Chinese loves historical-political fiction). Wuxia novelization also originated before Japan even invented anime. There is a lot of cross-pollinization of ideas, as all culture goes, but if you give the impression (like in this post) that Wuxia novels ‘cultural import from Japan’ or a subset of light novels then the Chinese are going to be offended =P

    • Both the Chinese and Korean languages are linguistically and culturally closer to Japanese

      I get that cultural proximity would probably make it much easier to translate certain words and phrases, but I thought that Chinese grammar is very different from Japanese grammar, so there would still be lots of issues. I agree that Japanese-Korean translations would be easier, though, and that they’re both probably easier than Japanese-English translations.

      About Wuxia, you’re right. My post did make it sound like Wuxia was imported from Japan. I edited the post to clarify that Chinese writers “bring a lot of their own genre and literary influences to the light novel format.”

      • “Chinese Grammar” is a debatable topic. Technically, there is no such thing as “Chinese Grammar”, as you can write a sentence however you want and as long as it makes sense, it works. Modern “Chinese Grammar” is mostly just a set of ways in which ‘good writing’ should be done; but literature changes from era to era. Japanese grammar is actually very similar to ancient Chinese literature (read say, the original Romance of the Three Kingdoms script and one starts to notice); I’ve always joked that this is just another sign that the Japanese failed to properly modernize their language over the course of centuries (seriously, the combination of Kanji, Hiragana, Katakana, AND Romanji is the unnecessarily overcomplicated; in any less developed country this would cause literacy issues).

      • Just to add a few things for anyone reading the thread.

        I’m a CH-EN translator. I am able to read Japanese, but it’s not my native language.

        The Chinese language is much flexible since it technically has no grammar. As pointed out by Aorii, Japanese grammar is very similar to ancient Chinese literature (it’s same down to the use of different ending particles), and the adjectives used are typically similar to what is used in Chinese. Most of the kanji have similar/same meanings in Chinese. Because of this, special names normally don’t have to be specially translated or romanized.

        A lot of cognitive load is reduced due to these similarities.

        Another important point to note is the large similarities between the two cultures, especially in Taiwan. A lot of high schools in Taiwan are in fact very similar to what you can find in Japan. I can’t say for Korea, but I would think it would be very similar too. I grew up in a Chinese School in Malaysia and we basically use the same system as the Japanese/Taiwan, with some differences, since Japanese schools often come to visit and hold cultural sharing sessions.

        This makes connecting with the target audience in other Asian countries much easier. I mean, if you study in a school in UK, and you see “cultural festival” you may think what’s all the fuss about because you have never experienced something like it.

  8. I can’t find the reply button on my phone… oh well.
    Just wanted to reply on what Ribbit said regarding LN in indonesia. It is struggling.
    True that Indonesian has a thing for japanese cultures but it’s mainly mangas and animes.
    Until now I have been to many kinokuniya and huge bookstores. I see lots of mangas and anime boxsets but not a single LN. There is supposed to be the shining rose publisher but I have never actually seen their books on the shelves…

    (P.S : I don’t like WuXia and/or XianXia. MagicalGF much better :p )

  9. The LN translations done in Chinese can be spotty at times.
    Take the the official release for Oregairu for example. Kamakura became “小雪”, which means little snow. That is definitely wrong in all meanings. Yukino’s wish in the Destinyland ride was translated as “Save me someday”, which comes off too direct imo.

    There’s probably more I can provide if I search through the rest of the volumes but the accuracy of the official translations can be just as off as the western counterparts sometimes.

  10. I like that you point out “English doesn’t mean American”
    I noticed in the Ghost Hunt translation they translated one of the buildings to “Capitol Hill” which my friend from an English speaking country didn’t know of, because that country happens to be in SE Asia (Singapore). So keeping it to the actual Japanese building with a note.. far better than making some Americanism out of it that would be lost on people from other parts of the world.

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