Migrant worker goes from pig farmer to one of China’s highest-paid online authors

A former assembly line worker and pig farmer, Li Zhi said his life changed completely after he began writing stories online in 2013.

Now earning as high as 50,000 yuan ($7,357) a month – almost reaching the average income for a chairman of the board at a Chinese A-share-listed company – the 26-year-old primary school graduate from Southwest China’s Yunnan Province told the Global Times on Friday that being a full-time online writer has brought him a life that he loves as it gives him abundant disposable time to work at home.

Earning some 500,000 hardcore followers on online literature platform Zhulang – where he is better known by his pen name Rensheng Jidu – Li has earned the nickname dashen (Big God) among his fans. In the online literature field, Big God refers to highly popular contracted writers whose works attract the most views and followers.

“I was just lucky,” said the migrant worker-turned-writer.

Li is being more than just a little humble. Due to the rapid expansion of online literature in China over the past two decades and its easy access, many people have turned to writing for a career. However, among the millions of online writers in China nowadays, only a few hundred manage to become Big Gods who “earn an annual income of more than 500,000 yuan,” according to a 2015 Yangtze Evening Post report.

Before attaining the level of a “god,” the decade Li spent before he wrote his first word on Zhulang in 2013 saw Li drifting from city to city, often changing jobs to earn a living.

Life experience

In 2004, the then 14-year-old dropout was working on an assembly line making urinary catheters in a factory in South China’s Guangdong Province. After switching from factory to factory in Guangdong over the next five years, Li headed to the western part of the province in 2009 to work as a pig farmer in Yangjiang. However, it wasn’t long before he went back to working at factories, some of which “had terrible work environments filled with unbearably bad smells,” he recalled.

In 2011, which he described as “an extremely messy and dizzying time,” Li began reading an serialized online novel for the first time and soon fell in love with it. Not satisfied with the way the story ended in 2013, Li decided to write his own story, thereby kicking off his career as an online writer.

Li defines his works as “martial arts stories taking place in a modern metropolis with added fantasy and sci-fi elements.”

Ranking high on the site’s most-liked list, his latest online series – Most Powerful Urban Medical Fighter and Super Medical King – feature rural-born heroes who use superpowers such as “a mind-reading eye” and inherited medical skills to assist the weak and fight against evil. Li’s third and fourth series, they were inspired by his personal experiences going to the hospital.

“One time I spent more than 1,000 yuan on tests before the doctor told me I just had a cold,” Li said. “That’s when I decided to create a doctor superhero who saves people’s lives – for free!”

Not a medical professional, Li said that much of the medical jargon he uses in his novels came from the three months he spent raising pigs.

“Eighty percent of the medicine and medical instruments used for pigs are actually the same as those used for humans,” he said.

Superpowered elements aside, the core of the stories are about rural migrant workers fighting hard to earn their places in society. This could be one of the reasons his stories have resonated so well as they can be seen as a voice speaking out for his fans, many of whom are migrant workers like Li once was.

“My fans range from factory workers to school students between the age of 20 to 30,” he explained.

Attractive success

Li’s success story is not some exceptional case. Among the “Big God” writers, there are a number of authors from rural areas who once worked as a barber, a property agent or an office worker.

Rising to prominence in the Chinese mainland around the turn of the century, the field of online literature is experiencing its best days over the past few years. Its influence has even begun expanding overseas over the past two years thanks to foreign websites such as the US-based Wuxiaworld, which specializes in translating Chinese online novels into foreign languages. More recently, Qidian, one of China’s largest online literature platforms, launched its first overseas website in April, posting online updates of its novels in different languages.

Growing demand for online literature writers has naturally helped increase these authors’ incomes. Compared to some other Big Gods whose annual salaries number in the millions of yuan, Li’s income is actually considered somewhat mediocre.

Normally, Big Gods possess large fan bases that easily send them up to the top of the sites’ monthly and quarterly ranks, helping expose their works more of the sites’ visitors, which thereby earns them even more subscriptions and higher viewing numbers that influence their earnings.

Additionally, “they also receive digital money or gifts from readers from time to time, which can literally be turned into cash,” Gu Liang, a Guangzhou-based online literature writer, told the Global Times.

Besides the royalties they receive from the digital and print publication of their works, Big Gods who have had their works adapted into other mediums such as TV dramas, movies and games also earn money from their licensing agreements, Gu noted.

With such success just a few keystrokes away, more people are trying their hand at writing online series.

“My older brother quit his job in an office recently and began writing full-time,” Li said.

“He is doing well so far.”