From the Nobel Prize to the Hugo Award, there are a plethora of literary honors dedicated to fiction of all sorts. In China, there’s one award devoted to stories originating online.

The annual prize, co-organized by the country’s media watchdog, endorses works of internet literature deemed positive in the eyes of the government. The top winner for 2018, announced this week, was Heroes of Internet: Gravitational Field -- a business thriller about a Chinese internet startup battling a multinational conglomerate for market dominance. (Spoiler: The startup triumphed.)

Online publishing is a booming industry in China, where half of all internet users consume web literature, according to a report by state agency China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC). Supported by a readership larger than the US population, successful authors stand to collect a windfall for selling adaptation rights to their works.

Some of the nation’s biggest box office and TV hits are based on internet novels. Wu Kong, a 2017 blockbuster that surpassed Despicable Me 3 and Transformers: The Last Knight in China, was based on an internet novel about a legendary monkey. Ever Night, a historical fantasy serialized online, was purchased by Tencent and turned into a show and a smartphone game last year.

If Game of Thrones was set in China, it might look like this. (Picture: Ever Night/Tencent Video)

But while fantasy tales like these dominate China’s online literature landscape, authorities seem to favor stories with a more realistic bent. One criteria for contest entries is that they should “reflect real-world issues and spread socialist energy”.  

One of the most well-known awardees this time is Tang Jia San Shao, China’s top-earning online novelist. While he got his first big break writing martial arts fantasies, he won over the panelists with a contemporary romance featuring two young entrepreneurs.

Despite the government’s attempt to steer public tastes, it looks like many aren’t being swayed. One of the hottest online novels last year was Dawang Raoming (“Spare My Life, King”) -- a dark comedic fantasy about a boy who has the magical power of saying things that immediately dampens the mood of everyone around him. The viral series drew a lively discussion online, bringing over a million readers to its official comment feed -- a record number for the popular publishing site Qidian.com.

It may not sound like the type of work that the authorities like to condone, but it still managed to skirt the prying eyes of censors. Still, as some budding online writers have learned, there are certain things you definitely cannot write on the Chinese internet.

One man told the South China Morning Post his editors deleted the number 64 from his story. The number, of course, corresponds to the date of the Tiananmen Square crackdown that took place on June 4, 1989.