The battle of the Chinese joke-writers

Updated: 2015-05-15 10:42


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A cabbie once shared his life philosophy with me when I was in his car. He said proudly," I have my own car and my own business. I'm my own boss and nobody can give me orders." I nodded and said:" Turn left on next block."

This is a typical duanzi circulating on Sina Weibo – China's Twitter-like service – which has more than 100 million active users by the end of last year.

Duanzi, a term originating from Chinese cross-talk (Xiangsheng) meaning an episode of comedy, is now most often used to refer to short comedic pieces on the Internet.

As people laugh and click to forward the post in a tea break or after a tiring day of work, the duanzishou, or professional duanzi writers, are busy planning their next step in the fast-developing Internet era, as a GQ report finds.

Game of thrones

In the early days of Sina Weibo, duanzi emerged as a popular form of posts on the SNS platform. But for the writers like Bai Er, then an advertising executive, producing duanzi was nothing more than a personal hobby.

In 2011, an account which simply copied all kinds of duanzi on the Internet every day, earned 15 million yuan ($2.4 million) in a year. The producers could either protect the copyright of their works or make profits out of them.

As Bai got to know more and more duanzi writers on weibo, he began to take orders from the advertisers and distribute them to his contemporaries the next year. The writers need to produce duanzi based on the clients' request to help promote their products or achieve other effects. Thus the early business model for the duanzi industry emerged.

Bai quit his job in 2013 and started a full-time duanzi PR business. His company was more like an agency for the writers rather than their employer. The top-level duanzi writers such as @天才小熊猫(a panda genius),@叫兽易小星(Professor Yi Xiaoxing),@谷大白话(talkative Gu) and @八卦_我实在是太cj了(gossip_I'm too naive) all have contracts with him.

Yuan Zhuo was among the duanzi writers that worked with Bai. In 2013 he quit his salesman job and set up a company doing a similar business to Bai's. @回忆专用小马甲 (an account exclusively for memory) and @假装在纽约(pretending to be in New York) are among those who have contracts with him.

Also in the same year, Lin Rui, a 23-year-old graduate who met Bai during an internship, established the third company in the industry. Though Lin seems to have come too late to sign on the most popular writers, he successfully picked some winners such as @小野妹子学吐槽 (sister Xiaoye learns to complain) and @英国报姐(British newspaper sister). The yearly revenue of Lin's business surpassed Bai's and Yuan's put together.

Now about 90 percent of professional duanzi writers have signed with the three companies and the number of their weibo followers exceeds 300 million. The top writers could earn as much as one million yuan a year.

With the fast expansion and fierce competition, three-cornered fight appeared. No outsiders could step in and none of them could be squeezed out.

In March, the three companies held a meeting, the Yalta Conference of the duanzi industry. One of the consensuses is that the business of these talents is no longer limited to writing duanzi on the Internet. Their commercial value and influence are extending to other areas like movies, books, and music.

As the industry sees further development, a “game of thrones” dynamic has emerged among the key players.

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