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The popularity of erciyuan - a Chinese term that refers to an online world of anime, comics, video games and novels - has spread beyond cities to rural China. Erciyuan, which literally translates to "two dimensions," is projected to become a 500 billion yuan ($72.7 billion) business over the next few years. The industry has caught the attention of major Chinese tech companies such as Tencent and Xiaomi. However, analysts said the domestic erciyuan market remains in an early stage of development and is still influenced by Japanese creations.

Cosplayers perform at an anime convention in Beijing on January 21. Photo: CFP

Cosplayers perform at an anime convention in Beijing on January 21. Photo: CFP

Li Wenqing is a big fan of Hatsune Miku, a 10-foot-tall holographic anime pop star developed by Japan's Crypton Future Media. Li lives in a remote village in Southwest China's Sichuan Province.

Unable to frequently fly to big cities to see Hatsune Miku's live concerts, the 17-year-old supports his "wife" - as he describes the character - in other ways.

Over the past year, he has spent 5,000 yuan ($726.64) on Hatsune Miku memorabilia, such as posters and model figures.

"She is cute and energetic - a kind of a spiritual pillar for me," Li told the Global Times on Thursday. "While I listen to her songs, I feel joyful and hopeful for the future."

With support from his parents and friends, the teenager does not feel out of place in his village.

"My parents even think that liking a virtual pop star is healthier and safer than following real stars, who might have a bad influence on kids," he said.

Erciyuan boom

More than 200 million consumers like Li are fueling the rise of a segment of the entertainment industry known as erciyuan, which literally translates to "two dimensions." The term serves as a stand-in for flat world involving anime, comics, games and novels (ACGN).

The Beijing-based market research firm iResearch has predicted that there will be 308 million erciyuan fans in China by the end of 2017.

The generation born after 1995 is so enamored with ACGN that they have cultivated derivative activities like cosplay, in which they dress up as characters from anime, comic books, video games or other popular forms of entertainment.

Interviews with several ­cosplayers in Beijing reveal that they usually spend about 1,200 yuan annually on costumes, which they either buy online or make on their own.

Overall, erciyuan is expected to become a 500 billion yuan market over the next few years, up from a value of 250 billion yuan in May 2016, according to media reports, which cited data from CITIC Securities.

"In three to five years, this non-mainstream niche market will take off and grow into a big part of the mainstream as more people opt for virtual getaways," said Huang Guofeng, an industry analyst with Beijing-based market consultancy Analysys International.

The process may be sped up by large domestic companies that recently entered the market, Huang told the Global Times on Thursday.

Tech takes an interest

Chinese tech companies are trying to capitalize on the craze. Beijing-based smartphone maker Xiaomi Inc is one of the latest to test the waters.

On February 7, it rolled out a Hatsune Miku special edition model of its Redmi Note 4X smartphone, which comes in the character's signature turquoise hue.

Li has been trying everything in his power to get his hands on one of the phones, even though he just bought a new handset three months ago.

Meitu, a domestic photo makeover app, made a sensation around the world by adding erciyuan features that allow its users to transform their selfies into anime characters.

The social networking group of China's Internet powerhouse Tencent Holdings also senses a trend developing. In a response to Global Times questions on Friday, the group disclosed plans to pump up investment into its erciyuan business on the QQ front this year.

QQ is perceived as something Tencent can bank on to gain an edge in the fiercely competitive erciyuan market. The chat app remains popular among people born in the 1990s, who are the main force of the market.

A PR representative with the social networking group said it will hold four exhibitions in 2017 to promote their erciyuan products and services among QQ users. In the next three years, Tencent will create 20 to 30 top-class intellectual properties, involving comics, mobile games and online novels.

Tencent had successfully wooed young consumers with the 2015 launch of the mobile multiplayer game King of Glory.

App Annie's latest ranking on Saturday showed that the strategy game remained China's No.1 grossing game on iOS, closely followed by Onmyoji, a real-time role-playing mobile game developed by NetEase.

Japanese influence

Although Chinese animation and games have improved in recent years, they are still far from matching their Japanese counterparts, said Fu Zihao, a Beijing resident who has been making costumes and accessories for cosplayers for years.

"We can find traces of Japanese culture in many domestic manga and games nowadays," he told the Global Times Friday.

Fu's point of view is reflected partially in NetEase's Onmyoji, which features a more immersive gaming experience with popular Japanese actors voicing the game's characters. Facebook ranked Onmyoji as one of the top-three games of 2016 after it racked up more than 10 million downloads in less than a month.

"China's erciyuan industry is still in an early stage of development, when imitation of Japanese counterparts will be commonly seen due to the lack of talent and technology," Huang said.

As long as Japan keeps rolling out popular titles, the strong influence of Japanese culture on the Chinese erciyuan market will continue, he noted.

Still, domestic erciyuan fans and analysts had confidence in the country's animation renaissance.

The situation will change as major Chinese Internet firms beef up efforts in the market and the country takes intellectual property rights more seriously, they said.

The rise of Chinese animation does not mean Japanese animation will disappear, at least in the eyes of Li.

"I think I will continue to be drawn by the imaginative nature, subtle beauty and original points of view I find in Japanese animation. Even though those things are hard to see in Chinese animation, I will also be a supporter of Chinese animation," Li said. "Politics should not interfere with China and Japan sharing cultures with each other."