Zhang Qiling, the good-looking hero of the fantasy series the Grave Robbers’ Chronicles, is stubbornly taciturn.
In the course of the nine-volume novel he only utters 380 lines – many of them only three or four words long.
But in the final pages of the last book, set on August 17, 2005, the mysterious character delivers his one and only speech.
“I am Zhang Qiling of the last Zhang family. There is a secret given to the Zhangs that has been passed down through the millennia of Chinese history. I must protect this secret which lies beyond these Gates. I will enter the Gates and wait for 10 years for the next guardian,” he tells the books’ other hero Wu Xie.
With that he knocks Wu out and disappears inside a pair of massive bronze doors set in the side of the Changbai Mountains in northern China.
Shortly after the final book, its author Xu Lei, announced he was retiring from writing and the books’ fans – of which there are tens of millions – were left to puzzle over Zhang’s ultimate fate.
The only solution for some seemed to be a journey to the Changbai Mountains on the putative date of Zhang’s return – August 17 this month.
“Zhang Qilin will emerge from the bronze doors this month. I am heading to the Changbai,” wrote one fanatic.
“Time for us to find out how this story really ends,” wrote another seemingly unable to unravel fact from fiction.
The nine books follow the adventures of a motley crew of grave robbers whose ancestors have been involved in the trade for hundreds of years.
The tales are told from the point of view of Wu Xie, a young antiques dealer who was happy to leave his uncle to do the plundering until he comes across a document relating to the death of his grandfather in a botched tomb raid 50 year earlier.
Wu’s attempt to get to the bottom of that and other mysteries takes him all over China and to the bottom of the South China Sea, in books that are so action-packed they read almost like computer games. (Xu Lei was a game designer at one point.)
Accurate figures for how many people have read the books – which have titles like the Cavern of the Zombies and the Bronze Tree of Death – are hard to come by because many people read pirated versions. But such is their popularity they have earned the nickname “the Harry Potter of China”.
Accordingly on August 17 around 50,000 people piled through the turnstiles of Changbai National Park, many sporting Zhang Qiling’s trademark hoodie or carrying big red banners saying “fulfill the 10 year promise”.
“We had no idea so many people would come,” the park’s director Zhang Zaimo told Sina News. Videos from the day show long lines of people – mainly young girls – snaking up the mountain above the park’s famous lake and shouting for Zhang Qiling to “come home”.
For some the emotion was too much. When the park distributed a letter from the author thanking Grave Robber fans for their belief that Zhang Qiling would come back, many were moved to tears.
“I know Qiling isn’t real, but I hope to find a boyfriend like him who will never give up when facing challenges,” Xinhua quoted one female fan as saying.
Others said even though there were no bronze doors and no reappearance of Zhang Qiling, the trip was still special for them.
“I got to feel like I was surrounded by all the characters in the book,” one weibo user said.
Many said they would also come back next year.
The park’s authorities now say they will build a Grave Robbers’ Chronicles theme park to accommodate them. They know a cash cow when they see one.
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