“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

The Tibetan Factor, Marketing Smarts and Toilet Humor

It has hit the shelves at last: the last installment—Volume 10—of The Tibet Code (藏地密码10:神圣大结局) is on sale now throughout China. The critics scoffed, but marketing experts acclaimed the way the free online tale transitioned to paying hard copy, and devoted fans reportedly snapped up three million copies during its three-year stay on the best-seller charts.

Chinese-to-English literary translator Joel Martinsen describes it as a "successful pulp adventure series" that "puts its characters in life-threatening situations in a quest for legendary animals and lost civilizations," in an interview with The Global Times.

The civilization in question is a form of ancient Tibetan Buddhism abolished by the Emperor Langdarma in the ninth century, and Tibetan mastiffs play a starring role in what is essentially a modern-day, wild goose chase for sacred sutras and artifacts hidden away in defiance of the emperor’s ban. Even 20th-century secret missions sent by Hitler and Stalin get in on the game.

Driving the series is the so-called "Tibetan factor", the use of a mélange of Tibetan motifs, myths and sites that virtually steep the story in representations of a culture that remains exotic even for the great mass of Chinese people. The series is packaged in a cover that is visually similar to traditional Tibetan layered garb.

Critics point out that while the series has been marketed as a virtual "encyclopedia" of Tibetan peoples, history, geography, religion and flora and fauna, the mysterious author—who remains unidentified—is reportedly a post-80s generation Han Chinese who has never set foot on the Tibetan Plateau.

In a humorous last hurrah for the series—and perhaps to remind us of how they pushed the marketing envelope to get it where it is today—Chongqing Publishing House has shot a promotional video. It stars several young, photogenic editors of the series, reading the book, eating instant noodles… while sitting on the loo.