Emoji－it's the newest intellectual property or IP in China's Creativeville that is spawning millions of yuan for its creators as well as peddlers.
The digital-age image-based art form is also creating a whole new line of business that is estimated to see double-digit, perhaps even triple-digit, annual growth in the next few years.
For the uninitiated, emojis are standardized sets of stylized images like smileys, usually animated, that express a range of emotions or short messages (like hello, hi! and other kinds of greetings, exclamations, snubs).
Emojis, an evolution of yester-year text character-based emoticons, are part and parcel of most messages exchanged by users of instant messengers, social media, email and the like.
Users love emojis because they help spice up their messages with slick meanings, or moods or mind states, that are best expressed quickly not in words but through interesting or funny images.
With hundreds of millions of users now on social media like WeChat, a widely used emoji could prove a money-spinner and a precious commodity, an IP worth its weight in gold.
Mao Tui (not her real name), 22, a collegian in Anhui province, can testify to the power of emojis. Until four years back, she was just a normal student, dependent on family support to complete her education. One day, just for fun, she drew a cartoon character.
She named her character Zhangcao Yantuanzi, or Budding Pop, a chubby, adorable boy (or girl, since gender is not indicated, about 4-years-old), with a tuft of grass, rather a couple of green leaves on a stem, for hair.
Soon, Budding Pop evolved into a series of drawings express-ing a range of emotions for different occasions and moods. They were digitalized and animated later.
More than half of China's population－say, 650 million people of the 1.3 billion nation－have had a tryst with Budding Pop since. The emoji has been downloaded more than 800 million times through WeChat, the killer all-in-one app of Tencent.
Through tips from WeChat users doting on Budding Pop, Mao today earns a decent monthly income.
There are tens of thousands of people such as Mao in China these days who use their artistic talent to create emojis and rake in the moolah. Their investment, besides their talent for creative drawings, includes hardware like a PC or an electronic drawing board and soft-ware like open-source drawing apps, all costing no more than a few thousand yuan.
And returns on such investment could be handsome. A WeChat user can tip up to 200 yuan ($33) per emoji at a time. Tencent claimed it had more than 900 million active WeChat users in China alone at the end of September 2017. Apparently, they send out 38 billion messages every day. It, however, declined to share details like the number of emoji downloads and the number of messages with emojis last year.
"An emoji creator's income depends on the popularity of his or her work. The more she is wel-comed by users, the more she will earn. The maximum I've earned is tens of thousands yuan per set," said Zhang Xuchen, 39, a part-time emoji artist in Beijing. "I know some emoji artists who earn over hundreds of thousands of yuan."
Zhang, who is a forklift truck driver in Tianjin, has created 12 sets of emojis so far. A set takes at least one or two months to create, he said. Typically, other emoji artists may spend one to three months to create a set.
The most popular set of emoji among Zhang's creations－it is called Huaijiu Xiyouji, inspired by ancient Chinese novel The Journey to the West, a story about four characters who go on a pilgrimage in search of Buddhist scriptures－has been downloaded more than 22 million times and exchanged more than 400 million times in e-messages in cyberspace.
It's not just individual artists who stand to earn from emojis. There are creative design firms and groups of artists sprouting all over like mushrooms. They hire artists to create emojis, which are then peddled to WeChat and the like.
For its part, WeChat earns user loyalty and stickiness by providing them with content they love. Although the app's officials declined to disclose financial fig-ures relating to emojis, it is conceivable WeChat may be earning a commission on paid-for emojis, if not a cut from users' tips for emoji artists.
Then there are IP specialists such as Block 12 that leverage emojis for licensing deals with movie producers, TV channels, product makers, comic book publishers and such. For instance, Budding Pop is already featured on toys, bank cards and in films.
It's an emoji ecosystem all right.
So much so that WeChat now has an emoji store where artists, either individually or in groups, can upload their work and make money.
WeChat officials told China Daily there are around 23,000 sets on its emoji store. Most of them are free. Only seven sets were added to the category of paid emojis (around 6 yuan or S$1.26 per set) last year.
"The most important change in my life is I can now earn some extra money by drawing some emojis," said Zhang. Users "appreciate" his emojis on the Wechat emoji store by offering tips.
According to WeChat, more than 690,000 users tipped emoji artists in 2017, parting with nearly 14 million yuan in all, up 13 per cent year-on-year.
Encouraging by the evolving business, other media players are jumping on the emoji bandwagon.
For instance, Vision News, a department of the new media centre of China Daily, has published an emoji called Dao Jun or Dao Knowhow, a teal-hued dolphin-like imaginary creature, on the WeChat emoji store.
"This image is now used in some of our comics. We want to take advantage of this lovely image to create some amusing visual news products," said Wang Xiaoying, head of Vision News.
Cheng Yanbo, an independent game analyst, said: "In the internet era, users have short attention spans. They don't pay attention to one emoji for a long time. So, emoji painters need to keep innovating and creating new ones.
"In this sense, IP will increase the visibility of emojis, both online and offline, besides expanding their longevity as well as revenue."
From a business point of view, the growing Chinese emoji segment is not very different from Japan's cartoon industry where emojis first emerged in the 1990s as a way for people to quickly communicate through visual information.
Back then, Japan created an array of world-famous cartoon figures such as Kumamon and Poinko. Similarly, Chinese emojis now integrate some special Chinese cultural elements.
For example, Zhang's most popular emoji series was inspired by The Journey to the West, one of China's "Four Great Classic Novels". The emoji's central character is based on the character of Sun Wukong, or the Monkey King, and Xuan Zang, a monk in the same novel.
In one image of the emoji, the Monkey King is seen flying up into the sky, reflecting Chinese millennials' new-found confidence, self-esteem and pride.
Another emoji that stands out and has become popular is the Eighth Route Army series, an army led by the Communist Party of China during the 1930s and 1940s war with Japan.
"The reason why I developed this series is because personally I like watching TV series of similar history and I believe that history should never ever be forgotten. I think it (emoji image) will strike a chord among Chinese people," said Zhang.
Asked about the future, Zhang said laughing out loudly: "Of course, I want to create an emoji that can not only top the global popularity charts but also make me a multi-millionaire, if not a billionaire."