China Blogging and the Big, Stupid Echo Chamber

This is sort of part two of another post, one I hadn’t originally intended to follow up on. But in discussing his new podcast with the ever-wise Kaiser Kuo the other day, he reminded me of something important and something all-too-easy to forget. When it comes to China, none of us really knows anything.

I mean that figuratively. Of course, many of us know many things, and I obviously think that what English-language China bloggers do is extremely valuable, or I wouldn’t still be doing this. Moreover, I get a ton out of all of the English sites on our blogroll. My point is that being a “China commentator” on the internet can become intoxicating, especially in our little community, which is small enough that many of the “scene’s” most popular bloggers know each other personally. Speaking from my own experience, with a little mutual linking and press attention, one can come to believe that he has become a “China expert” — someone whose advice people should seek out whenever something of import occurs in China. And that is always dangerous.

China, to its credit, always seems to find a way to remind you that you’re an idiot. But it doesn’t always post that on your blog, so let me take this moment to remind everyone who reads ChinaGeeks: we are not experts. We are not expert translators, we are not expert analysts, and while many of us have studied China formally for some time now, the number of things we don’t know and don’t understand could fill vast tomes, and these tomes, when stacked, would form towering, ominous stelae, reminding netizens whose ships have docked or been dashed upon the rocks of our shores that while our words may be interesting, they are never infallible.

As a blogging community, perhaps we congratulate ourselves too much, and challenge ourselves a bit too little. Perhaps we’re a bit too willing to stay within the confines of our well-defined community here and keep doing the same things we’re doing, to our own detriment. I’m not talking about anyone in specific other than myself, but the shoe probably fits elsewhere, too. To put it bluntly, fuck that shoe. Let’s try to get rid of that shoe.

My own translation, especially, concerns me, as although I have now posted hundreds, I’m not actually qualified to do it. Serving as the bridge between Chinese writers — more often than not, the capable ones — and English readers who may draw conclusions about a nation based on my translation is a daunting thought, and one that keeps me up at night from time to time. Shouldn’t somebody far more skilled, more qualified, more experienced be doing this, rather than me?

David Simon, the creator of The Wire (probably the best television show ever written), once said of his writing that his goal was to have the real people — the people he was writing about — feel as though he had captured them. He said,

That’s my goal. It derives not from pride or ambition or any writerly vanity, but from fear. Absolute fear. Like many writers, I live every day with the vague nightmare that at some point, someone more knowledgeable than myself is going to sit up and pen a massive screed indicating exactly where my work is shallow and fraudulent and rooted in lame, half-assed assumptions. I see myself labeled a writer, and I get good reviews, and I have the same doubts buried, latent, even after my successes. I suspect many, many writers feel this way.

As a translator, that fear might be stronger for me. I live in fear that the people I’m translating might someday pen such a screed, or assert, as Ai Weiwei did on Twitter a few months ago, that something I’ve translated got his meaning absolutely wrong. But people generally compliment my translations even when they’re kind of crap — there’s the echo chamber effect again — probably because no one else is writing them.

The point of this post is not to condemn anyone else — please don’t look for hidden messages here about other blogs or bloggers; there aren’t any — or necessarily to condemn this blog, the product of my own blood and sweat as well as that of my excellent staff. It is more to remind you, and to remind me, that while we have a bit of a pulpit here, we are still — and will always be — students. There are moments worthy of celebration, yes, but you as readers must also bear witness to our failures, and they, too, are many.

Note: None of the wonderful ChinaGeeks staff had any say in the writing of this article one way or the other, so if you want their thoughts on the issue, you may need to look to the comments.

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0 thoughts on “China Blogging and the Big, Stupid Echo Chamber”

  1. Hey Charles, this is a good wake-up call. Same here. I need to be on my toes all the time. Like I keep telling myself that I should be reading more and more.

    So yes, I understand you completely. But don’t be too harsh on yourself too. I’m sure the people who praised you are very sincere. You have a good blog. And you should be proud of that. 🙂

    Cheers!

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  2. Chinese is a difficult language to “master” (assuming such a thing is possible). Chinese culture is equally difficult to truly understand.

    Though I haven’t been in the scene long, I do notice that there are some egos out there.

    Modesty is certainly a virtue, and 三人行必有我师 is a saying I try to live by. I think a good reality check like the one above is in order at times to keep everyone humble–and not just those blogging and writing about China.

    Great post!

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  3. Re qualifications to translate: I think even professional translators get things wrong sometimes. You are providing a free service to the community and doing the best you can — no one really has a right to complain about that!

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  4. The important thing is that we admit our limits. Nobody is perfect, and of course there are many things you don´t know. But you still make a great job in this website. And this post is just another example.

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  5. Custer,

    You are too harsh to yourself. There are far more idiots out there in the media business and in the financial circle, and guess what, they are famous (Paul-inflation-is-wonderful-Krugman is a perfect example. NYT about the Nanxiang school is almost hilarious – pity that them don’t even know they look hilarious; they wanted to be dead-serious).

    Stupidity knows no bound. Humility is the only restraint. You are doing good in that.

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  6. China, to its credit, always seems to find a way to remind you that you’re an idiot

    Nice way to put it – feel like this twice a day (on my good days). If it’s any comfort, I’m just working on a story in which I interviewd a guy who’ve been here 60 years.He said he’s still reminded daily of how much he doesn’t know. It pretty much destroyed my hopes of achieving enlightment after ten years in the field.
    Ok, not so much a comfort I suppose.

    Having said that, you’re doing a great and valuable job with this blog, this post being a fine example 🙂

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  7. I remember watching an interview with one film director – very good by the way – who said: “During the production of EVERY movie I have a fear that people around me(actors, assistants, spectators) will finally understand what bad and unqualified director I am”.
    Being qualified – it’s not diploma or achievement after which you can relax. One must prove her qualification again and again.
    And enjoy the process… I by the way know that my blog is not super-duper, but I enjoy blogging immensely.

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  8. Thanks for the kind words, all. I wasn’t fishing for compliments, but it seems to have worked out that way.

    Crystal, thanks for the comments. I enjoy your blog and have added it to what I read, which means someday it will get added to our blogroll.

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  9. Well, this is not a praise. Custer, do you think you, or the expat China blogger and self-appointed experts, really captured the Chinese people as a whole?

    When you people basically fall behind the party line and selectivly bridge stuff like Ai Weiwi, Hu Jia, Charter 08, green dam, Tibet – you basically become an extension and part of the Echo Chamber that’s orchestrated by VOA, RFA, BBG, State Dept., US government foreign policy implement.

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  10. Of course not. This is one blog. In total, there are barely a dozen decent bridge blogs and all of us have day jobs. How could we possibly “capture the Chinese people”? The idea is ludicrous, and we have never claimed to represent all Chinese. We run china related stories that interest us.

    That said, we post stuff from anti-CNN, Qiushi, and Xinhua pretty frequently. If you know of somehing else we should be translating, tell us. We are not mind readers.

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  11. Can you define what “pretty regularly” means? Then go count the percantage of bad news vs good news?

    May I suggest whehn the expat China blogs writes off half of China ss “fifty cent party”, what they are capturing is not China at all, but our official narrative of China, self-righteous indigination, our b!tchy selves.

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  12. Again, we’re not trying to “capture China”, we just run stories that interest us. They certainly do tend to be more negative than positive, sure. I can’t speak for the other writers, but I find “positive” news extremely boring — if everything is good then why are we talking about it, and couldn’t we be using that time to discuss how to fix something bad?

    We have never “written off half of China as fifty cent party” on this site. In fact, we have never accused anyone of being “fifty cent party” on this site. I agree that if one were to read this site, or English China news blogs in general, they would get a skewed picture of China, but it isn’t our responsibility to represent the entire scope of Chinese public opinion. We do not have the time or the resources to do that. We post translations of things that interest us, and don’t even have time to do all of those.

    Additionally, I’m not really interested in spending too much time explaining the view of the “average” Chinese person (as though such a thing exists) on political issues because the “average” person probably doesn’t spend a lot of time dealing with or thinking about politics. I would much rather translate something written by reporters, or social commentators; people who’ve put real time and effort into examining Chinese society and have something unique and interesting to say. Those folks — at least, those whose links have reached us — tend to be pretty liberal.

    Again, if you feel the site isn’t adequately balanced, I invite you to suggest some other interesting things we should be translating, or apply to join our team and translate yourself. If you don’t want to join but you find something you think we should cover, you can also write up a guest post and submit it.

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  13. Don’t know how I have passed over this site for so long. Great reading on contemporaneous issues, many of which will decide the future trajectory of domestic Chinese society. I look for those reads which shred the official Beijing narrative, thinking the Chinese people deserve a better deal in the 21st century. God knows, the 20th was an unmitigated disaster.

    But thats just me and my interest in history. And this is not just China. The nature of Putan’s Russia today can be directly attributed to similar 20th century political/ideological experiences. The 50 cent party versus the US is a false dichotomony, but one which over-exercises the minds of many in the blogosphere.

    Also, on the one hand, you have those trash sites which hit the sex, celebrity and racist buttons, and on the other, the erudite sino specialist sites which exist in an ahistorical vacuum.

    Like

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