Bibliomania in Sino-cyberspace
In this essay, Gloria Davies offers an overview of virtual Chinese-language libraries which are stocked with the voluminous, although often evanescent, products of modern mainland Chinese writers' studios. Many bloggers, or casual commentators, who form voluble and frequently rancourous 'reading communities' on the Chinese net avail themselves of studio names that evoke the literati-style of the past—GRB
It was nine years ago in 1999 that intellectuals in mainland China successfully campaigned for affordable Internet access. Since then, the Chinese Internet has provided a home, at one time or other, for a diverse range of online enterprises established with a view to fostering intellectual independence and pluralism. There are a variety of reasons for the short-lived nature of most of these enterprises but state censorship is the main reason for the demise of such websites as Century China (Shiji Zhongguo), Sinoliberal.net (Sixiang pinglun) and Yannan.cn (Yannan wang) that became highly influential in mainland intellectual circles of the early 2000s. In general, the more popular an intellectual website, the more unwelcome attention it attracts from state censors.
In the case of Sinoliberal.net, the founding editor, Qiu Feng, an independent Beijing-based researcher, had sought to create a cyber-bibliothèque (housing a wide range of essays) that would function as a vehicle for the dissemination of ideas about Western classical liberalism. The site, launched in July 1999, proved so popular with readers that, by early 2000, state censors put Qiu on notice and questioned him on several occasions throughout that year. The censors also demanded that the Chinese word for 'liberalism' (ziyouzhuyi) be removed from the website. Their frequent interference led the site to be intermittently active before it was shut down for good in 2002. Some of the materials featured on Sinoliberal.net have since been archived at various websites outside China. Within China, however, the website's main function as a cyber-bibliothèque could not be salvaged. Since its demise, no alternative enterprise has emerged to continue the work of housing, on the one website, the writings of prominent Western liberal thinkers (such as Friedrich von Hayek and Isaiah Berlin) and Chinese advocates of liberalism (including mainland-based intellectuals like Qin Hui, Xu Youyu, Liu Junning and Zhu Xueqin as well as overseas-based individuals like Qian Yongxiang and the now-deceased Yang Xiaokai).
The closure of the equally popular Yannan.cn and Century China came later, in 2005 and 2006 respectively. Like Sinoliberal.net, both these sites housed an extensive range of writings on a wide variety of topics, including essays in Chinese translation by such prominent public intellectuals as Edward Said and Richard Rorty. All three sites were also highly popular because of their discussion fora (luntan) which attracted an enormous number of postings on a wide variety of topical issues. At times, intellectual disagreements developed (and deteriorated) into virulent exchanges, lending a gladiatorial ambience to these discussion fora. For website owners and editors, such disagreements had the overall positive effect of generating publicity for their cyber enterprises, so long as the causes célèbres were neither too politically sensitive nor likely to attract censorship. The first major intellectual controversy to be pursued in Sino-cyberspace was the one surrounding the Cheung Kong-Reading Awards (Changjiang Dushu jiang) that unfolded between June and August 2000.
As a medium, the Internet not only facilitated the creation of cyber-bibliothèques, virtual homes to the outpourings of the modern Scholar's Studio, but offered new ways of reading as well. For instance, between 2003 and 2004, Century China published a widely read series of vitriolic attacks on prominent mainland Chinese academics penned by Lu Xinghua, then a graduate student based in England. Numerous essays by the individuals whom Lu attacked were already posted on the Century China site. Readers were thus able (and encouraged) to toggle between Lu's denunciations and the writings of those whom he denounced. This aspect of Internet technology bears some resemblance to what Walter Benjamin once wrote about films, at a time when going to the movies was still relatively new and highly popular.
Benjamin argued that films are apprehended in 'a state of distraction' (as opposed to 'a state of concentration') because the equipment-aided reality projected on the cinema screen does not enhance, as it were, a supposed equipment-free reality. On the contrary, he explained, films produced new spaces (of the close-up, slow motion or angled shot) that encouraged novel affective responses and facilitated new ways of seeing with the overall effect of preventing the spectator from adopting a singular viewpoint and making it impossible for him to imagine the projected reality as an integral whole. To some extent, the arrangement of texts, images and videos in one or another webzine format in a cyber-bibliothèque, encourages multi-linear or 'distracted' (as opposed to uni-linear or 'concentrated') ways of reading. In fact, online essays that feature a plenitude of embedded hyperlinks to other online artefacts actively encourage the reader to embark on a process of learning through 'distraction'.
To appreciate the potential power of the cyber-bibliothèques that have proliferated on the Internet in mainland China, it is important that we understand the Internet as a potentially limitless 'container' with the capacity to hold ever more content, with the container's size being determined by the content it holds at any given time. Despite the effectiveness of state censorship in mainland China throughout the 2000s, enormous numbers of mainland Chinese netizens have contributed to the ongoing creation of cyber-bibliothèques either through posting other people's work or their own. This bodes well for intellectual life in China insofar as the huge numbers of new articles and commentaries posted daily at mainland-based websites ensures that the mainland reading public has ready access to a wide variety of views. In this regard, it is also important to note that although mainland cyber-bibliothèques have no difficulty in featuring the 'collected works' (wenji) of prominent mainland-based scholars such as Liu Xiaofeng, Qian Liqun, Wang Hui, Xu Jilin and Zhu Xueqin, they are generally prevented from housing the writings of distinguished dissident or dissenting intellectuals such as Dai Qing, Wang Lixiong and Liu Xiaobo, who have been banned from publishing within China. Thus, their writings, housed in cyberspace beyond the confines of China's Great Firewall, are largely inaccessible to the mainland reading public. A case in point is the Independent Chinese PEN Center website which holds the works of numerous Chinese writers with a strong reputation as social critics but is blocked within China.
A February 2008 report in The Guardian notes that comparative surveys of netizens in the United States and mainland China suggest that 'Chinese netizens are more passionate about the web, three times more likely to feel freer in the virtual world than in reality, and more than twice as likely to consider themselves addicted.' State censorship is arguably an important reason for the greater degree of frisson discerned among Chinese netizens in their experience of going online. With the advent of Web 2.0, Chinese netizens who once frequented the massive cyber-bibliothèque of Century China and other large intellectual enterprises have now set up their own weblogs. In addition to diary jottings, such weblogs often include a small personal library featuring the blogger's favourite reading. Statistics reported by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) in September 2006 provide some indication of the staggering numbers of people involved in such online enterprises. According to CNNIC, of the 17.5 million bloggers identified at the end of August 2006, approximately 7.7 million actively update their weblogs once a month or more.
Thus, the dazzling spectacle in Sino-cyberspace of an ever-expanding range of libraries, large and small, bespeaks a new form of bibliomania—a rage or madness for collecting texts and other electronic artefacts (rather than books). What is different about this bibliomania is that people capture and house (rather than own) the artefacts featured in their cyber-bibliothèques. Along the way, formal and informal regulations on the collection, publication and re-publication of texts and artefacts have also developed. But one should not be too hasty in celebrating this wave of bibliomania in Sino-cyberspace as an unqualified achievement of greater intellectual freedom, for it remains subject to the Diktat of the Party-state and its growing army of Internet police.
More importantly perhaps, intellectual discernment is difficult to achieve in the face of sheer oceans of electronic texts. Increasingly, one must rely on the use of an ample number of judiciously selected keywords to reduce the number of texts a search engine identifies. In the case of highly popular topics, such attempts at selective culling often prove futile as one is still confronted with the problem of having too much to read. In Chinese, the phrase xue hai ('ocean of learning') has long been used to figure an individual's erudition as well as to suggest that someone who has embarked on the path of inquiry must travel far to reach their goal. In the bibliomania of Sino-cyberspace, the difference between productive forms of learning through distraction (to recall Benjamin) and simply drowning in distraction is often just a click away.
1. A screengrab of the site's 2001 contents is archived at http://www.yuwen123.com/ywyd/jiaoshicankao/sixiangqianyan/sixiangpinglun/ (accessed on 20 March 2008). The site also housed the work of such Western thinkers as Jürgen Habermas and Hannah Arendt who discussed human rights issues but are not normally associated with classical liberalism.
2. For a discussion of this incident and its relevance to Chinese intellectual culture on the Internet, see Geremie R. Barmé and Gloria Davies, 'Have We Been Noticed Yet? Intellectual Contestation and the Chinese Web', in Merle Goldman and Edward X. Gu (eds), Chinese Intellectuals between the Market and the State, London: Routledge, pp.75-108.
3. 'Let us compare the screen on which a film unfolds with the canvas of a painting. The painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed. It cannot be arrested... I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images.' Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Edited with an Introduction by Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, Fontana/Collins, 1982, p.240.
4. My thanks to Lindsay Waters for reminding me of the continued relevance of Benjamin-inspired 'distraction'. See also Lindsay Waters, 'Come Softly, Darling, Hear What I Say: Listening in a State of Distraction—A Tribute to the Work of Walter Benjamin, Elvis Presley, and Robert Christgau', boundary 2, vol.30, no.1 (Spring 2003): 199-212.
5. Selected essays by all five of the scholars listed here are housed at the rapidly expanding cyber-bibliothèque of the Center for Philosophy at Sichuan University. See, for instance, the site's collection of Liu Xiaofeng's and Wang Hui's essays and lectures at http://www.scuphilosophy.org/bbs/boke.asp?lxf.index.html and http://www.scuphilosophy.org/bbs/boke.asp?wanghui.index.html respectively. Since Wang Hui is a leading 'New Left intellectual', it is not surprising that an extensive selection of his writings, including numerous position pieces on New Left thinking, appear in the left-inspired online journal San nong Zhongguo ('Three Agrarians' China) at: http://www.snzg.cn/member1/member.php?username=%CD%F4%EA%CD.
6. Selected writings by Liu Xiaobo and Wang Lixiong are featured at the U.S.-based Boxun website. See also Note 7 below. For a brief period in 2007, Dai Qing maintained a weblog at the Tianya website in which she posted several essays and jottings using the name 'Dai Qing the journalist' (jizhe Dai Qing). Although her weblog remains active and is accessible within China, it features only a few diary entries and a small sample of her earlier writings. Dai drew attention to censorship of her work in an entry dated 9 November 2007, in which she informed her readers that it was only after having carefully considered the 'range of possible ramifications' that she deemed the text of the 2007 George E. Morrison Lecture, '1948: How Peaceful was the Liberation of Beiping?' (delivered at The Australian National University in September 2007, and to be published online in the June 2008 issue of China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 14) to be sufficiently innocuous for publication on her weblog. She wrote that the piece had 'for some reason been harmonized' and asked, 'Well, what should I do? Try and post a different piece tomorrow?' An excerpt from Dai's widely acclaimed work, Wang Shiwei and Wild Lilies (published originally in 1986, and English translation appearing in 1994), has been allowed to remain on her weblog. See http://blog.tianya.cn/blogger/view_blog.asp?BlogName=jizhedaiqing&idWriter=0&Key=0 Only a small minority with the expertise to bypass the state's information shield using proxy servers can access materials blocked by the Great Firewall.
7. The Independent Chinese PEN Center library is hosted on the U.S.-based Boxun website at: http://www.boxun.com/hero/chinapen.shtml. Boxun, blocked in mainland China, has periodically been subjected to attacks from unknown hackers, with the most serious disruption occurring in December 2007. A Reporters Without Borders notice of 27 December 2007 states that the hackers were probably based in China (posted at http://www.rsf.org/fil_en.php3?id_rubrique=682&mois=12).
8. Jonathan Watts, 'Behind the Great Firewall', 9 February 2008, The Guardian at http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2008/feb/09/internet.china
9. People's Daily Online, 'Number of bloggers in China reaches 17.5 million', 25 September 2006, at http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/200609/25/eng20060925_306206.html