Internet culture

Translating Chinese Internet chaos: ChinaSMACK

danwei-fauna.png
Fauna, feeling jiong

ChinaSMACK launched barely four months ago, but it immediately proved to be one of the more interesting niche websites about China in English. The site translates posts and comments from China's lively Internet forum scene.

Internet fora, or BBS, were one of the first types of website in China to get young Chinese hooked, and they remain very popular. Chinese BBS are a refreshing contrast to the stodgy state media, and the cowed privately-managed media.

You do however need a strong stomach to enjoy Chinese BBS because for every thoughtful or thought-provoking posting, there are two or three vicious ad hominem essays, human flesh search engine man hunts, or nationalistic rants.

ChinaSMACK is a slightly anarchic collective of people, mostly Chinese but living all over the world. Under the leadership of Fauna (pictured), they select and translate Chinese BBS posts and comments into English. Reading their website helps makes sense of the chaos of the Chinese Internet, and the moral debates that occupy wired Chinese youth across the globe.

Danwei recently asked Fauna of ChinaSMACK some questions and she sent the questions to all the contributors. Below is an edited transcript of their replies.

Who started China Smack and why?

Fauna:
I started ChinaSMACK. The reasons are in my About page and in the 3 Month post. The basic reasons:Make my own website, improve my English, and help foreigners see and understand a different side of Chinese people that many other English websites about China do not always show. I like to go on online and read BBS forums so I thought it was a suitable topic for me.


Who are all the contributors and where do you live?

Fauna:
The contributors are: me,
Kai (Sydney), Kris Chen (Shanghai), Ping Gao (North Carolina), Ian Statler (Dalian), Xia Boyang (London), Joe Xu (U.S.A.), and Yang Shaohua (Taiyuan). Each of these people have published at least one post. Some have published 3. There are a few other people who have not published anything yet or hope to do different things but none have been completed yet so it is best to recognize these people.

Which websites do you draw most of your translations from?

Fauna:
They are mostly BBS forums like Tianya, Mop, Sina, Sohu, and KDS (because I am in Shanghai). Sometimes there are other BBS like Tiexue, Liba etc.

Ping Gao:
Tianya. I am a member of the famous Tianya Guanguang Tuan (a group on the Tianya forum).

Kris Chen:
KDS.

Ian:
Mostly Tianya, Sina and CQ 69.

Yang Shaohua:
I always translate articles on BBS of Sina.com.

Joe Xu:
Usually Tianya and NetEase, but I also frequent many other major BBS.

What do you personally consider the most interesting Chinese forum or BBS?

Fauna:
KDS. Maybe I am biased.

Ping Gao:
Absolutely Tianya. There are some humorous people who post hilarious stuff there. They are full of humor and wisdom. Another thing that makes Tianya interesting is that it is very comprehensive. One can find almost everything about life there.  Politics, traveling, music, cooking... all kinds of stuff.

Kris Chen:
KDS.

Yang Shaohua:
BBS.sina.com and Mop.

Joe Xu:
I always liked Tianya members the best, mostly due to some of their clever antics when it comes to getting around censorship.

When did you first start following Chinese online conversation, and have you noticed any big changes in Chinese online culture since then?


Fauna:
I started to read BBS forums every day maybe 2 or 3 years ago. Before that, I used to to read them but not so often as every day. I think the big changes for Chinese online culture are that Chinese netizens are now more funny, more yellow, and maybe more free.

However, I think it is also very clear that the Chinese government cares more about the Internet now than before also and many "bad" things are deleted very fast too. Sometimes I notice that the source of a post we are working on is deleted before we are finished translating. That makes me worried that if I post it, I will attract too much attention from the government.

I only hope they do not care too much because we are just translating and most Chinese do not read English. We also try to talk only about social things and not very political things like democracy or human rights.

Ping Gao:
When I was 18 or 19, in college I was not as busy as when I was in high school, so I could spent more time on internet. Yeah, big changes! I think the influence of the Internet has been growing. Internet was more about sharing information 6 or 7 years ago, but now it can has social influence as well.

Chinese online culture is not only playing a role as media and as encyclopedia, but it's also a window for people to know the world, and to let the world know China. This is very important for a growing and changing country.

Kris Chen:
I always receive lots of information from KDS, and it actually makes reading news (TV news, newspaper) unnecessary for me.

Big changes, hmm, basically there are a few changes, but most of them I consider as negative. It's like people don't know what to do with their newly granted right, e.g., exposure of private photos without the owner's consent, taking girls pictures on the streets and posting them on the web, etc. It's kind of an infringement of others' legal rights.

Though many online communities provide people with access to various information, people helping each other to solve problems, is kind of encouraging. But basically it seems a higher moral standard is needed.

Joe Xu:
I'm beginning to see the use of more memes or Internet catchphrases that may have resulted from online censorship.

Kai:
I only just started following online Chinese conversation and it's mostly because of ChinaSMACK, so let's say about a month at most. Since it's been only a month, I can't say that I've noticed any big changes in Chinese online culture. However, just from browsing and translating for ChinaSMACK, my opinion is that the comments on ChinaSMACK aren't much different from those on other (English) websites — there are LOL ones, douchebag ones, idiotic ones, intelligent ones, faux-intellectual ones, argumentative ones, racist ones, and of course, very Occidental ones.

Are you ever worried by online mob behavior (human flesh search engines etc.) on China's Internet?

Fauna:
Of course. That is one big reason I will not give my Chinese name, do personal interviews, or show my face. I know some Chinese do not think it is good I make this website and there are some crazy people in the world. I do not want them to try to find me.

Originally, I changed my gravatar ["globally recognized avatar"; explanation] for the three month anniversary of ChinaSMACK (see image above):

I PhotoShopped a picture of me so people could see me but not find out who I am, but I am shy and am not sure I will change it yet. Who I am or what I look like is not really important. I hope people will care more about the Chinese netizens.

Ping Gao:
Not really. Yeah, sometimes online mob behavior can be annoying, but it also does something good, such as people human flesh search engines help people find their lost babies back. Every thing has two sides. But I think one thing needs to be considered is people's privacy and rights should be protected by the law.

Kris Chen:
I do feel bad for some of the victims of online mob behavior. However, most people remain anonymous. And that type of behavior does not focus on random targets, so I guess that's it. If that's the way it is, so be it. The key is always remember to protect your private and personal information.

Yang Shaohua:
Yes. It is really dangerous for anyone online because your information can be leaked by several methods. I think if your information cannot be kept safely, your money, your safety and your property will also be disclosed by someone who wants to hurt you. But, it is an effective tool to find out some person who has committed a crime and to debate about people's behavior. It depends on who is using it.

Human flesh search engines are just a tools. It depends on who uses them. So if you are worry about the knife, I think you will be worried about that.

Xia Boyang:
I think the online mob is doing what paparazzi and tabloids do in the Western world. The problem is of course the accountability. Since it is mostly anonymous, it is hard to prosecute someone legally for liabilities and violation of privacy.

Joe Xu:
Online activism to uncover corruption or crime is not a bad thing, but tactics of intimidation or blackmailing in the form of online vigilantism shouldn't be allowed.

Kai:
I wouldn't call it "worried"; to be honest I actually don't care. Mob behaviour is endemic in all societies, even back to the days of Julius Caesar ('TEAR HIM TO PIECES!' ). People are what they are — animals. For my part, I really don't have that much time to "search and destroy" some guy who cheated on his wife, his mistress and his mistress's sister.

There are currently 21 Comments for Translating Chinese Internet chaos: ChinaSMACK.

Comments on Translating Chinese Internet chaos: ChinaSMACK

On one hand, this is a great site that deserves promotion.

On the other hand, some of the things that happen on Chinese internet forums should stay there.

@Xishan

"On the other hand, some of the things that happen on Chinese internet forums should stay there."

Like censorship? I agree.

Some of the Chinese netizens are the most humorous kind I have ever seen. I haven't realize how fun and thought provoking they are until their posts/comments were translated into English.

@Xishan

"On the other hand, some of the things that happen on Chinese internet forums should stay there."

The idea that China is and should remain a "closed society" is very prevalent here.

This is an attitude that Xishan (it would seem) and many others need to get over. BBS are public by their very nature. The people who converse there obviously want to be heard, and translating is just one way to widen their audience.

More importantly, the experience of Chinese people is first and foremost a human experience; they breathe, live, love and sleep as human beings, not as passport-carrying entities.

I have lived here 26 years, and I have yet to encounter anything which would justify the view that Chinese people are radically different than other peoples on the earth. Distinctive, certainly; possessing the right to close their society to interaction with others on our planet, definitely not.

I must admit I am semi addicted to Chinasmack. Not to take anything from my loyalty to danwei(ive read you guys longer) but chinasmack brings something refreshing and, in a sense keeps my excitement to learn the language more upbeat because there's just somethings you cant learn in a book and chinasmack definitely is one of those alt routes in learning which whichever definition it may be. there my 2 cents and run on sentence.

Chinasmack... a smattering of smacking self-hatred. I would never visit that site. I think they all deserve to the "harmonized." The New China has no place for them.

Anyone agree? I don't need no agreement. I'm a Sith Lord.

Chinasmack brings more fun diversity to the parade of English language China-centric blogs. It's all good fun regardless of the comments.

We're all free to browse it or.... not.

@Xishan

"On the other hand, some of the things that happen on Chinese internet forums should stay there."

Xishan was not necessarily saying that China should remain a closed society. I think I agree with this in some sense. There is a lot of stupid content on the internet. If it is going to be shared with other stupid or prejudiced people, it will just lead to more hate and stupidity. Hopefully the globalization of the Inter-web will lead to more understanding rather than more hate.

However I do disagree with this comment "...the things that happen on Chinese internet forums should stay there." because when you publish information to the internet you lose control over it. People should be responsible for what they say and do. Just because one is posting online, one shouldn't feel as though one has carte blanche to do or say things one wouldn't dare do in real life. For that reason I think human search engines are a good thing. People who post things can be found and held responsible.

It's important to have a wide range of material available whether we/I agree with it or not and I wouldnt advocate censorship as a rule.

I read around Chinasmack a bit when it started and felt the posters' views didn't seem stray away from those majority 'smack' style posts and pictures etc. The problem with posting a bunch of shocking/right wing/nationalist stuff is that if you don't frame it a certain way it looks like you basically agree with it all or are giving it an extra platform. If you adopt a 'just showing' stance, then the meaning comes from the selection you post up.

You also have to keep certain standards. The Guangdong student rape video was a known real rape video that had been in the news before. You have to respect the victim in this case and report it without showing the video itself.

But, when I just popped back there now, the range of material was wider than before - perhaps a reflection on having attracted a group of posters to compliment the founder.

Imagine if you made a blog about America based on 4chan forums and the youtube comments section. Yes, just imagine. You could throw in a fun fact of the back of a soft drinks lid in there and it would seem like the works of Shakespeare.

Who's going to start that site? USA smack (in Chinese)? primary sources = youtube, 4chan and Yahoo chat rooms. Would people here in China read it? And back again to who would start it - are there any concerned Americans out there who feel that 'foreigners' need a special window in order to understand the impenterable American mind? Does it exist already?

Perhaps I need Chinasmack to introduce it to me.

Finally. That seems like a great peek into Chinese culture. Helpful. It will enbale more online marketing in China. Better targeted marketing..

My thinking about chinaSMACK has changed after Danwei's interview. But not because of anything revealed in the interview itself.
Rather, by virtue of being interviewed by Mr. Goldkorn, a don of the china blogosphere, a certain imprimatur has been imparted to Chinasmack. I will now pay it more attention.

But it is worth remembering that what Chinasmack is doing, transaltion, is not new. (Other blogs like ESWN do the same thing.)

The volume of translation is impressive, but what is particularly refreshing is that a young chinese woman is the driving force behind it - not a geeky Chinese-American guy as I had imagined.

ChinaSMACK's articles are generally less interesting than the ones translated by ESWN, but CS makes up for it through volume.

It's also interesting to compare their coverage; ChinaSMACK's coverage on the Harbin corpsed student has a different slant than ESWN's coverage. ESWN actually takes more effort in structuring its coverage to indicate a point of view, where ChinaSMACK is closer to Reuters than the New York Times.

What I find most valuable about ChinaSMACK is how even the more frivolous forum threads lay a groundwork for understanding Chinese BBS culture.

I've always been hesitant to translate comments because it's difficult to provide the same sort of context that you can for a blogger or columnist. Translating an entire comment thread is a necessity (otherwise it's no different than cherry-picked man-on-the-street comment or taxi-driver-sourced journalism), but even that isn't sufficient. When you first encounter a particular forum, you've got to hang around for a while to get a feel for the character of the place before you can draw any sort of conclusion about the members - after all, to an outsider, irony is often indistinguishable from sincerity.

Global Voices does an admirable job covering commentary threads for hot-button issues, but without more mundane (or less politically-sensitive) topics to illustrate how netizens react under everyday circumstances, a casual reader could get an unbalanced feel for the Chinese Internet.

So by repeatedly presenting threads from a small group of forums, and by explaining the memes and running jokes, ChinaSMACK gives its translations depth and makes them a slightly more representative picture of China's online public opinion.

@ Andy:

I think the obvious response to your comment is that American pop culture (even underground culture) tends to be more accessible to more people than Chinese pop culture. Whether we think it is fair or deserved or not, all eyes are on America so even things like 4chan or its less savory bits get more play than Chinese people on Chinese BBS forums. Part of it comes with the territory of being a dominant culture and part of it comes with the difference between English and Chinese as an accessible language.

I think chinaSMACK has a place only because there's much about China that people don't know but are beginning to feel they have to start paying attention to. This isn't the situation the United States finds itself in, so I don't think your comparison of making a USA Smack is really relevant. If China was the U.S., I don't think anyone would see much value in chinaSMACK. The thing is that China isn't. There's a lot to learn, and I do think it provides one avenue of learning more.

@ gao:

YES! ESWN is awesome! My biggest gripe with it though is the lack of better RSS feed that covers his smaller daily updates. One thing I've noticed with ESWN is that it seems to cover the material as processed by larger media like the usual crop of newspapers he tends to draw from. In doing so, he definitely gives more guidance in what to think, which may be good or bad.

chinaSMACK certainly covers a lot more stuff, many of which are lighter in nature, and what I've noticed is that unless you make an argument for selection bias, they don't really include any guidance on what to think. They give you the post and the comments and you're free to pick who you might agree with or voice what you think in the comments yourself. Its a different formula and I think it works well. Personally, as I've said elsewhere, I simply like the fact that they're lighter on the political stuff that many other English-language blogs tend to, albeit understandably, emphasize.

I think it's the best English language blog about China (except mine of course, haha) out there because it's about Chinese people. Most Chinese related English-language blogs treat China as a specimen something they are not a part of, but this one gives actual Chinese opinions and it opens eyes to the real China. I think it's the only one that gives a good, fairly accurate depiction of China instead of blogging on it based on English language news reports that come from people who really don't have a firm grasp of what China truly is like.

@Andy

"Who's going to start that site? USA smack (in Chinese)? primary sources = youtube, 4chan and Yahoo chat rooms."

FYI, they exist for years. Read some forum by oversea Chinese, such as mitbbs.com's USNews forum (they are now having a hot debate on US presidential election)

The first comment was obviously not talking about (political) censorship. S/he was saying some of the really ugly stuff in Chinese internet should remain there rather than being broadcast to a wider audience. You have to know the language very well and visit Chinese BBS regularly to understand what the first commentor was referring to. Yes of course the internet is public. But just because someone is fxxking on the street doesn't mean it should be broadcast on the TV. You can agree or disagree with his/her opinion, but it's laughable (yes, you) to jump up and comment on (political) censorship. there are more stuffs there than politics. Open your eyes, dudes.

YXS is someone's alternate username that runs a partly comedic blog about the "kick-ass" early 20th-century Shanxi warlord YXS.

What's the point of censoring Chinese idiots? ChinaSMACK has special utility because it provides a representative sample of opinion, complete with the irrational and bigoted comments that commonly populate the global internet.

You could say that this is one advantage it has over Global Voices Online; on GVO, it feels as though it really is Global Voices (only) online, as though it minimizes viewpoints that would offend a Western leftist, but on ChinaSMACK things seem representative.

Chinasmack brings up the funny, the bad and the beautiful sides of China. Hopefully this site will help China and the Chinese to be more easy when talking about themselves. Most Chinese I met so far are super serious when they talk about the never failing China.

ChinaSMACK definitely adds value to the china bridge blogging scene. I kind of envy the writers there the fixed format they use (and excel in).

The way GVO posts are structured and the guidelines I had to work within (ie. smackdowns may titillate anonymice like Inst to no end but they only go so far toward getting people into more quality discussions..) felt a little bog-ya-down sometimes. Although, some posts did get a little anarchic.

China like everywhere else is becoming more like America. Boo hoo.

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