National Geographic goes Chinese

National Geographic's English edition China: Inside the Dragon

This article was contributed by Iacob Koch-Weser.

During this Olympic year, China has become the cynosure of the global media. That is partly due to the happenstance of snowstorms, Tibet riots, torch relay fiascos, and last but not least, earthquakes; yet plenty of items coming on stream are the result of meticulous planning. In May, National Geographic proved just that when it published “Inside the Dragon”, its first full-length edition on China in nearly a century. The last edition appeared in October 1912, just a year after the Wuchang Uprising had ended two millennia of dynastic rule and ushered in a new era of secular governance. The release of the current edition on the eve of the Olympics, 30 years after Deng Xiaoping inaugurated the Reform and Opening Up Policy, marks another milestone.

National Geographic's Chinese edition Focus on China: Instant and Eternal

Timing aside, what is noteworthy about this edition is its Mainland Chinese version. Titled “Focus on China: Instant and Eternal (Ningshi zhongguo: shunjian yu yongheng)”, it is being sold nationwide for 20 yuan and has been widely advertised at Beijing bus stops. The 300-page tome is nearly double the length of its English counterpart, complementing photos and translations from the English edition with its own features. Add to that a dab of censorship on politically sensitive topics, and the Chinese version is as remarkable for what it contributes as for what it leaves out.

An American publication portraying China to the Chinese - in Chinese? Not surprisingly, the choice of topics reveals certain China tropes that have gained currency in the West: the overburdened lives of middle class children who must succeed at all costs; the demographic time-bomb of the one-child policy; the rural hinterlands of Guizhou, backward and benighted yet beautifully mysterious; the polluted Yellow River and the urban jungles of the Pearl River Delta, gloomy results of breakneck development; the archaeological treasures of an ancient Sichuanese kingdom; the architectural coups of the Olympic project. The China portrayed here is forever a country of extremes, enchanting and frightening, with little room for middle ground.

And yet, while stumbling over stereotypes, there’s something fresh about this May edition. It has to be applauded for its attempt to enter new terrain in the global media. Given that National Geographic only began publishing its Chinese version in July 2007, it is still very much a work in progress. It has yet to strike a balance between authenticity, political correctness, and marketability.

Homegrown and Imported

It is generally acknowledged in China that publications have to “define a position (dingwei)”. Whether it’s the terse prose of Caijing, the vernacular of China Newsweek, or the Westernized chatter of The Bund - all these magazines have more or less defined a style for themselves. Can that be said of National Geographic China, where texts by Chinese writers are placed alongside imports from the States?

The Chinese writers NG has recruited for the May edition are predominantly book authors, not journalists. The literary tone they apply seems more geared toward conveying a mood than an argument. This becomes interesting when the content is “journalistic”: Ai Shaoqiang’s discussion of generational shifts in his native Gansu province, as well as Wang Bang’s survey of urban development in the Pearl River Delta, are most revealing in this sense.

Ai Shaoqiang - known for his work on the Xiongnu and the Dunhuang caves - takes a personal angle by describing three generations in his native village. His grandmother still prays to the Jade Emperor on New Year’s and abides by traditional medicine techniques, remnants of a time when healthcare was wanting and infant mortality commonplace. One of Ai’s uncles, moreover, is so obsessed with having sons he thinks that women should keep getting pregnant until one arrives. Yet the young women of the village are more keen on mimicking the cosmopolitan mothers they see on television, who live in modern flats and have just one child to care for.

Ai’s personal tone brings his story to life. His style jives well with that of Amy Tan, the ABC author who gained fame in the US with her books The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, and other China-inspired novels. In the translated article “Village on the Edge of Time”, Tan returns to the home of her ancestors in Guizhou to find a community in flux. While the young migrate in increasing numbers to the cities, village elders still hold sway at home. Cell phones, televisions, and children’s toys are filtering in; yet when natural disaster or disease hits, shamans are called on to administer rites and appease the gods. Tan seems ambivalent about all this, lamenting the ineluctable loss of tradition, yet also marveling at the opportunities provided by change.

Photo of the cliffs of Guanxi from National Geographic's May China issue

What sets Ai Shaoqiang apart from Amy Tan is his use of concepts that only native Chinese readers can appreciate. When he points to the lack of family support networks, retirement funds, and retirement homes in China, he quotes Mencius to make a profounder point: when the family unit (jia) dissolves, so will the country as a whole (guo). In a similar vain, he traces the preference for male heirs back to an old dictum from the Book of Poetry, which advised parents to let sons dress in silk and sleep on beds, but to let daughters sleep on the ground and wear coarse cotton. There is a fatalistic tone here, as if the centrality of family and the bias toward males are immutably woven into China’s social fabric.

Traditional themes likewise appear in “Pearl River Delta: Sea of Cities”, an article by the urban historian Wang Bang. Wang paints a nostalgic portrait of Guangdong in the early eighties, when it was still a sleepy countryside suffused with the sounds of nature. People bragged about making the journey to the provincial capital from their rural backwaters. The notion of peaceful immobility - when the wheels of commerce were not oiled - traces its origins to Laozi, who envisioned a world of self-sufficient farming communities living in earshot of one another. As Timothy Brooks shows in The Confusions of Pleasure, the reactionary gentry of the late Ming conjured up similar images of rural serenity when threatened by social mobility, urbanization, and commerce.

It is predictable, then, that Wang Bang offers a rather gloomy panorama of Guangdong today. Poly-centric and interdependent, it is a maelstrom of labor migrants, high-rise forests, and 24-hour fast food venues. Production and consumption have been disaggregated, as satellite towns are characterized by the mono-production of underwear, refrigerators, or Van Gogh canvasses. Wang notes the disappearance of history (“Does a street have memory?”) as cityscapes are transfigured and lifeless “cultural squares (wenhua guangchang)” emerge. Environmental degradation, labor abuse, and prostitution are the order of the day. To illustrate the anything-for-cash attitude of Guangdong migrants, he uses the metaphor of a “thin magnetic card” that no longer beeps when it’s topped up with money. To appease readers, Wang ends on a brighter note - after all, Guangdong is positioned on the vanguard of Chinese media and culture, and the railway networks planned for 2020 might “give people more freedom of mobility and hence more opportunities.”

The subtlety of Wang’s pessimism makes Peter Hessler look a bit like an elephant in a china shop. Although Hessler is a strong authority on China in Western circles, his writing seems a bit presumptuous in Chinese. His narrative on teaching English to Chinese students might give foreign readers a lot of insight into China’s younger generation. But do Chinese themselves really want to hear all that again?

holiday travelers.jpg
Photo of holiday travelers in a train station from National Geographic's May China issue

In another article called “The Road Ahead”, Hessler comments on the good and the bad of social development in Zhejiang province. He starts off lauding improved infrastructure and the stellar work ethic of the locals. Yet then he goes on to list all those things that are still wrong with Zhejiang and, by extension, China. The decentralization of governance has led to chaos, as drivers are slapped with random traffic fines and the government colludes with developers in murky real estate transactions. He even resorts to an American superiority complex: during industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, US cities witnessed the organic growth of institutions - the courthouse, the church, the library - and factories were forced to become more efficient due to labor shortages. China, by contrast, is witnessing the growth of cities based only on factories and stores, creating a “human rights challenge” rooted in a lack of institutions. And because labor power is in abundance, “competition is ruthless, but it’s not the sort that leads to innovation.” In Hessler’s view, China will remain a low value-added economy with a weak education system.

To some degree, imported articles are burdened with the biases of their foreign authors. Articles by Leslie T. Chang and Brook Larmer further prove that fact. Chang describes the pressure that bourgeois parents place on their single children, and the subsequent stress that children suffer amid ostensible “prosperity”. But isn’t Chang judging these children by US standards of childhood and teenage life?

Larmer reveals how socialist planning and economic development have fomented environmental disasters in northwest China. Yet is she really being constructive when she interviews the aging engineer of a dam from decades ago, or pokes fun at soldiers shooting “rainmaker” rockets into the air? While she concludes with a few words about government efforts to improve environmental governance, the reader is left with a very gloomy picture.

The Pitfalls of Political Correctness

When politically sensitive issues are at stake, the US and Chinese versions steer a different course. In the US, it is to reinforce popular notions about China; in China, it is to get past the censors. This is unfortunate for readers on both sides of the Pacific.

In a two-page feature on “culture”, the US edition displays permuted Mao oeuvres by Chinese artists like Gao Qiang - the celebrity of Factory 798 - and makes the hackneyed remark: “As attention shifts from making revolution to making money, and intellectuals debate Mao’s legacy as hero or villain, artists cash in on politically charged, tongue-in-cheek versions of the Buddha-like face”. Mao was apparently a “king of kitsch” even in his own lifetime, an argument backed by Andy Warhol’s portrait of 1972.

As expected, the Chinese version steers way clear of Mao. It places “popular media” in the stead of “culture”, providing a chronological narrative of progress in Chinese news-making. The text is a bit pedestrian: news was first made for non-political purposes in 1981, investigative TV news began in 1993, the first privately owned news corporation appeared in Guangzhou in 1997, SARS stimulated more timely reporting in 2003...The saving grace here is a word about Sister Furong and the Mantou Murder Case, one of the more hilarious results of internet democracy.

Sadly, both versions are oversimplified. A mainstream US audience with preconceptions of Orwellian media control in China would profit much from a “popular media” segment, rather than being fed more about Mao. On the other hand, Chinese readers would benefit from a less sanitized version of its media’s evolution, with a word or two thrown in about the lack of press freedoms.

In a section entitled “politics”, the US version does talk about the state of Chinese media, but in an excoriating way. Entitled “Cutting Off Dissent”, it shows the pinky-less hand of the artist Sheng Qi, which was self-mutilated in commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest. The text next to the image asks the prosaic question: “Can the ruling Communist Party continue to suppress political dissent among one-fifth of the world’s population?” Newsrooms are hounded by “daily directives” sent down from on high, and the Internet “serves as a surveillance tool for the party, which slaps dissidents with demotion, dismissal, and imprisonment”. All this is given authority by Reporters Without Borders figures (China ranks 163 of 169 nations in the press freedom assessment) and the acerbic writer James Mann, author of The China Fantasy: Why Capitalism Will Not Bring Democracy to China. This portrayal seems a bit harsh - no mention is made of the positive developments outlined in the Chinese version on “popular media”.

The Chinese version of the “politics” section, meanwhile, is a terribly drab text called “The Long Road to Reform”. Like the “popular media” bit, it proceeds chronologically: power was given to regional governments in 1982, taxes were administered separately by province in 1984, State Council Departments were decreased from 40 to 29 in 1998, more emphasis was given to government service provision in 2003...The public policy gurus at Caijing Magazine would roll their eyes at this. The average reader might just yawn and turn the page.

A Skewed Image?

Of course, the ultimate selling point of NG is its photographs. That is where nothing should get “lost in translation”. No doubt, the pictures are poignant, and likely the reason why many Chinese readers will buy the May edition. But do they provide a just representation of China?

nanometer wave.jpg
Photo of "addicts" being treated by "nanometer wave machines" from National Geographic's May China issue

The contrast between the city and the countryside provides a ready motif for many photos. The reader is dazzled by aerial shots of rapeseed fields in Jiangxi and of sheer cliffs in Guangxi. Ethnic minorities make their usual cameo appearance, with Dai people in traditional garb and a Tibetan equestrian in full flight. Next to this image of rural splendor are placed the masses and the new buildings that characterize the cities. Hordes of people stream into Guangzhou train station and out of a Christmas tree factory in Shenzhen. The glitzy lights of Pudong epitomize the new downtown, American cardboard cut-out houses the new suburbia.

Images are more gripping when they focus on extremes. The super-rich are thus well-represented: newly-weds sit in a convertible with Mickey Mouse mascots in back; female models eye a pure-breed husky at a Shanghai show for rich lifestyle accessories; crocodiles crawl on the floor of a five-star seafood restaurant, awaiting their fate on a gourmand’s plate. Subversive figures are also depicted, notably a headbanger at Xueshan Rock Festival in Yunnan and a thirty-something rocker jamming in his Beijing flat. An odder image shows internet addicts sitting in “nanometer wave machines”, space helmet-like contraptions that aim to cure them.

models huskey.jpg
Photo of models admiring purebred Huskeys from National Geographic's May China issue

As fascinating as all these images might be, they lack a certain mundaneness. Where is the average Joe Schmo? Where is the grey satellite town? Somehow all these images aren’t “real” enough.

Ultimately, National Geographic has a lot left to prove. It needs more homegrown texts, combined with more selective use of translations. It also needs to find more clever ways of steering clear of the censors. Its photographs might gain another dimension if more Chinese were allowed to stand behind, rather than just in front, of the camera.

That said, even if they don’t agree with much of what it says, Chinese readers will find “Focus on China: Instant and Eternal” worth their 20 yuan.

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There are currently 11 Comments for National Geographic goes Chinese.

Comments on National Geographic goes Chinese

Kudos for a well researched and thoughtful article. You definitely did your homework. Though I think your comparisons are good and there is obvious and revealing bias in both editions, I have to disagree with you about the "lack of a middle ground". There actually is a lot of room given to the average Joe-schmoe, several pages of un-captioned pictures of them actually. I thought that was a nice touch, a bit reminiscent of Colors Magazine in the old days.
Many of the points you make about the reasons for bias are spot on, but I also think a lot of it is due to the nature of the medium itself. The US edition just can't devote several pages of precious space to a story about a guy who lives a really normal and uneventful life, unless that 'normal' life is what we'd find extraordinary, and that takes a truly talented journalist.

Great essay.

"It has yet to strike a balance between authenticity, political correctness, and marketability."---AUTHOR OF ARTICLE

Authenticity? Come on...who better than National Geographic? Danwei? OK very funny.
Political correctness? Its much more correct than anything you find in the domestic market. Marketability? Well if the industry here was equal opportunity then the publisher would probably spend more on advertising it and eventually blow away the competition.
I dare anyone to say that they can do better than National Geographic.
You are so full of hogwash Madam/Sir Author.

wow, what a thoughtful analysis. i must say i agree that natgeo has been more ambitious and more successful in attempting to break the editorial mould when it comes to china coverage. english-chinese translations next to orignal chinese-language text in the china edition was a bold move that paid off.

the choice of a literary tone, taking long-form non-fiction as its medium, gave the editors the space and colours to paint a detailed and multi-hued picture. they had a bigger palette than other periodicals. could we look forward to an annual china issue from natgeo?

I bought the English edition at a bookstore here in Shenzhen. Half of one sentence of Peter Hessler's article was hand censored with a black marker (about each decade of this century having at least one political upheaval, usually violent. the censored part: including the Japanese invasion, the cultural revolution and the massacre around T Square.

The English edition of NG is reasonably priced, either at the store or subscription.

I went to the Beijing Bookworm to try and get a copy of the English edition.

The owner, Alex, told me that it had sold out and expressed surprise that people had bought it as it had not only been sliced but also had certain pages stuck together!

Must've been a good issue...

Dear readers,

thank you for your thoughtful comments. To address Jeff Crosby's point, it's true that I should have mentioned the photo portraits of "ordinary" Chinese at the back of the issue. I didn't do so because I felt that my article was long enough already. Those portraits do show a wide spectrum of Chinese people; nevertheless, to me they are still more extraordinary than the faces I come across in Beijing in everyday life. There is still too little middle ground.

Sgt. Slaughter's criticism is partly justified. "Marketability" in today's media industry is based more on capital and market savvy than on quality content. Yet while that is a "quantitative" issue - i.e. how many copies are sold for how much - authenticity and political correctness are very much "qualitative" issues that are equally revelant when critiquing a magazine. A good magazine produces content that reflects some deeper truths, that stimulates readers of different backgrounds and degrees of expertise to think and debate, that is not completely ephemeral. Clearly, NatGeo has done well on the quantitative side by sellng a lot of issues this time around; but that does not automatically mean that it has struck a successful balance between authenticity, political correctness, and marketability.

Hatch SZ's comment about blackmarker censorship in the English edition sold on the Mainland is interesting. I got hold of my English copy while in the UK.

I agree with Joon that NatGeo should publish an annual China edition. Of course, given that this was the first edition in nearly 100 years, and it was a load of work to produce, the prospects are unlikely. It will be fun to watch how NatGeo continues to cover China through individual articles in its Chinese-language edition.

Thanks again!

So what is Danwei trying to pull with this article? This is a very-high quality article; are you guys trying to expand into a new market? Danwei Magazine for expats in China?

It appears that everyone is looking for the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC May 2008 Issue here in the San Francisco Bay Area. I went to Borders Book store, they says they ain't selling :(.

To National Geographic, why not reprint the May 2008 issue of China Inside the Dragon and distribute in all the book stores, supermarkets in the United States - I guarantee you guys will make good profits - the demand for the May 2008 Issue is extremely high, especially here in California. Look at Ebay, the May 2008 Issues are bidding upwards to $30.

Because of the May 2008 issue, a lot of people have changed their old image of National Geographic (when I grew up, I thought National Geographic was boring because it talked about Africa all the time). Well, now time has changed. National Geographic has finally figured out a way to enter the Chinese market of a potential 1.3 Billion. WOW!

National Geographic should definitely come up with a monthly issue, exclusively on China. You wanna make money, raise the price! People is still gonna buy it because its about CHINA.

I would like to find National Geographic articles printed on line to read. Anyone scanning these articles to post and read on line?

I just returnbed from Guangzhou and on TV I heard that there will be a new manazine out called CHINA NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE which will be published for, among others, the so many adopted Chinese Children the world over, to tell them of their culture and their country of origin. It was the 60th anniversary of a mazine that would launch this CNGM was said on TV.
Is this YOUR magazine or is it another? I am very interested to see a copy of this before I decide to subscribe or otherwise promote it.
Please let me know.

Thanks and regards!

I'm aware of two essays that address Chinese censorship of the May 2008 issue of the U.S. edition of National Geographic magazine. The cover story of the spring 2009 issue of Granta is one. It's available online at (includes photos of the censored pages): link

The second, by Prof. Timothy Weston of The China Beat blog, can be found here.

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