This piece is republished with permission from the Anthill.
On Tuesday the 18th, 8pm at
iQiYi cafe opposite the Bookworm [Ed's note: the event sold out iQiYi, so it's been moved to the Bookworm; more tickets are now available!], I’m on the panel for Blogging China, part of the Bookworm literary festival. It should be a free ranging discussion of English language blogs about China, hosted by Anthony Tao from Beijing Cream, with Mia Li from Sinosphere, Tao Stein, and Jeremy Goldkorn.
George Orwell, in his essay Why I Write, said there are four motives for writing of any kind: (i) Sheer egoism, (ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm, (iii) Historical impulse, and (iv) Political purpose. I figured I’d do the same for why I blog. (By no means an original idea – Andrew Sullivan wrote one of the best pieces of this kind back in 2008.)
The Anthill is, I hope, a bit different from the pack in that it’s about narrative stories, not blogging the news. I also wrote another China blog before it, called Six, which followed the stories of six young Chinese from my days up at PKU and Tsinghua, 2008 to 2010. And I’ve been an RSS addict of China blogs since 2007, so I do have a few things to say.
I’ll keep this short and pithy, imitating Orwell with four bullet points based on his (he was a born blogger). Part of the point of this is to try and tease out if there’s a difference between writers (i.e. authors, columnists), journalists and bloggers, when it comes to why we put pen to paper, finger to laptop, in the first place. So … why do I blog?
(i) Sheer egoism. That’s right, no need to change the first and most powerful motive for any writer. Anyone who deludes themselves that what they have to say is of such interest to the world that they simply must put it down permanently is more than a touch vainglorious. When it comes to blogging, even more so – no one invited you to write, and likely no one’s paying you to do it. Hardly anyone will be reading it either, to begin with. Why bother? Because deep down you think you’re shit hot, and want other people to know that.
Blogging in China adds the extra incentive of expat status – something to set you apart, so you can show you’re not just another English teacher, that you know China, that you’re following the latest news everyone’s talking about, and you’ve met all the big name expats, and know all the cool bars, and your Chinese is crazy good. I should add that journalists, especially news reporters, who blog as part of their job are less vain and egotistical than your average garden blogger.
(ii) Community enthusiasm. Did I just make China bloggers out to be a pack of vain pricks? I apologise. That’s not what I think at all. The English language China “blogosphere” (how I loath that term) is one of the most vibrant out there, full of people who are contributing to our collective understanding of China in a very meaningful way. In that sense it’s a community effort, with blogs linking to and building on each other’s research and analysis in a form of crowd-sourced journalism. Whether that’s a productive conversation or a “circle jerk”, as some would have it, it’s something that writers want to be part of.
(iii) Journalistic impulse. Anyone living in China is confronted every day with things that just beg to be written about. It might be a conversation with a Chinese friend or stranger, a new piece of information that nuances your understanding of an issue, or something you found on the Chinese internet and want to share. One way to tell if you’re a writer at heart, for better or worse, is if when you see or think of something interesting, you feel a need to set it down in words for others – that somehow the experience or thought is incomplete until put into language.
In China, those interesting things are hitting you in the face every day. What’s more, most of them won’t get written if you don’t write them, especially if you’re somewhere other than Beijing or Shanghai. The country’s just too big, and professional journalists can’t be everywhere at once. So the journalistic impulse to record your impressions on a blog is especially strong here.
(iv) Corrective purpose. A lot of China blogs, I feel, exist in part to correct or add nuance to what mainstream opinion gets wrong. Maybe the press have gotten their facts mixed up, but you’re there on the ground with access and time to pick at the details. Maybe the mainstream narrative is over-simplified or single-sided, and you have something to say about that. Maybe, God forbid, Tom Friedman has written about China again. Whatever the spur, correcting the generalisations and misconceptions about China that are so legion is an important reason why we do this.
There you have it. My changes from Orwell’s wording are small. “Historical impulse” becomes journalistic impulse, because bloggers know they’re not recording for posterity, only for the moment. “Political purpose” becomes corrective purpose, because we also know we won’t make a difference, and are often only talking among ourselves. “Aesthetic enthusiasm”, i.e. the joy of crafted writing, plays less of a part in blogging, which tends to be more conversational and hastily knocked out – but bloggers enjoy the act of writing, too. Another big motive for keeping a blog, myself included, is to galvanise yourself to write regularly, and to write better and faster.
Talking of which, an early heads up for a writing challenge. The Anthill is putting on another event in Beijing, again in collaboration with Cuju bar (where we held our one year anniversary party last October). This time it’s a story telling night, with the theme of “Writers and Rum”, and will be sometime in April. If you want to participate by reading a story, get writing now – any short form piece, non-fiction, fiction or poetry, loosely based on the subject of booze (doesn’t have to be China related, but preferably so) is game – and email me with any questions or if you’re interested. There will also be a lot of actual rum involved. More details to come.