China Blog Death and Relevance

I enjoyed Kaiser Kuo’s recent Sinica podcast on Popup Chinese featuring Jeremy Goldkorn of and Will Moss of Imagethief. They started off with the provocative statement that “the English language China blog is dead,” and went into some analysis of how things are different now than they were. Their analysis seemed pretty spot-on to me.

This is an issue I’ve been thinking about for a long time: how the “China blogosphere” has changed, how I still fit in, and how it’s still enjoyable or worthwhile. I think when I first arrived in China and was doing various English teaching jobs while I furiously studied Chinese in my free time, aside from intangibles like Chinese learning and friendships, my blog and website was the most important, lasting thing I created. It’s what led to a job at ChinesePod in 2006, the point at which I officially embarked upon what would become my career. Blogging, for me, had to take a backseat, and it has to this day. The “top ideas” on my mind were less and less often blog topics as work usurped my focus.

I’ve revisited this same topic as I’ve considered whether or not to put more time or effort into the China Blog List. There are just so many blogs out there now that organizing them really does seem too big a task for one tiny directory. It’s a task that needs to be crowd-sourced or done through social media somehow, if it even needs to be done at all. That site still has potential (and good Google rank for “China blog” and “China blogs”), but the concept needs to be rethunk. In the meantime, it’s just no longer relevant.

I was pleased to hear those guys mention my blog in their podcast as one of the ones that’s been around the longest, but as the list of blogs went on and on, I had to think, how do these guys have the time to read so many blogs? Like Will Moss said in the podcast, I’ve found that the decreasing signal-to-noise ratio has just led to less overall blog reading.

This afternoon I had the pleasure of sitting in on a talk at Glamour Bar hosted by history professor Jeffery Wasserstrom of China Beat as he discussed various issues with the New Yorker’s China correspondent Evan Osnos. The topic was writing and blogging, and they kicked off the discussion by mentioning Sinica’s take on the issue. Both writers had begun blogging relatively recently, so Evan referred to them as “post-modern, or, perhaps, ‘post-mortem’ bloggers.” Both Wasserstrom and Osnos were optimistic about the role of blogging. Evan was particularly happy about the recent proliferation of translation bridge blogs like China Geeks.

One of the more interesting questions thrown out by the crowd was basically, “yeah, you both write well about China, but how much do you guys (or anyone) really understand China?” Both men were humble in acknowledging the limits of their knowledge, but I liked Dr. Wasserstrom’s response that despite the smallness of what we can know, the view from outside offers a different perspective which contributes in an important way toward the full picture. This closely parallels the view I take on language learning: the native speaker perspective should be combined with the learner perspective to reach a fuller picture of the language more relevant to the learner.

I was amused to find Sinosplice included recently in a list of Shanghai-related resources on National Geographic:

> A China-focused blog that includes Mandarin speaking tips and apolitical, largely irreverent (and in some cases irrelevant) observations about Shanghai and the rest of the country, among other tidbits.

“Irreverent and irrelevant.” Heh, I can live with that. I have to say, though, that this blog is only occasionally relevant to Shanghai.

But relevance is always an issue on my mind. The new business is getting quite busy, and while I have less free time than ever, it’s a rich source of new observations and blogging material about Shanghai and learning Chinese. I won’t keep those bottled up. The search for relevance is not fruitless.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I don’t think that China blogs are dying, per se, but the number of new blogs means that it’s no longer possible — as it was only a couple of years ago — to be on a first-name basis with all of the foreign bloggers in the country.

    I think that’s probably a good thing. When we started blogging (not that I was ever really blogging in earnest, but…well, you know what I mean), foreign China bloggers were pretty much all of a type: weedy young gringo language students. Not that there was anything wrong with that per se, but we were kind of much of a muchness. There’s a much greater diversity of opinion these days, and that can really only be a good thing for any reader who’s trying to get more than one perspective on China. Bridge blogs like Danwei and China Geeks are doing great work, and are also freeing the rest of the blogging community from the sense (which I think was prevalent when we started blogging) that we are somehow responsible for presenting China to the outside world.

    Good riddance, I say.

  2. Evan Osnos mentioned ChinaGeeks? Awesome 🙂

  3. I agree with Brendan about the impossibility of keeping up. There’s another factor that’s lead me to read fewer and fewer China blogs, though– after reading several, it gets kind of stale. Things you wrote about 7 years ago were facinating to me. Reading very similar things again and again on dozens of different blogs doesn’t really do much for me. Long-term expats will obviously feel this more, but other people have also heard more about China now than they had when you started your blog.

    The “death” of Chinese blogs may be more due to how readers have changed than anything about the blogs themselves.

  4. The internet is like the blind men and the elephant: you’ll never know all that is out there, even if you believe you’ve bookmarked every “China blog”. Personally, I’ve never really tried. My reading list is short and selective.

    My china blogosphere is different to your china blogosphere.

  5. Interesting podcast, thanks. They mention near the start that “the conversation has moved to Twitter”, and “the sense of community has gone”. Which is interesting to me, since this is not the most important reason I read blogs. I read blogs for information — a three-year-old post can be just as valuable to me as something posted yesterday, perhaps more so, since often it will have three years’ worth of slowly-accumulated useful comments.

    Towards the end they mention the problem of everyone posting about the same thing — this is a big problem with the London foodblogger scene at the moment, particularly since the restaurant PRs have moved in on the scene with their offers of free meals for all (in return for a blog post, of course).

    They do point out that the quality of blog content can be just as good or even better than it used to be — in-depth, properly researched, longer form. I think I agree with this in terms of blogging in general, and I think this sort of thing is useful even in the absence of an actively-commenting community. It may even be that the improved quality of content is partly driving the decrease in comments — it can be intimidating to comment on a longer, meatier post, particularly if you only want to address a single point.

    However, they also mention that cross-pollination/cross-linking has decreased — this is something I’d really like to see more of, since it’s very helpful for discovering more blogs of interest. If anyone has any suggestions for English-language blogs discussing regional Chinese food in a well-informed way, I would be incredibly grateful. I did look at the food section of John’s China Blog List, and found a few useful individuals post via the links there, but as pointed out in the OP, most of the blogs listed are no longer updated or have even vanished.

    I’m mainly looking for sources that I can trust to know what they’re talking about (and are willing to admit when they aren’t sure about something), and people who discuss the history and context of the food, rather than people who just post recipes (in fact, recipes aren’t actually necessary — not all good food is home-cooked). I prefer longer-format posts, and posts that include the Chinese names for things as well as the English ones. I already know of Sunflower’s Food Galore, Appetite For China, Red Cook, Beijing Haochi, Eating Asia, and Rasa Malaysia, and I also follow Fuchsia Dunlop’s blog.

  6. Jaques Aandy Says: July 27, 2010 at 1:11 am

    It’s true that I don’t come to Sinosplice every day like I used to (partly because John has been busy and hasn’t been writing every day), but I keep coming whenever I have time because it’s continued over so many years to offer very valuable information and insight. Consistently high quality. Consistently relevant. : )

  7. John’s site is my “rock”. It’s the very first “China Blog” I ever read, followed by Dan Washburn. Later the Peking Duck and Imagethief.

    I moved to Shanghai on November 28th, 2001 and I think John was here slightly before then and his “headstart” encouraged me that if I tried, I would be able to learn China, and learn Chinese.

  8. Wombadan Shunde Says: August 6, 2010 at 11:27 am

    The English language China blogs are the written equivilent of listening to some bloke pontificating in a bar about what he knows, but without the benefit of him buying you a beer to listen to him. After a while, it gets tedious, and he starts to look really sad and cheap.

  9. John, interesting observations. I enjoyed the podcast too and analysis afterwards. Perhaps there is TOO much out there but I think what I’ve noticed is that the whole, I LIVE IN CHINA and TEACH ENGLISH so let me OBSERVE and WRITE BACK TO MY FRIENDS type of a blog is gone. I think now you have much more SPECIFIC type blogs. Only the big sites, like yours and the ones they mentioned in the podcast are going to stick around but there are more and more that are specific to a region, province, experience, relationship etc. My China Blog list on my Google Reader is ridiculous…I don’t have time to read all of it… but it’s interesting to see the specificity that some of the sites give us.

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