‘Great Wall of cul­ture’ a great idea

China Daily (Latin America Weekly) - - Front Page - Chi­nese En­cy­clo­pe­dia, The The China En­cy­clo­pe­dia Con­tact the writer at mur­ray­greig@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

We live in an era of in­creas­ingly dumbed-down global gulli­bil­ity, when even the most out­landish pre­var­i­ca­tions take on a ve­neer of re­spectabil­ity when pref­aced with some­thing like “Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est on­line in­for­ma­tion …”

Think about it. It took less than a gen­er­a­tion for us to chris­ten the in­ter­net as the ul­ti­mate or­a­cle of Every­thing We Need To Know, while re­duc­ing old-fash­ioned re­search and in­de­pen­dent thought to Stone Age sta­tus. Our dig­i­tal de­pen­dence has be­come so per­va­sive that cit­i­zens in ev­ery cor­ner of the global vil­lage are fight­ing a daily bat­tle for in­tel­lec­tual lib­er­a­tion.

China, which has around 750 mil­lion in­ter­net users, is an ex­cep­tion. The coun­try plans to launch a home­grown on­line en­cy­clo­pe­dia in 2018 — a plat­form with the po­ten­tial to be a bul­wark against the tidal wave of Western-ori­ented pap that passes for “au­thor­i­ta­tive” in­for­ma­tion on US-based Wikipedia and its Chi­nese ver­sion, Baidu Baike.

Un­like its Western coun­ter­parts, which are con­stantly in a state of re­vi­sion be­cause their con­tent is com­piled and writ­ten by vol­un­teer am­a­teurs who of­ten lack the nec­es­sary skills, China’s home­grown repos­i­tory of on­line in­for­ma­tion will be gath­ered and writ­ten by hand-picked schol­ars.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent story in the South China Morn­ing Post, the en­cy­clo­pe­dia is re­ferred to as “a Great Wall of cul­ture” by Yang Muzhi, the project’s ed­i­tor-in-chief. More than 20,000 au­thors, re­cruited from univer­sity and re­search in­sti­tute staffs, have been tasked with adapt­ing and up­dat­ing data from the third print edi­tion of

cov­er­ing more than 100 dis­ci­plines. The on­line plat­form has been dubbed China’s “first dig­i­tal book of every­thing”, and will ini­tially in­clude around 300,000 en­tries, each con­sist­ing of roughly 1,000 words.

“Wikipedia has been re­garded as au­thor­i­ta­tive and ac­cu­rate, and it brands it­self as a ‘free en­cy­clo­pe­dia that any­one can edit’, which is quite be­witch­ing,” said Yang. “But we now have the big­gest, most high-qual­ity au­thor team in the world. Our goal is not to catch up, but over­take.”

Bai Chongli, deputy head of the project, told the Post the en­cy­clo­pe­dia is the re­sult of “im­por­tant or­ders from Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and an im­por­tant cul­tural de­ci­sion by the cen­tral gov­ern­ment”.

Pre­dictably, when the on­line plat­form was an­nounced by China Pub­lish­ing House ear­lier this year, Western crit­ics im­me­di­ately spec­u­lated it will re­strict in­for­ma­tion to “san­i­tized” of­fi­cial in­ter­pre­ta­tions, though there’s been no ev­i­dence of that in the print ver­sion. Around 60 of the 74 vol­umes in the first edi­tion of were re­pub­lished by a com­pany in Tai­wan with­out any changes — tes­ta­ment to its aca­demic stan­dards and ob­jec­tiv­ity.

“This is not only a book, but a knowl­edge sys­tem, which aims to pro­vide a plat­form to im­prove the na­tion’s qual­ity and pro­mote ex­changes be­tween do­mes­tic and over­seas cul­tures,” a China Pub­lish­ing House of­fi­cial said.

The Mid­dle King­dom has a mil­len­nia-old his­tory of pro­duc­ing en­cy­clo­pe­dias, in­clud­ing one com­mis­sioned by Em­peror Yon­gle of the Ming Dy­nasty in 1403 and com­pleted in 1408. Its sheer size and scope — 11,000 vol­umes, com­piled and writ­ten by 2,170 schol­ars of phi­los­o­phy, his­tory, arts and sciences — made it the world’s largest pa­per en­cy­clo­pe­dia and the envy of the West.

It seems only fit­ting that China’s dig­i­tal equiv­a­lent might achieve sim­i­lar sta­tus.

MARK SCHIEFELBEIN / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Women in eth­nic dress check their smart­phones dur­ing a visit to Tian’an­men Square in Bei­jing on Nov 6.

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