‘Great Wall of culture’ a great idea
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.
Women in ethnic dress check their smartphones during a visit to Tian’anmen Square in Beijing on Nov 6.