the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Say My Name

Google announced last week that, after several years of ubiquitous anonymity, it had finally decided on an official name for its Chinese site 谷歌 [guge], or literally, “song of the grain” or "song of the [silicon] valley." An article in the on-line technology journal Donews (summarized in English on Virtual China a few days later) reports Google has been working on the name since at least 2002, and that one employee compared the process to “trying to come up with a name for a child.” In the interim, a 2005 survey reveals that nearly half of all Chinese users simply use the English term “Google,” while the rest use an impressive array of unofficial homophonic monikers, with 狗狗 (gougou—“dog dog”) leading the pack with 25% (followed closely behind by 古狗 [gugou—“ancient dog”]).

There is a popular belief in China that children should be given “milk-names” or “little names” (奶名,乳名,小名, etc.) when they are growing up in order to prevent Yanwang 阎王, the king of hell, from claiming their souls. This practice is referred to aphoristically as 歪名好养活 --or using a “crooked” milk-name to insure the child will survive infancy--with 狗狗 (dog dog) frequently cited as a prime example of such a “crooked” name (see, for instance, the following discussion of Shanxi folk customs).

Undoubtedly benefiting from having an English name which is itself an unintentional misspelling, together with an assortment of crooked Chinese “milk names,” Chinese Google appears to have been blessed as destiny's child as it survived its infancy without any overt threat from demons, hellish or otherwise. The question, though, is what lies ahead. In particular, how will Google/Guge negotiate the competing demands of Google’s reputation for unbiased results, CCP demands for political control, Western critiques of human rights abuses, and underlying demands for market efficiency? Will its attempt to resolve these competing imperatives result in a Mephistophelian arrangement whereby the company sells its own soul? An early indication of the answer to these questions came on the same day of the name announcement, when Google chief executive Eric Schmidt specified that “the company had not lobbied to change the [Chinese] censorship laws and, for now, had no plans to do so.”

[And, indeed Google’s own website now includes a similar caveat, noting that “It is Google's policy not to censor search results. However, in response to local laws, regulations, or policies, we may do so. When we remove search results for these reasons, we display a notice on our search results pages.”]

Perhaps another (inadvertent) hint to how the company plans to resolve these competing imperatives can be found in the new Chinese name itself. “Guge,” or “song of the grain,” evokes a long tradition of collecting Chinese folksongs—ranging from the arch-canonical Shijing 诗经 (Book of Odes, or Book of Songs), a collection of 300 anonymous folk songs ostensibly selected by Confucius from more than 3000 dating back to the early Zhou dynasty (circa 1000 BCE), to Chen Kaige’s debut film Yellow Earth 黄土地 (1984) (based on an essay by Ke Lan entitled, interestingly, "Echoes from the deep valley" 深谷回声), in which a 1930s Red Army soldier is sent to a remote village in Northern China to collect “bitter songs.” What these and countless other examples have in common is that the anonymous folksongs are then reappropriated for political or propagandistic purposes. In the case of the Book of Odes, for instance, there is a long hermeneutic tradition whereby apparently innocent songs (love ballads, etc.) are read as intricate Confucian allegories, just as the Communist party in Yellow Earth is interested in the folk songs for use as propagandistic instruments.

Google/Guge, needless to say, is the quintessential tool for this process of “harvesting” anonymous voices and images, and mobilizing them for new purposes. The only question, however, is, what kinds of “grains” will be harvested, and to what purposes will they then be put?
[To harvest
v. tr.
a. To gather (a crop).
b. To take or kill (fish or deer, for example) for food, sport, or population control.
c. To extract from a culture or a living or recently deceased body, especially for transplantation: harvested bone marrow.]
A case in point is the example of anonymous protester made famous during the 1989 Tiananmen protests after being captured on video and film attempting to block a tank’s path. On April 11, the day before the Google announcements, PBS’s Frontline aired a new show
on the so-called “tank man,” accompanied by an elaborate web-site (complete with streaming video of the entire program).

The (officially) anonymous tank man occupies a huge position within the Western imagination of China. In fact, in 1998, when Time magazine compiled its list of "Leaders and Revolutionaries: Twenty people who helped define the political and social fabric of our times," it included only two Chinese. Of those, one, inevitably, was Chairman Mao Zedong—whose own political power was very much grounded in his attempted control (and, ultimately, lack thereof) over the dissemination of his own image—while the other was none other than the “unknown rebel.” If Mao's identity has, in many respects, been reduced to that of the two dimensional image cultivated under his cult of personality, the "identity" of the anonymous lone protester is by contrast, precisely an artifact of the original, endlessly reproduced, image itself.

While the anonymous figure of the “tank man” has become virtually synonymous with contemporary China in the West, it is nevertheless an icon which is virtually unknown to many younger Chinese. The Frontline site suggests one reason for this, with a page featuring detailed side-by-side comparisons of identical searches run on the regular Google and on the censored Chinese one (with virtually all references to the Tiananmen protests and other controversial subjects surgically deleted from the latter). [A reader’s comment on Peking Duck claims that the home page of the PBS “Tang Man” home page was shown in China, but that it was taken down within minutes (at least in parts of China)].

Anonymity is a powerful force. Just as anonymous figures like “unknown rebel” can be manipulated by outside forces (both Western and Chinese) for their respective political ends, similarly individuals can capitalize on their own anonymity in order to make a social/political/artistic statement. A case in point is the Beijing-based avant-garde artist Zhang Dali 张大力, who for many years in the late 1990s left a graphic "signature" of his own self-image—consisting of a minimalist profile with an accentuated brow-line and thick lips drawn with a single stroke of black spray paint—on public walls throughout the city (eventually moving on to more elaborate inscriptions, including carving profile-shaped holes out of abandoned walls). These iconic profiles function as self-portraits, indexical vestiges of Zhang's own surreptitious presence, while at the same time constituting signatures of anonymity itself, graphic traces which could conceivably be linked to virtually anyone, or to no one in particular.


Blogger roger said...

What a great post!
I wonder -- the Western obsession with the tank man is one thing, but how about the amazingly terrible spills industrial poisons into Chinese rivers lately, or the uprisings in the countryside? Interesting to see if Google can be googled -- at least in other languages -- to find out about this stuff.

1:05 AM  
Blogger crojas said...

Thanks Roger.
"googling Google." What a curiously recursive concept.
At any rate, I suspect that the kinds of information you are pointing to would generally be blocked (either at the level of the search engine, or at the level of the foreign-run site itself). Though, it is true that in recent years these has developed an officially-sanctioned cottage industry of industrial muck-raking (e.g., television shows expressing horror at the sediments and impurities in certain brands of bottled water), and true disasters that would have been covered up even a few years ago (e.g., mine disasters, food stall poisonings, fire cracker factory explosions, etc.) are being publicized fairly efficiently (thanks to the internet).
Another thing to bear in mind is that the effectiveness of the censoring mechanisms built into is largely reliant on people following a course of least resistance. For instance, it is not clear to me what would prevent Chinese users from simply using the regular Google (and perhaps using the language preference to restrict results to Chinese). Also, as Rebecca MacKinnon points out on the Frontline site, simply using a proxy server would allow users to circumvent even the higher-level censorship of sites, but that few people both to do so:

"If you know how to use a ... proxy server you can configure your browser to get around the firewall. ... [O]verseas dissident and human rights groups are doing everything they can to make these tools known to people inside China. Nobody has done a systematic study of how many Internet users actually use proxy servers. ... However, I've queried a lot of Chinese bloggers unscientifically, and the answers I've gotten back suggest that only 5-10 percent or so of Chinese Internet users really know how to use a proxy server, and a much smaller number actually use them on a regular basis.

"There are several reasons for this. One is that [proxy servers] are time-consuming to use because the Chinese net police are constantly blocking them, and another is that many users are worried that ... they'll call attention to themselves as being "up to something." Another reason, however, is that Chinese users, like most Internet users everywhere, gravitate towards information that is easily accessed with minimal amount of hassle. Only the true political junkies make the extra effort."

6:17 AM  

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