Baidu Baike: Bizarre Wikipediaesque Site with Beijing’s Big Brother Seal of Approval

In Fake Food, Fake News: On China’s For-Profit Version of Wikipedia, Chenxin Jiang introduces us to the wacky world of Baidu Baike (百度百科), Baidu search engine’s politically correct, Chinese-language version of Wikipedia for the masses:

But in many cases the misinformation on Baidu Baike cannot be attributed to commercial interests; much of it is bizarre or just plain wrong. For instance, Baidu Baike lists Barack Obama as a member of the “Barack family” and identifies his mother’s citizenship as “White American from Kansas.” It quotes Bill Clinton calling Obama “the worst president in American history.” It also says Obama was a “drug addict” as a teenager and inexplicably recounts an anecdote about a couple whose wedding plans were disrupted by Obama’s golf schedule. Despite having the same open-content, anyone-can-edit structure as Wikipedia’s, Baidu Baike is a virtual quagmire of arbitrary opinions and what one might call fake facts.

The existence of the fake fact gives the pleonasm “true fact” meaning. A fake fact doesn’t perform the most crucial function of a fact. If you absorb a fake fact, you might feel more informed (just as you might feel full, at least momentarily, after you consume fake food). But unlike a true fact, it doesn’t tell you anything about the world. A fake fact sits on a website just where an actual fact might be, but it can’t get you from a place where you know less about Barack Obama to a place where you know more.

2 thoughts on “Baidu Baike: Bizarre Wikipediaesque Site with Beijing’s Big Brother Seal of Approval

  1. For some reason this comment was not successfully posted, so I am re-posting it now on behalf of a regular visitor to the site, “Bathrobe”:

    Chenxin Jiang has a very interesting upbringing and an amazing linguistic background. She translates from Italian, German, and Chinese.

    I was impressed by her other article at Literary Hub about the political power of translation. Against a background of thousands and thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa coming to Europe, it never occurred to her that translation might have anything to do with the causes that she cared so deeply about. But it did. She undertook to translate “a book written by an Italian doctor running a clinic on the island of Lampedusa, on the frontline of the humanitarian effort to rescue refugees on the dangerous sea route to Europe”, introducing to the world a unique human perspective on the refugee crisis and the people involved.

    Of course, people don’t necessarily translate books as a political act. As she points out, “we don’t read or translate good books only or even chiefly because of the political import of that gesture — we read them because they’re so good, we simply can’t help it”.

    Still, reading her story, I couldn’t help but think of Goldblatt’s translation of The Wolf Totem a book which, along with the subsequent film, has been treated elsewhere on this blog. I’ve read The Wolf Totem in English. Unfortunately I have never read it in the original Chinese. However, I’ve been led to understood (and please forgive me if I am wrong) that Jiang Rong’s Chinese contains comments and sections that pander to certain racialised ideas about the role of the Mongols in infusing fresh blood into China’s effete civilisation. The story thus fits in with modern Chinese narratives of loss of confidence, victimisation, and the restoration of China to its former greatness. While appealing to one of the northern, somewhat backward minorities as a positive influence may not be a mainstream idea, the concern with Chinese greatness (or lack thereof) has been a central obsession of the Chinese for over a century.

    So was Goldblatt really doing the world a favour by (as some have pointed out) toning down the more extreme racialist ideas of the author? Do we really need a book that plays down the ethnic preconceptions of a Han Chinese in favour of a more palatable picture of rough frontier life among the nomads? Do we really need this story to be transformed into a simple picture of the hardiness of the northern nomads and the ecological role of the wolf?

    The film version by Jean-Jacques Annaud goes one step further. The nomads, their language, and their culture are largely sidelined as they are transformed into purveyors of the wisdom of noble savages imparted, of course, in a broken foreign idiom (Chinese). The film is Han-centric and is mostly about wolves. But even here it falls down. The tragedy that Jiang Rong outlines, of the likely death of his own pet wolf after its release back into the wild, the hunting of wolves to extinction by arrogant men armed with modern military equipment, and the destruction of the ecology of the steppe, is watered down into a Disneyesque tale of future hope as the protagonist happily catches the cry of his wolf howling on the steppe.

    Whether as a translator or interpreter, one can only marvel at the gap between Chenxin Jiang, bringing a unique story to a world that would otherwise not have a chance to hear it, and Goldblatt and Annaud, dressing up a story to hide or play down the mentality of its author. The contrast could not be starker.


    1. As noted in Howard Y.F. Choy’s book review, Wolf Totem, “each of the thirty-five chapters opens with epigraphs excerpted from historical documents or studies. An example is the legend about Mongolian ancestry from the opening of The Secret History of the Mongols (蒙古秘史): “At the beginning there was a blue-grey wolf, born with his destiny ordained by Heaven Above.” These openings were deleted from the English edition, but it is not perfectly clear from Choy’s description who bears responsibility for this, the translator and/or the publisher.


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