chinaSMACK vs. Tea Leaf Nation: Which Do You Prefer?

chinaSMACK vs. Tea Leaf Nation.

Note: The following was a comment I wrote in reply to Michael Ardaiolo’s article titled “Cultural Voyeurism” on the EnjoyShanghai website. My comment wouldn’t submit (pressing the “Send” button didn’t do anything) but I’ve discovered it might be because of comment length (hah). Rather than splitting it up into pieces to post it all on their site, I’m just going to copy and paste it here in its entirety and leave a comment linking here, at the defunct blocked-by-the-GFW c/d site. To understand my response, you’ll of course need to read Mr. Ardaiolo’s article first.

Interesting article (as well as the Editor notes).

Obligatory potential conflict of interest disclaimer: The current design of chinaSMACK was done by myself and I’m involved in the management of the cS and its sister sites including koreaBANG and indoBOOM. I wouldn’t be involved if I didn’t subscribe to the basic point or “loose framework” of the site.

I’m not going to comment on China Whisper’s top 10 list except to say two things: a) Alexa is actually a very inaccurate tool for determining traffic but its unfortunately the best known free tool for such; and b) its tough to compare chinaSMACK vs. Tea Leaf Nation in terms of comment count (a proxy for size of community) and “public praises” (a proxy for authority) given that both are influenced in part by the former being nearly 4 years older than the latter.

That said, and as a reader of both cS and TLN, the two sites can definitely be compared on their similarities. However, it is more fruitful to compare their differences and discuss the pros and cons of their differences.

1. Translation

cS sticks to translation considerably more than TLN does. In my opinion, TLN is a lot more like traditional journalism, reporting, or blogging on China where the information is processed and infused with explicit commentary from a Westerner’s perspective. In contrast, cS for the most part does little editorializing or commentary, sticking to just translations of what the original Chinese author, journalist, media, or netizens wrote. cS does this because it aims to share the Chinese voices and perspectives, except translated into English. We discourage editorializing because we’re trying to offer what Chinese people themselves are saying, not what WE (even for our Chinese translators and bloggers like Fauna, Peter, Li, etc.) think about the matter.

2. Popularity

It’s very difficult to think cS and TLN are similar when it comes to the nature of the content that is published. cS aims to translate and publish what is trending on the greater Chinese language internet. Its content is dictated by what is popular and mainstream, according to a variety of metrics. It doesn’t always get the most popular stories and there are plenty of stories where a legitimate argument can be made that something else was more popular, but that’s its stated mission and I think its very hard to say TLN has the same mission. cS doesn’t employ a “crutch of sensation”, its simply the nature of what content is likely to become popular and trending with the masses. cS doesn’t apologize for using popularity as its editorial criteria.

TLN’s editorial mix is more similar to the mix of other Western news media, heavy on what Westerners are interested in reading about when it comes to China, with an overemphasis on Chinese politics, oppression, and censorship. TLN isn’t as narrative driven as most Western media reporting, but there’s a sense that their reporting invariably conforms to narratives whereas cS has narratives but they’re more organic, determined by Chinese netizens through the allocation of their attention and energies in discussion. Furthermore, similar to the Western (especially online news) media’s over-reliance on Twitter, TLN is also in my opinion over-reliant on Sina Weibo.

Though to be fair, I think cS has an over-reliance on NetEase but interestingly, my criticism for both hinges on both sources being distorted demographics and the inherent problems with their sampling methods. I think cS’s sampling methodology has serious confounding factors while I think TLN’s use of Sina Weibo quotes is more akin to the adage of journalists presenting their opinion through their choice of quotes rather than actual “sampling”.

3. Distortion

cS’s popularity filter does create a distortion or a “film” as Ardaiolo puts it but I think cS is also very up front about it (and even then people forget it). TLN also creates a distortion in its reporting (frankly, any time someone is curating anything, there is inevitable distortion) but its a different sort, one that is more distinctly and firmly “Western”. TLN looks at China with Western lenses and sensibilities far more than cS does.

cS tries to use popularity with Chinese netizens to determine representativeness and what should thus be translated and shared since there’s no way to translate and share everything. TLN, by contrast, is unapologetically active and subjective curation. They manually distill, gauge sentiment, and depend on their intuition from experiencing and studying China. Each story is handpicked, as they say, just like the best tea. The content of both sites are still subject to selection bias but they have different approaches which I think really illustrates the differences in content.

The people behind TLN are Western academics. The people behind cS are mostly local Chinese netizens. This inevitably colors what they produce. The question is what distortion you prefer when it comes to making sense of China and Chinese people through Chinese online social media?


Both sites include translations of Chinese netizen comments but I think cS emphasizes it whereas TLN uses it for flavor. cS often puts the netizen comments front and center; they ARE the story, in their variety or uniformity, in how simple or complex they may be, or in how banal or interesting they may be. As I alluded to above, TLN to me seems to use translated comments mostly to reinforce or justify a statement, argument, or conclusion being advanced in their posts. They are used as supporting characters, not the lead itself. This is fine for TLN because TLN is about proscribing to its readers what are the best, most interesting stories from their own subjective perspective. This brings me to…

5. Context

TLN provides its readers far more context. It is more friendly to the uninitiated because it spells things out, unconstrained by a mantra that emphasizes translation to provide background and some helpful explanations about what’s happening or hypothesizing to its readers what greater trends may be involved. cS doesn’t do this aside from a few explanatory notes here and there. It doesn’t step in to try explaining the greater possible significance of any thing or what conclusions you should walk away with. It gives you a snapshot, limited though it may be, and lets the reader come up with what they will. In my opinion, there is more “substance” and greater insights to be found from cS, but its subject to the efforts of the reader. There’s reading a book, and then there’s reading what someone else thinks about a book. cS is more the former and TLN is more the latter.

6. Rawness

cS is willing to publish things and language that wouldn’t be palatable to TLN and mainstream media, maybe because it is too violent, explicit, or subjectively distasteful or insignificant. Yet those are every bit a part of the landscape of the Chinese internet and the plurality and color of its denizens as complaints of injustice and political commentary is, and frankly, probably more so if we’re talking about mainstream China. Both sites invariably cannot escape some form of filtering, but I think there is value in the more raw and less filtered content of cS just as there is value in the more processed but contextualized content of TLN.

Now for a semantic quibble. The original use of cultural voyeurism by cS was that it enabled its readers to view something as it is, without being part of it. I understand the looser definition employed in applying the “voyeurism” motif to TLN but I don’t think its applicable because the content is less about viewing things as they are and more about viewing things as they’ve been processed and interpreted (not just translated) and where the conclusions are more explicitly offered. I think the “culture porn” description of cS is definitely applicable for some of its content, but the opposite of accusing cS as being culture porn is to accuse TLN of being pretentious. Neither is fair.

Finally, there are definitely reasons why TLN is palatable to The Atlantic as a content provider, and this is related to #6 above. Forget the fact that TLN’s writers have impressive Western academic credentials, that are more marketable clout to the Western readers of The Atlantic, compared to Fauna or the other Chinese nationals who insist on maintaining public anonymity. The most relevant reason is because cS content isn’t of The Atlantic’s format or style (or if you want, “up to their standards”). How many “stupid cunts” and “motherfuckers” do you think The Atlantic wants to publish?

And here’s the kicker. Fauna and chinaSMACK HAVE been approached by media outlets and publications, but there’s a reason why Fauna or cS has never gone ahead with any content partnerships or job offers. I won’t let you freely imagine what the reason is, I’ll tell you: Fauna wanted to keep her editorial independence.

She didn’t want to sanitize. She wanted to keep the SMACK (btw, that refers to the “rawness of the content”, not “shit-talking about China”). Nor did she think her own opinion on the story of the day was really that interesting. Now, I think she’s wrong, as people with expertise can offer meaningful insights to others, just like TLN does, but I also admire the humility. She just isn’t interested in writing what these foreign publications wanted her to cover, the angles they wanted her to pursue, and the Chinese voices they want her to highlight over others to advance any specific narrative. She turned them down because she thinks herself more an observer than a writer, reporter, or opinion-leader.

That’s the spirit of cS. It isn’t for everyone. It can be damnably low-brow but it is what you make of it and we know for a fact that different people find different value in the site, ranging from cultural insight to culture porn. It appeals to different demographics at different levels of familiarity with China, and not always successfully at that, but we know it does and believe in it.

My personal opinion of TLN is that it is less multifaceted, but occupies a nice sweet spot for those who are of moderate familiarity with China. TLN does indeed go “one level deeper”, but for a lot of more hardcore China watchers, it isn’t deep enough, the conclusions and observations somewhat obvious and trite to them as much as many of cS’s content are fundamentally translations of sensationalist garbage and the Chinese reactions to sensationalist garbage (there are still insights in that but it depends on who you are, what you’re open to realizing, and how you reconcile it with everything else you read about China to synthesize what you know of China and its people). Still, its good for those who aren’t China nerds already but are otherwise ready to leave Western media China cliches and become more knowledgeable and nuanced in their understanding of some aspects of Chinese society through Chinese activity on the internet (though again, using Sina Weibo as the predominant source and representation of Chinese “social media” is a bit dangerous).

TLN’s editorial mission, format, and the resulting content is a great match for The Atlantic’s audience. This announcement is a coup for them, a great validation of their work and the value of that work. It’s great for The Atlantic as well, to offer their readers more quality content relevant to their interests, keeping them on the site (The Atlantic has a promising online strategy). However, I wouldn’t go so far as to say The Atlantic will improve TLN’s editorial content as I think it’s closer to a content-for-exposure arrangement than The Atlantic becoming TLN’s editorial mentor. I think the judgement there is a bit obvious but you’re entitled to it of course.

Admittedly, I also take umbrage on behalf of the site I’m involved with over any possible suggestion that TLN is somehow advancing or improving while cS is somehow content to just copy its framework for other Asian countries. I take offense personally because I’ve been directly involved in those expansions and because those expansions weren’t Fauna or cS’s idea either. They exist because cS fans actually approached cS themselves to do them and I was put in charge of helping set them up and make sure they operate smoothly. Prior to that I was just on hand to modify the site design and help with some English translations as needed, but since Fauna wants to focus on cS editorial only, she had me handle them (I’d like to think she thinks me competent to do so but I suspect its just her laziness).

However, if there was anything more validating to Fauna personally than influential mainstream Western media wanting her to work for them, it was the validation of people who wanted to help her and the validation of people wanting to copy the cS editorial mission and format, for China and other countries.

There will always be people who prefer one or the other but the thing is, such a question makes this into a popularity contest when readers who have a genuine interest in learning more about China and its people will find value in both sites and their very different approaches. Preferring one or the other reflects more about what kind of China watcher you envision yourself to be than the sincerity of your interest in China. They’re similar insofar as where TLN has taken inspiration from cS, but hey, cS itself had its own precursors (though I’m not sure how much they actually influenced Fauna when she started cS 4 years ago. I have a hard time imagining her having been familiar with Roland Soong’s ESWN, which I consider the closest analogue at the time).

Thanks for the opportunity to navel-gaze. Cheers.

Note: “Navel-gazing” because I’m an insider at one of the sites and I’m talking about the sites themselves. It goes without saying that this is all my own opinion and not necessarily the opinion or statements of anyone else involved in the cS family of sites. I also confess to wanting to respond to this because I regularly see some confusion about what cS is about (which I suppose could also be interpreted as a failing of the site) and wanted to voice what we believe internally and what we impart upon parties interested in joining the cS family.

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  1. Song of the Article

    Back and Forth
    -Doctor Steel