Media discourse and Chinese identity during the late Qing dynasty

Slides from the event “What Do Media Do? The ‘case of late Qing China, 1861-1906”. Technology advancement during this century in China served as a symbol for institutional change. Photo courtesy of author.

Sponsored by the UConn Humanities Institute and Asian and Asian American Studies Institute, “What Do Media Do? The ‘case’ of late Qing China, 1861-1906,” Shaoling Ma assistant professor of humanities (literature) at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, explained the impact of the challenging dichotomy between technology and culture in Chinese society during the mid-1800s to 1900s on Zoom at 6 p.m. Her research is based on her upcoming book, “ The Stone and the Wireless, Mediating China 1861-1906.” 

“The turn of the 20th century denotes a period when all technologies were new and foreign, but also a time where writers and intellectuals were struggling to demarcate machines and technology know-how for what was perceived to be the fundamental and yet more nebulous roots of their identity,” Ma said.  

Technology advancement during the mid-19th century to 20th century in China served as a symbol for institutional change, according to Ma. She talked about Yan Fu, a Chinese scholar who was known for introducing Western ideas like educational reform and commitment to social-political justice. On the other hand, Zhou Shuren (also known as Lu Xun), a famous writer, mocked fellow Chinese citizens for promoting Western achievements. He saw the improvement of technology as harm to the spirit of the individual, according to Ma.  

“They are all mediators in the strongest sense of the word because they actively negotiated the thin line separating technology and culture, reform and rebellion,” Ma stated. 

Mediators and media theorists were people who advocated between technology and Chinese culture. They also became the connection between Chinese and Western culture, Ma said. She gave an example of the socio-cultural impact of telegraphy. Many believed telegraphy negatively impacted the spiritualism of Fengshui. They believed telephone poles and wires were disrupting the order of the land and the burial of ancestors.  

“The boxers (protestors) were so adamantly involved in pushing back against Western aggression and the symbol for that aggression was the telegraph and the railway the two in tandem,” Ma said. “And so international press at the time showed Chinese boxers in their outfits pulling out railway tracks and also pulling out telegraph lines and in response, they’re saying that these are definitely polluting Chinese spirituality so there is a lot of association what technology could do in terms of connectivity but also in terms of Western threat to Chinese spirituality,” Ma added. 

Lindsay Nelson, a participant and researcher on Japanese horror media says she can see some similarities in her research. Nelson said Japanese horror media has evolved over time and changed the horror genre.  

“Specifically, I’m looking at several recent horror films and particularly the way that both recent horror films within their narrative and conversations around them really focus on new media,” Nelson said. “In terms of you know 15, 20 years ago horror films focused on VHS cassettes and television but now it’s more focused on cellphones and social media and how that really contributes to a sense of fractured reality where the horror now comes from the idea of not knowing what’s real and manufactured intimacy with these new technologies,” Nelson emphasized. 

Ma talked about how the Qing ethnicity in China struggled to grasp the idea of media at the time because there was such intense division between technology and society/politics. Currently, the discourse between media is widening and some groups, particularly laborers are getting left out of the picture, according to Ma. 

“Why is it that Chinese digital media today, moving the timeline to the now, continues to have particular trouble representing modes of production,” Ma asked. “Why is it that instead of concrete scenes of labor we get abstract images? I suspect this has something to do with the persisting tensions between information work and more traditional forms of labor. But also, a recursive logic between visibility and invisibility, between knowing and doing and between new digital scholarship and more traditional forms of ethnography.” 

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