Written by Shaohua Guo.

“China is not yet a country that excels in the art of writing (shuxie, to express feelings and write), but the emergence of blogs …”

In October 2002, Isaac Xianghui Mao wrote this on the homepage of CNBlog.org, China’s first online discussion forum about blogging technology and culture. Given that he has been nicknamed the “Chairman Mao of the Internet” (wangluo maozhuxi), it is hard not to draw connections between the nickname and another wave of revolution fostered by digital technologies. What is most intriguing about Isaac Mao’s statement is the use of ellipsis at the end. Drawing connections between the blog as a then newly emerging technology and writing (shuxie) as an old convention, Isaac Mao thinks, perhaps enigmatically, that writing is still at a disadvantage in China, which, as a matter of fact, has a rather long history. It is also left unsaid how the appearance of a blog might (or might not) facilitate any change of the status quo.

Fast forward thirteen years after blogging was first introduced to China. The vibrant Chinese blogosphere not only fosters the flourishing of individual expression and a booming celebrity culture, it also catalyzes the rise of critical voices from a commercially dominant online space (Guo 2015). As indicated by China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) statistics, blogging applications took up a mere 0.2% of all Web activity in 2005—ranking second to last among all Internet applications and falling far behind other forms of popular Internet usage such as Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs), email, search, news, online chat, and gaming. However, within three years, blogs made it to the top ten most popular Web applications in 2008 and have remained popular ever since. For instance, in June 2011 blogs ranked fifth, with a whopping 65.5% of Internet users reading or writing blogs, while the number of Chinese bloggers reached 109 million by the end of 2014. The nature of blogging as a self-publishing medium, dotcom portals’ belief in its commercial potential (represented by Sina.com.cn, Sohu.com, and Tencent.com), and their fierce competition for user attention constitute the primary driving forces behind the bustling new media scene in China. The crucial role SINA Corporation undertakes in promoting blogs particularly deserves careful investigation.

With 600 million registered users worldwide and averaging 600 million page views daily, SINA’s flagship products range from news, technology, BBS, and email services to the more recently launched blogging and microblogging platforms. Beginning in 2005, SINA initiated a series of multi-level campaigns to promote, improve, and expand its blogging service, maximizing its breadth and depth and trying to reach the largest possible audience. As the dominant trendsetter in the Chinese-language blogosphere, SINA has adopted two main strategies to promote blogging.

First, to appropriate celebrities’ appeal, SINA coined the term “celebrity blogs” (mingren boke), put up a blog channel—the first one among portal websites in China—and initiated a series of campaigns to publicize this new brand. SINA’s well-established fame as an online news media outlet, the publicity potential it promises to celebrities, and the relatively underdeveloped star-making mechanisms in China enabled the site to quickly gather together more than 2,500 celebrity bloggers by the end of 2005. SINA has endeavored to demonstrate its function as an excellent multimedia promotional platform for celebrities, by means of its technical support, human resources, content rating system, and publicity plans. In turn, celebrity blogs significantly enhance the Internet traffic on Sina.com.cn by offering insider information that easily generates millions of visits from fans, general readers, and journalists.

A series of entertainment events and hot button issues also have arisen from this newly-opened discursive space. For instance, the star-cum-director Xu Jinglei demonstrated her star power online when her blog was reported to have topped the Technorati 100 (a leading blog monitoring engine) on May 4, 2006, just 112 days after she started her blog account. In contrast, Han Han, a best-selling author and racecar driver, successfully transitioned from a rebellious youth idol to a controversial public intellectual via blogging about current affairs. Therefore, the cultural ramifications of celebrity blogs are not restricted to the entertainment realm per se. Because of the extensive publicity measures of Web editors, the critiques by cultural celebrities on current affairs, as demonstrated by the cases of Han Han, Li Yinhe, and Li Chengpeng, have not only directed netizens’ attention to a myriad of controversial issues, but also reinvigorated societal interest in discussing these topics.

Second, SINA has spared no effort to cultivate promising bloggers and nurture the relationship between individual users and the website and has also featured various opportunities for rewards and recognition to encourage user engagement. The flourishing of user-generated content not only challenges the dominance of traditional media, which is still heavily censored, but also enriches traditional news reports by providing a more personalized perspective. Web editors capitalize on SINA’s vantage point as a comprehensive news portal, and promote the proposition of “blogging on the scene” (dangshiren boke) to enhance the website’s news value. When important events occur, blog editors make great effort to contact eyewitnesses and invite them to blog about their experiences. Also, SINA has appropriated the enduring appeal of literature in its most extensive definition, sponsoring blog contests to cultivate new genres of writing, such as microfiction (wei xiaoshuo), and has initiated a nationwide blogging movement. In recent years, Web editors have continued to cultivate connections with grassroots bloggers by organizing offline get-togethers, staying highly sensitive to the attention value of online materials and user preferences, and extending the breadth and depth of blog content.

Documenting some of the key measures that SINA Corporation has adopted in order to popularize blogging shows how commercial portals have played a pivotal role in China’s technological revolution through promoting user-generated content and pushing for the rise of diverse voices online. From 2005 onward, the Chinese blogosphere has constituted one of the most productive discursive space, which not only reinvigorates writing practices but also plays a prominent role in endorsing individual expression, promoting citizen journalism, facilitating social activism, and boosting China’s nascent entertainment culture. In the years to come, it will be fascinating to see how the blanks left by Issac Mao’s statement are filled in with drastically changing Internet demographics, the rise of new players in the field of digital culture, and the offerings of new technologies.

Shaohua Guo is an Assistant Professor of Chinese in the Department of Asian Languages and Literatures at Carleton College. Her research interests include new media studies and visual culture. Image Credit: CC by bfishadow/flickr.