Shanzhai, Poetry and Bypassing Censorship

A poetic intervention of artificial intelligence algorithms and automated censorship of the Chinese Internet.

Interview with Xiaowei Wang — Sep 16, 2020

Xiaowei Wang, Mahjong, The Future of Memory, 2019
Xiaowei Wang, Mahjong, The Future of Memory, 2019

The Chinese-American artist and engineer Xiaowei Wang developed the project The Future of Memory for the web residencies by Solitude & ZKM on the topic »Rigged Systems« curated by Jonas Lund. Wang’s project focuses on the poetic intervention of digital culture, taking artificial intelligence algorithms and automated censorship of the Chinese Internet as its point of departure.

Schlosspost: Your practice can be described as working at the intersection of participatory geography and design computation. How do these spheres inform each other in your work? And how do they inform your current project The Future of Memory?

Xiaowei Wang: Seeing geographically is at the core of the projects I tackle. I don’t see a delineation between physical and digital worlds, and so this practice of seeing geographically expands between both realms.

What sparked The Future of Memory was actually the tension between invisibility and visibility. The line between being watched versus being seen. In Seeing like a State, James Scott explores how governments see, and how states create maps of meaning to control its citizens. At the core of this control is the question of geography – a practice that traditionally requires boundaries and categories to order the world. But the question becomes, how do you contest that, and bypass that, going against the dominant power? How do you work outside of the margins? And this broader question is tied into censorship and how censorship works.

Xiaowei Wang, Nomadic Mapping Collaborative, 2014-2015

Xiaowei Wang, Nomadic Mapping Collaborative, 2014-2015

In that sense, I’m influenced by Edouard Glissant’s call for opacity. Extending that metaphor, there’s a great deal of work in queer scholarship about this idea of failure, messiness, and embracing opacity as a strategy for subverting existing power dynamics. Paul Soulellis’s work on URGENTCRAFT is an especially inspiring example of counter-hegemonic strategies. Tied into all of this is my own experience, the feeling of being »seen« by my community, and also in queer spaces versus the sensation of being invisible but being watched by government. And I am curious to explore … in that invisibility, is there a kind of potential to be used?

SP: Can you explain the technical side of how the project and the language tool is going to work? To what extent are we working with open-source technologies? How does algorithmic censorship work, and how is it reengineered and bypassed with this project?

XW: During the web residency, a big portion of my work has been trying to push the concept. In my original proposal, I imagined a simple tool that is similar to google translate: you can put a set of words in. The output, or »translation« is a series of homophone characters are generated, as well as emoji representations of the words. In Chinese, one word can have multiple tones or characters, and the change in tones or characters will change the meaning of the word entirely. For example, héxié with the characters 和谐 means harmony, a term that Hu Jintao developed to describe a »harmonious society.« But, héxié with the characters 河蟹 means river crab. And so it’s become a joke amongst netizens who make fun of this concept, which requires giving up a lot of personal rights for an imaginary »harmonious society.«

Censorship is definitely becoming more automated, and throughout this residency I’ve been looking at research from places like CitizenLab in Toronto ( as well as Jennifer Pan’s work out of Stanford.

Xiaowei Wang, So beautiful it becomes her, 2019

Xiaowei Wang, So beautiful it becomes her, 2019

Using open-source tools to build this translation platform is key, and I’ve also been researching best approaches, given that many natural language processing models are trained on English text.

In the interim, I also wanted to think through other ways of bypassing censorship in images. A lot of the project is inspired by existing practices that netizens use to bypass censorship: through emoji and images. In the middle of my residency, I became interested in how censored text could live on in images of objects, or on actual objects themselves.

For example I made a vase that hides censored text on a traditional, blue, and white porcelain vase, in the image I’ve attached. On one side is the text »Let’s go Hong Kong,« which is a phrase that is now censored but shows support for the current 2019 Hong Kong protests. On the other side is the joke »The bun is leaking its filling,« which is a netizen joke about Xi Jinping changing the Chinese constitution to abolish term limits.

This kind of object draws on the practice of shanzhai. Shanzhai is a form of copycat culture that has turned into a wildly innovative ecosystem, especially in the city of Shenzhen. The culture started off as copied and pirated DVDs, handbags, and fake iPhones. But now it’s spawning its own form of innovations that go beyond Western, proprietary technology. It’s a kind of indigenous innovation. You have phones being produced that are easily repaired; new types of objects that allow for others to remix and reinvent them. This stand in stark contrast to big tech in the US, which is very much about intellectual property and often not open source.

Xiaowei Wang, The Future of Memory, 2019

Xiaowei Wang, The Future of Memory, 2019

If you walk through Huaqiangbei market in Shenzhen, you’ll see a wide of array of shanzhai objects: everything from karaoke mics, to holograph generators, open source 3D printers, and a wide range of phones. Even though in recent years, Chinese authorities have been trying to crack down on markets in tightening the reins on copyright violations, it’s impossible for authorities to keep up with patrolling fakes, knock-offs, and objects that veer toward copyright violation.

The vase with the censored text is a form of a shanzhai object — a knockoff object that has been tweaked and changed, to preserve the memory of a certain political moment. There’s something I like about it as a nebulous object.

The mahjong tiles have characters from a recent ad Li Ka Shing took out in the Hong Kong newspapers, which was a veiled warning to the government that the government should act with caution, and advocated against violence, especially in its approach to protestors. That phrase is now censored on the Chinese internet.

The phone is also a speculative object — imagining that perhaps, in the future, we will keep what remaining histories we have on cellphones as text messages, as images preloaded onto the phone, available in places like Huaqiangbei market, lost in the vast array of electronics. Maybe someone will be casually shopping and stumble across it, only to discover news images that they have never seen before, or a history that they’ve never read.

And I present these three objects as part of this panorama, the setting being an eerie, desolate cellphone stand in Huaqiangbei.

Xiaowei Wang, Cellphone, The Future of Memory, 2019

Xiaowei Wang, Cellphone, The Future of Memory, 2019

SP: With a population of 802 million, China is home to the largest number of internet users in the world and 788 million smartphone users. Could you explain what the Chinternet is and what makes it unique?

XW: Chinternet is a term to describe »the Chinese internet,« a unique internet ecosystem and culture that flourished behind »the Great Firewall.« In the late 1990s, a few American tech companies entered the Chinese market, but because of stiff competition from local Chinese companies like Alibaba and Baidu, the American companies eventually left China. Government restrictions on the free flow of information (including censorship and information manipulation through the »50 cent party«) also created this unique culture and ecosystem of apps.

While internet adoption in places like the United States started with personal computers, for many Chinese internet users, their first interaction with the internet is through a mobile phone, and using apps.

»I think poetry and humor allow us to constantly subvert power.«

Under these constraints, a unique netizen culture has proliferated, of slang and memes to discuss censored topics all the way to doling out mob justice. And for everyday citizens, mobile phones are crucial to daily life. These days, you use your mobile phone to do everything, from taking the subway in a city to paying for pork buns at your neighborhood street food stall.

SP: The Future of Memory to a certain extent is an exploration of Chinese digital culture with a focus on forms of expression through memes, emojis, puns — despite its serious context it has a poetic and funny quality — what role do humor, pop culture, and poetics play in your work?

XW: I’m inspired by the poet Audre Lorde’s proclamation »poetry is not a luxury.« I think poetry and humor allow us to constantly subvert power. I’m reminded of an article that Zara Rahman recently wrote:

In it, she describes how data is just a slice of who we are, at a certain point in time. And I think this is the interesting tension between quantification and poetry — there’s a lot that machines cannot yet capture, and especially words and jokes that automated systems of censorship can’t capture. It takes time for even human censors to react.

And I think that’s what I find most inspiring about the memes, emojis and puns that come out of trying to bypass censorship … it’s how there’s always going to be poetry and life, even if power tries to snuff it out.

SP: As you are also working with geography, what are your thoughts on digital public spaces? How might those be created, used, explored? Are there any parallels when working with virtual/digital spaces to a geography practice? How do these inform each other? How do you think about space and spatial relations when creating an artwork (for online and/or physical spaces)?

XW: I see no difference between physical and digital spaces. Technology is embedded in our culture and it moves and grows with society. I think any virtual geography also says a lot about the physical and material geographies that underlie it. For example, even a map of bitcoin mining throughout the world reflects many existing hierarchies: much of bitcoin production and mining happens in China, where hardware is cheap. Additionally, China has been a center of manufacture and production for the rest of the world for the past 30 years, so it’s no surprise that the realm of the virtual continues this pattern.

SP: Connected to your work on how technology is transforming the Chinese countryside – From your perspective, what is the situation now regarding big tech and the countryside? What type of developments are you most surprised to observe?

XW: What’s most surprising to me has been how globally connected the Chinese countryside is. It’s funny — often I talk to people about tech in rural China and the first reaction tends to be that it’s an isolated phenomenon. But maybe that’s an urban perception of the rural, in general. Rural areas throughout the world have been sites of extraction for so long – they are home to the mines that produce rare earth minerals for our phones to the food on our table.

As for the Chinese countryside, rural China has powered so much of economic growth over the past 30 years, since China’s Opening Up and Reform under Deng Xiaoping. Shenzhen, which manufactures 90 percent of the world’s electronics, started off as a sleepy village. And now, economic growth is being pushed inward from the coast, to rural areas and previously »remote« regions.

Letter from Shenzhen written by Xiaowei Wang, 2018

Xiaowei Wang, Letter from Shenzhen (article), 2018

This means you have villages producing goods that get shipped all over the world, with villagers making items out of their own homes, grandmothers helping their children on their e-commerce business. There’s also blockchain projects in remote mountain villages, all the way to big tech companies helping raise pigs using AI. Even companies like Netease, one of the world’s largest video game companies, are starting to raise pigs.

SP: You are currently researching Sinofuturism working on a documentary film. The term emerged from related concepts like Afrofuturism, but has proven somewhat difficult to define. What’s your personal definition? In what way does this concept inform your work?

»Even now, if you go to futurist conferences or conferences on the »future« of internet/digital, the audience and speakers are mainly white men.«

XW: Sinofuturism, to me, is an arena to question notions of futurity and who has the right to envision and imagine the future. It’s not a value neutral concept. I don’t see Sinofuturism as particularly emancipatory or positive – in fact, in Lawrence Lek’s film, Sinofuturism is quite dark, I think.

What it does hold, though, is the potential to open up a conversation on who has been in charge of imagining the future. For a long time, it was mainly the West, especially experts in the West, through development projects and technology transfer. Even now, if you go to futurist conferences or conferences on the »future« of internet/digital, the audience and speakers are mainly white men.

Xiaowei Wang, Blockchain Noodles from How to Eat and Code in Chinese: Sinofuturist recipes  , 2019 (ongoing)

Xiaowei Wang, Blockchain Noodles from How to Eat and Code in Chinese: Sinofuturist recipes ?, 2019 (ongoing)

Xiaowei Wang, Roasted Pig Tail from How to Eat and Code in Chinese: Sinofuturist recipes  , 2019 (ongoing)

Xiaowei Wang, How to Eat and Code in Chinese: Sinofuturist recipes ?, 2019 (ongoing)

In that sense, I like how open the term Sinofuturism is. For some other people, I think Sinofuturism is a bit more positive of a term, and reflects how at one point China was subject to Western imperialism and colonial powers, but now it has moved beyond that to strengthen itself, and really try and become a global power. I find that strain a little depressing since we’re swapping one global power for another, when the problem is power itself.

SP: What does your desktop or workspace look like?

XW: My desktop is extremely messy because I never use it! I always use my Terminal program to navigate through files. As a result, it’s incredibly, embarrassingly messy. See attached screenshot.

Xiaowei Wang, The Future of Memory, 2019, Rigged Systems


SP: What are some links, book titles, sound files, videos – as further reading or background – that might be related to your artistic practices and research topics to share with our readers?

XW: David Li and Silvia Lindtner have some fantastic articles on Shenzhen and shanzhai – the art of copying which has become an extreme, open source environment:

Anna Greenspan also has a great book, Future Mutations about shanzhai. The phenomenon of shanzhai was where my interest in rural tech really started, since the word means mountain stronghold.

Queer opacity:

The Queer Art of Failure by Jack Halberstam is a wonderful book. No Future by Lee Edelman is also a recent influence.


Interview by Inga Seidler.

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