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China: Bringing blogging to the countryside

Categories: East Asia, China, Ideas, Photography, Travel

One afternoon in late 2004, 24 Hours Online [1] blogger Zhang Shihe, then aged 50 and working as an office executive, came across a violent murder taking place in downtown Beijing [2]. Exasperated at the non-committal response he received from the police emergency hotline dispatcher, he began taking notes and photos which he later posted to his blog [3], where he lambasted police for failing to themselves document the crime scene.

If you look in the comments of Zhang's breakthrough post [4], you can find one left by Zola [5], Zhang's much younger and more radical successor who a few years later [6] would himself go on to become famous for his contribution [7] to citizen reporter blogging. “Blogs,” wrote Zola then, “are the only media that can stand against The Media.”

Calling himself Tiger Temple, Zhang set off earlier this month on a bicycle blogging tour [8] to look for his own news that will take him through Shanxi [9], Shaanxi [10], Inner Mongolia [11] and Ningxia [12], four impoverished provinces in north central China's hinterland, posting photos, video and reports of who and what he encounters along the way, the next step it seems from his usual blogging of things like street-level crime [13] and natural disruptions to construction work on 2008 Olympic venues [14].

Is Zhang going just to see how many slave labor brick kilns [15] he can find? His main problem, judging from several posts, seems to be the lack of file transfer-friendly internet bars which, as he points out, are mostly ‘underground’ out there. It seems he's approaching this with a grand design in mind, from his concept of Big Blogging [16] while in your fifties [17] to the distinction, he emphasizes, between a citizen reporter and what he considers himself, a reporter of or for the citizenry [18].

[19]
Tiger Temple's route [19], from red dot Beijing to black dot Xi'an in Shaanxi province [20]

A photolist of all his blog-touring equipment [21] was posted on August 9, the day before he set off: plenty of gore-tex [22], a Sony Vaio [23], maps, first aid supplies, recording devices, a brass tobacco pipe and more. Photos from the first stage of travel can be found here [24] here [25] and video here [26].

Zhang is spending a lot of time conducting random interviews; August 12 saw him riding through the mountains of [27]Hebei province [28]. In one village he talks to one girl who says she's grown up walking ten kilometers to school everyday. She's happy and proud, he writes, when she mentions that next semester she'll be living closer to the school with her aunt, so from then on trips home through the mountains will only be made once a week:

schoolgirl.jpg [27]

In the same village he comes across one well-informed older gentleman, and strikes up a conversation about all the latest national and international current affairs. Two days later Tiger Temple zips into the small village of Qingbaikou [29], pulling over only to spot an elderly woman standing in the doorway of the small local museum of revolutionary history; he interviews her, learning less about what life was like when Japan invaded the country—her husband founded the museum—than about how she survives as a pensionless widow whose children have nearly all abandoned her, and the kind of life she still hopes to live.

museumgranny.jpg [29]

Still in Hebei, Zhang comes across his first illegally-operating coal mine that employs children [30] of the trip, there's The Thing That Happened In The Bathroom [31], when he discovers what Chinese truckers do in the summer heat when traffic on the mountain highways gets backed up [32], and the town where a local child rapist was diagnosed with penile cancer, given the ultimate cure when the doctor treating him turned vigilante and sliced the man's penis off in revenge [33], after which the man went on to unsuccessfully attempt suicide several times.

There's a flurry of more photos, video and posts right up until and after August 19 when he leaves Hebei [33] (great photos) and enters Shanxi [34] and his trip officially began. This weekend sees Tiger Temple passing through the desert:

deserttemple.jpg [35]