Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Why I blog – by Alec Ash

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This is a guest post by Alec Ash, a young British writer who came to Beijing in 2008. He studied Mandarin and started a blog about Chinese youth. He has been published in The Economist, Prospect, Salon, Literary Review, and is a correspondent for The Los Angeles Review of Books. He is currently working on a book for Picador.

George Orwell, in his essay Why I Write, said there are four motives for writing of any kind: (i) Sheer egoism, (ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm, (iii) Historical impulse, and (iv) Political purpose. I figured I’d do the same kind of list for why I blog.

I’ll keep this short and pithy, imitating Orwell with four bullet points based on his above motives (he was a born blogger). Part of the point of this is to try and tease out if there’s a difference between writers (i.e. authors, columnists), journalists and bloggers, when it comes to why we put pen to paper, finger to laptop, in the first place. So…why do I blog?

(i) Sheer egoism. That’s right, no need to change the first and most powerful motive for any writer. Anyone who deludes themselves that what they have to say is of such interest to the world that they simply must put it down permanently is more than a touch vainglorious. When it comes to blogging, even more so – no one invited you to write, and likely no one’s paying you to do it. Hardly anyone will be reading it either, to begin with. Why bother? Because deep down you think you’re shit hot, and want other people to know that.

Blogging in China adds the extra incentive of expat status – something to set you apart, so you can show you’re not just another English teacher, that you know China, that you’re following the latest news everyone’s talking about, and you’ve met all the big name expats, and know all the cool bars, and your Chinese is crazy good. I should add that journalists, especially news reporters, who blog as part of their job are less vain and egotistical than your average garden blogger.

(ii) Community enthusiasm. Did I just make China bloggers out to be a pack of vain pricks? I apologise. That’s not what I think at all. The English language China “blogosphere” (how I loath that term) is one of the most vibrant out there, full of people who are contributing to our collective understanding of China in a very meaningful way. In that sense it’s a community effort, with blogs linking to and building on each other’s research and analysis in a form of crowd-sourced journalism. Whether that’s a productive conversation or a “circle jerk”, as some would have it, it’s something that writers want to be part of.

(iii) Journalistic impulse. Anyone living in China is confronted every day with things that just beg to be written about. It might be a conversation with a Chinese friend or stranger, a new piece of information that nuances your understanding of an issue, or something you found on the Chinese internet and want to share. One way to tell if you’re a writer at heart, for better or worse, is if when you see or think of something interesting, you feel a need to set it down in words for others – that somehow the experience or thought is incomplete until you put it into language.

In China, those interesting things are hitting you in the face every day. What’s more, most of them won’t get written if you don’t write them, especially if you’re somewhere other than Beijing or Shanghai. The country’s just too big, and professional journalists can’t be everywhere at once. So the journalistic impulse to record your impressions on a blog is especially strong here.

(iv) Corrective purpose. A lot of China blogs, I feel, exist in part to correct or add nuance to what mainstream opinion gets wrong. Maybe the press have gotten their facts mixed up, but you’re there on the ground with access and time to pick at the details. Maybe the mainstream narrative is over-simplified or single-sided, and you have something to say about that. Maybe, God forbid, Tom Friedman (a columnist for The New York Times) has written about China again. Whatever the spur, correcting the generalisations and misconceptions about China that are so legion is an important reason why we do this.

**

There you have it. My changes from Orwell’s wording are small. “Historical impulse” becomes journalistic impulse, because bloggers know they’re not recording for posterity, only for the moment. “Political purpose” turns into corrective purpose, because we also know we won’t make a difference, and are often only talking among ourselves. “Aesthetic enthusiasm”, i.e. the joy of crafted writing, plays less of a part in blogging, which is more conversational and hastily knocked out – but bloggers enjoy the act of writing, too. In fact, another big motive for keeping a blog, myself included, is to galvanise yourself to write regularly, and to write better and faster.

Alec Ash will be speaking at The Bookworm Literary Festival (2014) for “Blogging China”, a panel discussion featuring notable Beijing blog founders. More info can be found here. His website The Anthill is an online publication for China-based writers. 

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

March 7, 2014 at 9:38 am

One Response

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  1. […] Alec Ash is a British writer based in Beijing. He has written for BBC.co.uk, the Economist, Salon.com and Literary Review, among others. He is currently working on a book for Picador. He has previously written a guest post on this blog here.  […]


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