Media Studies through China / China Studies through Media
An interview with Dr. Julie Chen and Dr. Yi Gu, lead conveners of the Behind and Beyond the Wall(s): Contemporary China through Media Studies working group
McLuhan Centre: What sparked the idea for this working group and for your collaboration together?
Yi Gu: I've been at UofT for almost 11 years and in many ways this working group was long overdue. The China Studies cohort at UofT is one of the largest cohorts of both faculty members and students in different disciplines who all study China, and over the last decade I’ve seen how the sheer size of UofT scholars who are interested in China has grown. With that size it’s becoming more and more difficult to accommodate numerous different research interests and to carve out a place for a more focused discussion on media and China—especially digital media—which requires its own set of methodologies and concerns.
Julie Chen: We instantly recognized that we have faculty and students in different UofT departments across the three campuses who are interested in this intersection between technology and China. We see this working group as a first step to bring together faculty and students together across UofT and the Toronto area. We hope that having a space really dedicated to bringing together scholars and students with diverse training can stimulate interdisciplinary collaboration and cross-fertilization in our approach to studying this topic.
MC: So rather than just filling a gap in research, it sounds more like you’re trying to carve out a niche in an otherwise very popular area of study.
JC: Everybody is increasingly interested in China—it really draws a great amount of scholarship and journalism. We don't want this research to just be on China, and China’s media. Rather we want to use this space to address the very complicated and nuanced analysis of China and media. We really see it as a space to stimulate not only Media Studies through China, but also China Studies through media.
YG: Many of the participants of this working group have expressed a particular interest in exploring and working through some of the methodological challenges we face as scholars interested in studying digital media in China. For the majority of our group in cultural studies, history, art history and sociology we are still at the threshold of expanding and updating our own research methods. Studying culture—for me in particular, visual culture—its absolutely essential for our generation of scholars and faculty members to make sure we're not outdated and that we can continue to provide more current means of analyses for our students. I think it's very important to have this kind of space to think together about research and the real, practical challenges—sometimes technical challenges—of studying digital space and society in contemporary China.
"I think it's important to have this kind of space to think together about the real, practical challenges---sometimes technical challenges---of studying digital space and society in contemporary China."
MC: It also sounds like you are hoping to challenge some of the approaches that you’re taking or the methodologies that you’re using. Is that right?
YG: We certainly hope so. We came in with a very clear awareness or desire to expand what we already have as research practices, both at the level of individual intellectual growth, but also, in a way, on behalf of our disciplines. That’s why we thought the McLuhan Centre would be an ideal home for us at this stage, because we really don't want to fall too comfortably or too easily into any particular discipline.
MC: What is the significance of your group’s research right now—not just in the year 2020, but also in the midst of a global pandemic? What connections do you see between your research, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the current moment?
YG: I think as many have observed, this pandemic really intensified some of the pre-existing tensions or tendencies or trends of thinking about China. Especially in the case of the issue of China and the media. COVID-19 and the increasing attention to how fake news and digitally mediated news affect our understanding of the world—it really illustrates the increasingly pivotal role mediation plays in the contemporary world.
I’ll give a personal example—I follow still Chinese news and social media, for instance WeChat. In March, news was circulating on Chinese social media stating that the Canadian government announced that the streets of Toronto would soon be occupied by the military, in response to COVID-19. Of course this was completely untrue. I found it fascinating that I would read Chinese social media news about Toronto, and could not even recognize the real world I was living in. But when you look at the comments on these news pieces, a lot of Chinese diaspora who actually live in Toronto totally interpreted it as being reality. So I think the vast segregation of the media-space—partly because of language and partly because of the Internet "wall" erected by the Chinese government—really makes a cross-cultural conversation and scholarly inquiry into this information disparity more urgent than ever.
Above: An article circulating on Chinese social media in March (left: original; right: English translation) claiming imminent military occupations on Canadian streets. For Dr. Gu, the way these articles are interpreted highlights the disparate truths circulating in the media-space. Source:
JC: We also want to complicate the discussion about racialization and China, but also the global politics around xenophobia against Asian populations—because of the pandemic of course, but also because of pre-existing racial hostility against Asian, and particularly East Asian looking faces. It's deeply rooted in the long history of racialization. As scholars, if we're going to rely on the frameworks of race and racial capitalism for our analyses of global power and infrastructures, we have to extend discussions on racial relations beyond North America, to the global scale. I think [it’s important] for us to bring that dimension of focusing on China, but also China’s own relations with other countries and even domestically between the majority Han ethnicity and other ethnic minorities. We want to complicate and enrich that area of discussion.
"As scholars, if we're going to rely on the frameworks of race and racial capitalism for our analyses of global power and infrastructures, we have to extend discussions of racial relations beyond North America, to the global scale."
MC: Your group is focused around the contradictory notion of a digital, porous wall. Can you talk more about this and explain its significance for your group?
JC: Increasingly this metaphor or imaginary of the so called “Great Wall” as the Firewall in China started to really gain momentum along with technological advancements in China. Consider the implementation of the social credit system and the increasing attention paid to big data analytics and AI computational power. By pulling out the utility of this metaphor of “wall” we want to render it problematic. There is a degree of technological determinism that arises when we think of a wall similar to a physical, concrete border wall that shuts out immigrants versus the imaginary of the digital wall, which is a matter of informational control. Part of the reason we want to problematize the use of the “wall” is, on the one hand, to point out that things still come and go through this wall—it is porous—and so it’s not really determined by technology.
YG: In conversations that I’ve had with others when trying to look "in" to China, it becomes clear that we're still very much stuck in the dichotomy of the democratic/liberal/western bloc versus the authoritarian/hopeless/eastern bloc. When you emphasize that divide you involuntarily evoke some of the tropes of Cold War discourse. This really points to the urgent need for a particular set of languages and concepts that offer a new approach to addressing the differences between the East and the West in this regard, while at the same time not demonizing the consequences—particularly at the individual level—caused by the divide.
I feel it's the responsibility as a Canada-based scholar to make sure that our general familiarity with the notion of this “wall” and its implications for the digital sphere within China and the rest of the world is known. It’s absolutely necessary for everyone to be aware of the existence of that wall—but at the same time to not let the awareness of that wall become the terminus point for these exchanges and conversations.
JC: And, as the name of our group implies, we want to use this space to move beyond the wall. If you use the wall as an epistemological angle to understand what’s going on in China, it becomes very easy to essentialize the Chinese population and Chinese culture. However, life is very complex, even within the geographical boundaries; there are many contradictions in terms of social status, social tensions, and contestations among different groups of people.
MC: Tell us about events—what do you envision for the year and what do you have planned so far?
YG: We have a tentative schedule of monthly workshops with external speakers and plan to culminate our research with a conference. The beautiful thing about this grant as it works this year is that it supports more than just one academic year. The academic year can feel shockingly short—we’re taking advantage of this extra time to get to know each other and each other’s scholarship, and to clearly define our common ground and shared questions. Even things as mundane as setting our meeting times we’re trying hard to approach with a little bit more care. So everyone can have the chance to stay engaged in this intellectual conversation without having to sacrifice their duties in other aspects of their life.
JC: Our first workshop on November 20th, titled “Information Futures through the Past”, features two authors with a shared interest in using history to envision the future. We’ll be looking at what the histories of cybernetics and information technology before China’s internet age might tell us about its future. We are also planning another workshop around the theme of media and creativity. We know “innovation” is the more popular and widely-used term but we want to focus on a more traditional understanding of creativity, in particular the creative production sectors. But we’ll have to wait and see how the chemistry unfolds in these virtual event spaces.
Information Futures through the Past takes place November 20th, 2020 from 2:00-3:00pm online. More information and registration on our Events page.
The Behind and Beyond the Wall(s): Contemporary China through Media Studies working group is composed of the following faculty members and students:
Julie Chen [ICCIT, UTM]
Yi Gu [Arts, Culture & Media, UTSC]
Ruoyun Bai [Arts, Culture & Media, UTSC]
Sibo Chen [School of Professional Communication, Ryerson University]
Miaoran Dong [Carleton University]
Anup Grewal [UofT]
Xiaofei Han [Communication & Media Studies, Carleton University]
Lianrui Jia [Arts, Culture & Media, UTSC]
Tong Lam [Historical Studies, UTM]
Yifan Li [Sociology, UofT]
Cary Wu [Sociology, York University]
Yolanda Zhang [Faculty of Information, UofT]
Tracy Ying Zhang [Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, Concordia University]