The Evolution of the Chinese Internet: Creative Visibility in the Digital Public

by Guo Shaohua, Stanford University Press, 2021, 328 pp.
Hardcover, $90.00; Paperback, $30.00; Ebook, $27.50. ISBN: 9781503613775

In the past two decades, Chinese society has witnessed the proliferation of internet services and integration of an increasing number of people into the cyber world. Internet access has transformed from the privilege of academics and social elites to ordinary people’s basic right. It is reported that “the population of China’s internet users has reached 1 billion, accounting for one in five of the world’s users, while less than 30 percent of them earn 5,000 yuan ($774) and above monthly.”i The popularization of Internet access and multiplication of the netizen population has contributed to a burgeoning digital culture in China. Shaohua Guo’s newest monograph, The Evolution of the Chinese Internet, provides a panoramic narrative of the transformation of internet services and its correlation with the advancement of Chinese digital culture since the mid-1990s.

Chapter 1 starts with historical background on the 1990s, when postsocialist Chinese society experienced an unprecedented cultural transformation. The emergence of the Chinese internet at this time encountered tensions between censorship and freedom. Guo provides an overview of the history of the Chinese internet and periodizes it by the evolution of Internet platforms, from the bulletin board system (BBS; chapters 2 and 3) and blogging (chapters 4 and 5) to Weibo/WeChat (chapter 6 and 7). The dynamics in the format and content of digital culture correspond with the progression of these platforms.

Chapter 2 goes on to examine the early history of Chinese digital popular culture preceding the blossom of internet celebrities in the 2010s. Ranging from “handcrafted” internet fandoms in the late 1990s to the “manufactured” internet celebrity in the late 2000s, Guo demonstrates their shared mockery and derision. In Guo’s words, “the predominant fun-seeking mode among early netizens has exerted a profound impact on the Internet industry's continuous experiments with comedic mechanisms” (61). This is succeeded by Guo’s endeavor to bridge the origin and later development of Internet culture in China. She contends that “early netizens’ emphasis on absurdity, comic sensibility, and excessive sentimentality in everyday life lays the groundwork for the predominant mode of playfulness online, which then paved the way for the sensational rise of Furong Jiejie, the first Internet celebrity in China” (60). Following the first phase of Chinese digital culture embedded in the development of BBS, chapter 4 explores the transformation of cultural production and its intermingling with the evolution of the entertainment industry in the age of blogging. Exemplified in the micro-conflict events surrounding Mu Zimei’s sex diaries and Han Han’s public intellectual writings, Chinese social activists made use of blogging platforms to express their voices and dissent. Parallel to the production of mocking fandoms and the perversion of popular sentiment in cyberspace, Chinese digital culture in the first decade of the new millennium was also characterized at times by intense intervention from the government.

In the 2010s, microblog site Weibo and WeChat messenger gradually took the place of blogging to become the most popular digital platforms in China. In accordance with the innovation and evolution in technology and format, the contents of information underwent a great transformation featuring microcultural contention and digital witnessing.

After examining the interplay between the evolution of platforms and content producers on the Chinese internet, chapter 8 sums up this book’s main arguments. Taking a materialist approach to the evolution of digital culture in China, Guo underlines the complicated interplays between technology, format, and content. “The development of the four platforms traced in this book demonstrates, in microcosm, how emerging new applications constantly alter the market, as well as how older applications must continuously reinvent themselves to remain competitive” (233). This point is prominently embodied in the evolution of digital platforms from BBS to blogs. As Guo articulates, “If the emergence of BBS in the late 1990s spearheaded the forming of a new public culture characterized by collectivism, egalitarianism, and autonomy, then the mounting number of bloggers in the new millennium demonstrates how individual expression, sociality, and commercialism have become increasingly integrated into Internet users' everyday lives” (30).

Guo successfully undertakes an insightful and impressive investigation of the Chinese Internet and digital culture over the past two decades. She makes significant  contributions to academic discussion on the trajectory of the internet and digital public culture in contemporary Chinese society. Still, while reading this book, I was concerned about its title’s reference to the “Chinese Internet.” Despite the innate cross-border feature of the internet in advocating for Marshall McLuhan's “global village” thesis of the 1960s, the exacerbation of internet censorship in China has (re)built a Great Wall in the village. Consequently, the “Chinese Internet” is on its way to being disconnected from the outside world. Curiously, Chinese people overseas, especially exchange students, played important roles in the development of the BBS-based digital culture in the early 1990s. Guo pays adequate attention to the importance of BBS in the early history of the Chinese Internet. "Given that the development of the Internet in China began with a number of leading universities, the first cohort of Chinese netizens, in the late 1990s, consisted mainly of college students, researchers, and urban professionals” (27). Prior to the inauguration of the Tsinghua BBS in 1995, Chinese students in North America founded the two websites, New Digest (which then changed to its current name China News Digest) and New Threads, which then transformed from online magazines to BBS. The digital diaspora since the late 1980s also contributed to the early development of Chinese Internet culture. Overall, Guo’s insights on the transformation and trajectory of the online culture and digital public in China sincerely furthers researchers’ understanding of the Chinese Internet. This volume reveals the progression and proliferation of Chinese digital culture in the past few decades.

Shu Wan, University at Buffalo


i  Global Times, “China's Internet User Population Reaches 1 Billion, One-Fifth of Global Figure: CNNIC Survey,” Global Times, February 3, 2021,