Chinarrative Wants to Bring Greater Depth, More Personality to China Stories

Last May, I spent five weeks traveling across China in the back of a sports utility vehicle.

It was part of a giant project for the Shanghai-based, English-language publication Sixth Tone that dispatched journalists to follow an imaginary line — the Hu Line — from Yunnan province in the southwest to Heilongjiang province in the northeast.

The Hu Line is named after the Chinese demographer, Hu Huanyong, who first imagined the line that cuts the country diagonally in 1935. It divides China along several dimensions, including population, geology, climate and ethnicity.

Chinese demographer Hu Huanyong

The time spent traveling the nation was one of the main highlights of my decades-long journalistic career — right up there with covering the military coup in Thailand in 2006, or the violent return from exile of Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto in 2007.

My Hu Line experience taught me firsthand what we really mean when we speak of “untold stories.” As we crisscrossed the country, we stopped off in villages and towns along the way, striking up conversations with locals, listening to their stories, learning about their lives and the challenges they face.

The experience taught me so much about China — the staggering diversity of the country and the magnitude of problems some of its people face, including grinding poverty and lack of access to adequate education or healthcare facilities. It was a chance to experience aspects of China that very few foreigners see. Arguably, my time traveling the Hu Line allowed me to see aspects of the country that even many Chinese people don’t get to see.

If we stop to think about media coverage of China against this backdrop, then it seems painfully obvious that international coverage of what is indisputably the fastest emerging economy and political force in the world barely scratches the surface. There are many reasons why coverage is insufficient or lacking in some way.

On the one hand, foreign media organizations are highly constrained in their ability to do justice to the China story. Most organizations face resource crunches with declining revenues and growing costs making it ever harder to maintain overseas bureaus that are staffed properly. In addition, decisions around story selection are often colored by the need to address the interests of the publication’s “home market.” This means, for example, a U.S. publication feels compelled to cover the acquisition of an American food manufacturer by a Chinese entity in a bid to satisfy its American readers. While such a story might be perfectly valid, covering it means other, potentially more significant stories about China are ignored.

China also has its own English-language media, either state-owned or backed in some form with Chinese government money. These organizations, including broadcaster CGTN and the China Daily, have more resources and can send reporters to the remotest corners of the country in pursuit of stories. Yet such outlets typically have a strong mandate: to tell China’s story in the most positive light. (Sixth Tone belongs to Shanghai United Media Group, a local-government backed entity.)

A woman walks past Erhai Lake near Dali, Yunnan province

So what might be an alternative? That’s what I’m hoping to address as part of Chinarrative, my new venture. Since I arrived at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism in mid-January, I’ve been working on building this China-focused storytelling platform that I believe will expand and improve coverage of China by delivering a more varied, informative, and engaging picture of contemporary life in the world’s most populous country that’s also independent. The goal is to foster deeper understanding and provide valuable insights to readers.

Chinarrative is a work in progress and one that I’m hoping I can build in collaboration with readers. In the coming weeks, I will be launching a newsletter that will offer a nod to the types of stories that will be featured on the platform. By starting small, I hope to slowly build up a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

My plan is to tap the growing pool of in-depth reportage that is currently being published in Chinese. These include long-form stories from publications such as Bingdian, Zhongwu, and Sixth Tone’s sister publication, the Paper. The boom in nonfiction writing in Chinese has been staggering, yet few of these fascinating stories ever make it to the international stage.

One of the main goals of Chinarrative is to bring these stories — stories that Chinese people are telling themselves about their country — to the international arena. By so doing, I hope to offer a service to readers that brings them deep into the China storytelling landscape without having to master Chinese. Even for bilingual readers, the translations will make it easier to read a wider range of stories in a more efficient and engaging way.

In addition to reportage, Chinarrative will also bring translated personal essays, written originally in Chinese, to the English-speaking word. Most of these essays initially will come through collaboration with Shanghai-based China30s.com, a publishing and training platform that promotes nonfiction writing and citizen journalism.

These stories will be accounts of ordinary Chinese people who are not professional journalists or writers but have extraordinary stories to tell. By creating a platform for bringing these stories into the English-language world, Chinarrative aims to play its part in bringing fresh, personal and diverse voices to readers around the world.

Finally, Chinarrative will also feature stories by Chinese people or people connected to China that are originally written in English. Some of these may have been published elsewhere already — if that’s the case, then Chinarrative hopes to add value by seeking out the best of these little-circulated stories and sharing them with a wider audience. Also there will be original stories commissioned by Chinarrative. For example, we’re currently working on a series of stories that examine the lives of some of the Chinese diaspora who work or live along New York’s iconic Fifth Avenue.

We’re also exploring business models. A paid membership approach is appealing because it also speaks to our goal of creating a platform for the exchange of meaningful insights from and among members. Other revenue streams may include journalism skills and creative nonfiction writing training for budding storytellers in China. Further, we’ll explore how we might apply lessons learned in content strategy to help companies, organizations and institutions in China communicate better and in more compelling ways with their customers and other stakeholders.

We’re excited about building something new and doing it in a way that actively incorporates feedback from our reader community as we grow.

Please sign up for updates here. We’ll also continue to post our journey on Medium. Until next time!