“Chinese Whispers”? The “China” that Disappears from Lossy Communications

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In 1949, Bell Lab mathematician Claude Shannon modeled telephone communication by assigning statistic regularity to the rather irregular usage of human language. His lab mate Warren Weaver took a step further, putting the novel Alice in Wonderland through a translation machine in pursuit of a unified form of intercultural communication. Amidst the ideological polarities of the Cold War, this rationalist pursuit was idealistic. Yet today it still guides the scholarly approach to intercultural communication. This approach to data analysis poses a problem: the corporate sector simply has far superior systems of aggregating data and manipulating information, while individual academics would either have to ally with the world’s most popular social media or be forever trapped in isolation and by deficits. My work, on the contrary, focuses on the advantages of studying deficits. It questions why and how details are deliberately stripped out, why and how experience is transformed into algorithmic power, all for creating the impression of mere “data.”

This dissertation has two main objectives, one inwardly focused, the other outwardly oriented: first, to create a dialogue between literary studies and media studies through discussions of informational loss; second, to shift the narrow focus of North American and German media theory by drawing broadly on the material history of literature, media, and art from modern and contemporary China. China studies, a field born out of Cold War contexts in the West, have thus far developed under the growing pressure to track the particularities of this cultural other like China, without paying much attention to what documents are doing to a history rife with deliberately omitted information. This dissertation rectifies this mistreatment of lost details. Targeting communication scholar Marshall McLuhan’s provocation that “the medium is the message,” we may say that what is missing is the message; preserving what is missing in a cultural other end up making us not see China at all.

How do we approach objects that are opaque and always disappearing from view? This study locates this issue at the intersection of media theory and literary theory through reviewing key historical moments in both fields: this study examines the archival compression of the historical figure and the corpus called “Lu Xun” (1881-1936) to rethink the destructive role of print media in constructing Chinese modernity; returns to the industrial production of “books to lose” in the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) to rethink the inevitable, functional bias of preservation in historiography; reviews the 1980s’ indulgence in a kind of “information fetishism” to reveal that opacity, too, can be a political ideal; and evaluates the claim of China’s 5G and AI “authoritarian networks” to expose the problematic metaphors of informatics. Each of the four chapters draws on literary and artistic texts, including Lu Xun’s untranslated essays (chapter 1), Yan Lianke’s fictional historiographies (chapter 2), Liu Cixin’s politicized science fiction (chapter 3), and emerging media arts in China (chapter 4). Referring to what tends to be hidden by acts of collecting, what becomes opaque, and what gets erased when the technological context is neglected, I borrow the term “lossy” from computer science. This term circumvents the notion of history based on static archives and their imaginary solidity. Interweaving two distinct threads of exposition (media studies and literature), this dissertation provides a multi-fold narrative about history, politics, and China.






Cao, Xuenan (2021). “Chinese Whispers”? The “China” that Disappears from Lossy Communications. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/23133.


Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.