China Beat has a post up from Kate Merkel-Hess on the latest evolution of the “human flesh search engine”, which can be described as Chinese netizens tracking down and harassing (both on the net and in real life) those who offend them either by being ostentatiously rich or insufficiently patriotic or whatever. Merkel-Hess looks at Tim Brook’s Confusions of Pleasure and compares this to the reactions to commercially-fueled insecurity in the Ming. While that is a fine comparison, I think we might also look at the Search Engine as an example of rough music.
Rough music is a concept mostly associated with E.P. Thompson.1 Thompson defines it as “a rude cacophony, with or without more elaborate ritual, which usually directed mockery or hostility against individuals who offended against certain community norms.” The ritual varied a lot, but usually included a mob and lots of noise, the malefactor being carried out of town on a pole (riding the stang) burning someone in effigy, a mock hunt and/or reciting rhymes, often obscene.
If the gun should happen to miss
We’ll scald him to death with a barrel o’ red-hot piss”
Those punished might be guilty of some sort of commercial fraud or failure to support their fellow workers, but enforcing sexual boundaries was also common, especially against women who overstepped their bounds.
It is but a riding, used of course
When the old grey mare’s the better horse;
When o’er the breeches greedy women
Fight, to extend their vast dominion
Although these punishments were not imposed by the state they have a complex relationship with official power. In the sexual cases the masses were enforcing rules that might have once been enforced by the church. Their rituals were often parodies of state actions and also attempted to borrow their power. While the more traditional forms of rough music died out as the close-knit communities who’s judgment they represented vanished bits and pieces of rough music found their way into modern forms of communal violence including “rites of public humiliation practiced during the Cultural Revolution”.
Looking at the search engine as rough music makes some parts of it more understandable. One is that the sheer level of invective hurled at the target is not just a pointless add-on to the ‘real’ punishment, but the main part of the ritual humiliation of the subject. This humiliation is less effective than older forms however, since the humiliation is not face to face, and thus has to be extended into meatspace by some sort of action. This to me makes the purpose of denunciation more the joy or empowerment the denounces get from it. The case Merkel-Hess discusses is a greedy rich young woman who turns out not to have been invented just to be denounced. In the case of rough music most effigies were those of actual people, but here we have a virtual effigy of the spoiled rich girl. And of course she is female, which of course makes her being rich a sexual transgression as well. In the case of denunciation of those who are insufficiently patriotic it is pretty obvious that the search engine is extending the reach of the state, but then by going after the rich they are expressing popular discontent with modernization and state policies.
While Chinese rough music is clearly not part of traditional rural society it is part of a society with lots of web access and lots of people with too much time on their hands and a pretty homogeneous culture. I suspect Thompson will get some cites whenever the first dissertation on the search engine comes out, probably in around 2013
The use of E.P.Thompson’s concept of “rough music” as a tool to help explain the online behaviors of many of China’s netizens is fascinating, and one that I think is useful. But surely this is a global phenomenon, is it not? Thompson draws his examples from 19th century England, but the use of the internet as a modern medium to create “rough music” is hardly unique to China.
Well, rough music was certainly a pan-European thing, and Thompson points to a lot of scholarship on it outside England. I’m not sure that there are that many good parallels to the contemporary Chinese search engine however. Certainly there are on-line denunciations of malefactors elsewhere, but they tend not to spill into real life. Real-life actions are probably organized on the internet, but I think the thing that makes the Chinese version unique is that it is balanced between the virtual and the real, with both parts being essential. In the same way rough music was balanced between mockery and actual punishment with both parts being essential and the dividing line between them often deliberately obscured.
Thanks for the clarification Alan. What you say makes plenty of sense to me.
Fascinating connection to draw, perhaps especially to those of us, myself included, who became historians partly because of how inspiring we found E.P. Thompson’s work…Another scholar whose work on Europe I’ve found continually interesting to return to when thinking about China (or any place), Natalie Davis, has also written interestingly on “charivari” (a form of rough music), and Americanists have analyzed parallels in the U.S. past to the phenomena Thompson and Davis describe. The transnational character of Internet “rough music” (the instanteneous links between actions by actors based on opposite sides of the Pacific is certainly novel)…