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October 7, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright October 7, 2008 Charles W. Hayford. Used by permission.


My name is Charles and I’m a Wikipedia addict.

I can’t help myself, but then, neither can 75,000 other “active contributors.” We don’t just look things up: we create articles, correct and introduce mistakes, send each other notes, and fuss over issues great and obscure. Anonymity lends a carnival air of freedom and community since, as the famous New Yorker cartoon had it, “on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog” (and yes, the link is to a Wikipedia article).

Wikipedia is an internet galactic cloud of information. Nicholson Baker, who once crankily lamented the end of the library card catalogue, in a review of John Broughton’s Wikipedia: The Missing Manual (NY Review March 20, 2008), calls it “just an incredible thing.” It’s “fact-encirclingly huge, and it’s idiosyncratic, careful, messy, funny, shocking, and full of simmering controversies—and it’s free, and it’s fast.” Wikipedia, he says, is the “convergence between the self-taught and the expensively educated.”

What’s in it for China folk? In the near future we will have at least three major print encyclopedias of China, so now is a good time to ask how Wikipedia stacks up, especially for those of us who are teachers.

The lures are obvious. Where else can you so quickly find a list of six translations ofLiaozhai Zhiyi, Zhu Yuanzhang’s birthday, chopstick etiquette in four Asian countries, or not quite enough about postage stamps and postal history of China? Even weak articles often have supplementary internet links which make them worthwhile. You can find the translation of a current or tricky term by locating it in the English Wikipedia, then clicking on the link (at the left side of the page) to the article in the Chinese Wikipedia.