I had the uncanny sense of reading science fiction when I began Blockchain Chicken Farm—technically a work of nonfiction, thoroughly researched and intricately pieced together. On the surface, it’s a mind-boggling survey of how technology is shaping and creating economies across China, particularly in its countryside. Or as author Xiaowei Wang writes, inverting that influencer-influencee trope: “Rather than seeing the way technology has shifted or produced new livelihoods in rural China, I have been humbled to see the ways rural China fuels the technology we use every day, around the world.”
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In the book’s loose travelogue framework, we find ourselves in unexpected places. There’s Dinglou village, which has improbably transformed itself into a global costume manufacturing hub, with family homes doubling as fulfillment centers. In the namesake “blockchain chicken farm,” located in the mountainous village of Sanqiao, we’re introduced to a supply chain that provides for affluent urbanites, who view online videos to verify the authenticity of their free-range poultry. There’s even the virtual space of Facebook Live pearl parties, where prepaid oysters from the “pearl city” of Zhuji are pried open to reveal their treasures—a more surreal, celebratory version of YouTube unboxing videos. If Blockchain reads like sci-fi, that’s because, in overlooked parts of the world, the future is already here. I can’t think of any other recent work that comes close to capturing the alternate reality that is China today.
As our narrator, Wang is generous with hyperspecific details, while periodically zooming out to give us the fuller picture. They are a writer, artist, and programmer, as well as the creative director of Logic magazine. Recently I spoke with them over email about their travels, the concept of shanzhai, Chinese dishes, skincare gadgetry, and shopping.
Ling Ma: This book spans a great deal of territory, both geographically and in its wide range of subjects. How did you realize that all of these belonged in the same book?
Xiaowei Wang: The subjects and places throughout the book have a mood that I like to term “modernity gone off the rails.” For example, Dinglou village was a boomtown—it had developed really fast, from farmland to a bustling center. Dinglou and the neighboring village had high-speed internet, lots of money flowing in, hot pot restaurants, but at the same time large craters on the side of the road and some really bizarre, uncomfortable interior architecture. The buildings had been constructed to aspire to some image of being “cosmopolitan” or “modern,” but falling short in an absurd way. There were dazzling light fixtures and shiny granite floors at the hotel where I stayed, but no hot water for a good chunk of the day.
“Modernity gone off the rails” is, to me, the combination of mundane and inspiring, the absurd and creative. It connects people on opposite sides of the world in unexpected ways that remain hidden to them, most of the time. It’s a little punk rock. It’s the messiness that happens in the day-to-day while both learning to live in an interconnected, technologically rich world and at the same time pushing against the prescribed instruction manual. It’s also a willfulness, to keep hustling, keep trying, whether you’re a young pearl entrepreneur in Zhuji or a Facebook livestreamer involved in a multilevel marketing scheme.
I’m reminded of what happens in user testing digital products: As a designer, you find that there’s always surprising ways people use the product, that exceed what you intended, perhaps against all your safeguards or instructions. This kind of friction troubles some of our desires for a frictionless world. To me, the friction points to how so much of the objects and tools are actually the result of this large-scale fiction we’ve all built up, together. Some of the rural folks I met were encountering this fiction for the first time, which meant that they could see through the made-up rules of markets, of socially acceptable ways of achieving success, in a way that I couldn’t.
Were there any travels as part of your research that weren’t included?
There were a lot of places and encounters that didn’t make it into the book because they had already become frictionless, linear, subsumed seamlessly into global capitalism. For example, I visited a chili processing town, which was fascinating for the spectacle, but otherwise had fairly standard procedures that you’d see anywhere. I also visited countless other villages, centered around both tourism and ecommerce, where their economic development plans had been well thought through and weren’t drastically different than a lot of places throughout North America and Europe.
I found your approach in explaining shanzhai, the derogatory Cantonese term for knockoff goods, really illuminating. Countering the notion that knockoffs are inherently subpar, you posit that the open source nature of technological shanzhai actually makes it the site of innovation. (It reminded me of how, in the early days of Apple, their offerings were initially intended to be open source and more collaborative.) You write, “Outside the well-funded confines of places like Silicon Valley, for the rest of the world that can’t afford $400 3D-modeling software or $300 phones that can be repaired only by experts, shanzhai is desperately needed. How can you even begin to innovate if you can’t afford the tools needed for innovation?” Did you always see shanzhai in this light?
Definitely not! My views around shanzhai started changing after a work trip to Mongolia. It’s a country that has a long-standing tradition of nomadic herding. Its economy is now driven by foreign mineral mining companies, accompanied by new issues like urbanization, lack of infrastructure, and informal settlements. International development organizations would go in and bring all kinds of tech with them, from 3D printers to cleverly designed latrines. When I talked to people living in the new, informal settlements, many of them expressed suspicion toward these development agencies. They said the organizations would come in with some opaque technology, leave, and if the tech broke, they felt like they had nowhere to turn for repairs. They were forced to rely on external orgs for objects they didn’t design or build. Once the development orgs got their pictures of new tech “doing good” out in Mongolia, the orgs didn’t seem to care what the long-term sustainability was.
This stood in stark contrast with my time in Shenzhen, seeing how products were changed and manufactured so swiftly in response to specific needs, alongside the sheer international diversity of entrepreneurs and business people (many of whom were not from North America or Europe) wandering the electronics markets.
While working in tech, I saw a big emphasis on how great the open source movement was, for its ethos and increasing accessibility. But at the time, I never considered shanzhai to be open source. My firsthand experiences, alongside reading work on shanzhai from Andrew “Bunnie” Huang, David Li, Silvia Lindtner, and Lara Houston, made me rethink why the same practices in one setting are called open source, and in another setting are called piracy.
Punctuated throughout Blockchain Chicken Farm are recipes with fantastical, sci-fi premises. One recipe calls for “moon-maize meal” as an ingredient, purportedly from corn grown on the moon. Why the inclusion of recipes? And why the sprinkling of fiction in an otherwise nonfiction book?
As someone who writes about China for an American audience, fantasy and sci-fi are always palpable. One person’s sci-fi, one person’s apocalypse is already another person’s day-to-day. There’s a lot of American tech writing about China that is filled with fantasies about authoritarianism and hypercapitalism rather than fact, despite being nonfiction. I wanted to play with that kind of tension, to subvert it. There’s the imagined authoritarian state, and then there’s the everyday taste of it.
Speculation and fiction point not only to the ways our reality is taken for granted but also to our own limits in imagining a future. In these speculative recipes, I kind of fantasize, well, what would the continuation of hypercapitalism with Chinese characteristics taste like? The recipes were intended to be playful, to encourage the reader to inhabit a world in which the recipes might be real. They’re easy to make, although the mooncakes are time-consuming. I want people to try the recipes, to really think through ideas like arable land shortages and expansionist moon agriculture by engaging physically, through cooking. Maybe they’ll start to see ingredients at the supermarket with greater awe and marvel—it a pretty incredible set of systems that allow us to have kiwis from New Zealand, salmon from Norway all in one place.
Which real-life dishes inspired you in concocting these recipes?
Most of them are based on real-life Chinese dishes, with the exception of the AI porridge. That recipe was cobbled together from recommendations by my Chinese herbalist. Whenever I tell her I’m thinking too much or stressed out, she always blames my liver or digestion as the real problem. It’s such a provocatively different way of understanding where thinking comes from, compared to the role of the brain in cybernetics and AI research. Anyway, she likes to prescribe qi-nourishing herbs, which I started to incorporate into porridge. The rice helps soften the taste of the herbs.
I appreciated that the instructions were entirely feasible. The AI porridge reminded me of a sticky rice my mother used to make, with goji berries and dates. On a different topic, I wanted to talk about shopping, addressed in the latter chapters, which glimpses the future of Chinese manufacture. This is a twofold question: What is your favorite recent purchase? And what would you say is the most desirous purchasable item, material or otherwise, that’s “made in China”?
My most favorite recent purchase is a bit embarrassing. I’ve been binge-watching a lot of K-Drama during shelter-in-place and recently purchased a face massager that was featured in Crash Landing on You, a story of forbidden love between a North Korean soldier and South Korean chaebol heiress. The face massager uses audible, pulsating electronic shocks and flashing lights. When you clean your face, it feels like you’re in a cyborg dance club.
The most desirous purchasable item that’s “made in China” … it’s hard to say! There’s so many fascinating objects out there, whether it’s a UV-blocking Facekini or a Bluetooth Winnie the Pooh karaoke mic. However, right now, the most desirous item is ordering Chongqing-style hot pot at a restaurant. To have hot pot with friends and family at a restaurant, sharing microbes and food, being able to mix your own sauce from the epic sauce bar available at hot pot restaurants, feels very lavish. Seeing pictures of friends and family eating hot pot at restaurants in other countries that have done a good job of controlling Covid has made me feel extremely envious. It’s a reminder that individual consumption means nothing without collective action.
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