Luigi Tomba: Insights into The China Story

Luigi Tomba is a Senior Fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) and co-editor of its online magazine, The China Story. He was born and raised in Italy and also speaks fluent German and Mandarin. We were stoked to meet him in Canberra for a chat on The China Story, co-operation with sinonerds, and why we’re called sinonerds in the first place!

sinonerds: First off, Luigi: What is The China Story is and how was it created?

Luigi: The China Story is what I would call the public face of the Australian Centre on China in the World. It’s a project we have started two years ago with the intention of presenting sophisticated research in a way that is easy to understand and accessible for most people. It’s not about dumbing down the content of our research but rather about expressing it in ways that are familiar and accessible.

What does the name The China Story imply?

Luigi

Luigi in Berlin

We were inspired by the fact that there have been a number of calls to tell the “stories” of China in a better way. These stories are told by many voices, and considering our centre’s broad disciplinary interests, we thought we are in a perfect position to contribute to tell a whole range of stories. We do a number of things in The China Story: There is The China Story Journal, which someone else might call a blog. While similar to a blog, it is more like a ‘quotidian account’ of events, ideas and people of interest concerning a variety of different topics generally contemporary and contingent. Then we have a section called Thinking China, which is more about the ways in which different issues are viewed by Chinese thinkers and intellectuals. We also have profiles of important Chinese intellectuals, and we have something that we call the Lexicon.

The Lexicon is a collection – and it’s still growing – of long entries on key terms or expressions that present a variety of opinions on significant issues like the environment, Xinjiang, human rights etc. We try to present a balanced set of information and a list of publicly available sources that represent both the Chinese official view on certain issues and some of the more “dissonant” views, if you want. These entries are similar to long essays that allow students and journalists who want to start writing about a certain topic to have a comprehensive view of what the issue is all about.

Can anyone write for The China Story?

We are open to anyone. We hope that the things that we published so far are going to be a good guide for people who want to publish, in terms of quality of the research, the originality of the arguments and also in terms of the quality of the language. Even if it’s an online publication, it’s edited very heavily. If anyone wanted to bring something to us, my first suggestion would be to avoid jargon. Try to use forms that are not to convoluted, and to present interesting and not too wordy arguments unless it’s necessary. Geremie Barmé is going to cast his eye! His editorial skills are well-known to everyone else here in the centre. But that’s the service we provide: We’re willing to work with good ideas and turn them into good articles.

Besides your editor-in-chief, Geremie Barmé, how many editors are there? Who is The China Story run by?

Commander-in-chief! (laughs) Well there are at least three people who are involved in it. It’s hosted by our collaborators Danwei – danwei.org might be familiar to a few readers – in Beijing. So Jeremy Goldkorn is involved, as are Elisa Nesossi and Paul Farrelly here in the CIW, and Gloria Davis in Melbourne as well. These are the main people behind it, but everyone here in the centre (CIW) is aware of it and uses it as an outlet for new ideas and initiatives, or simply reports of significant events. So yeah, that’s our team.

SINONERDS is a project based in Germany and we’re mostly working on cultural exchange between China, Taiwan and Germany. How can The China Story and SINONERDS co-operate?

CIW Eingang

CIW in Canberra

It’s always been an idea of The China Story project to branch out as much as possible and work with other, similar initiatives. We always wanted to collaborate with online publications and blogs in other languages. The CIW tries to break some of the collaborative barriers that sometimes separate Australia from Europe. Australian academia traditionally has very strong ties to institutions in the US and the UK, but for various reasons not very strong ties with institutions that work in other languages, like German, Italian, Spanish.

And, especially as we come from a Sinological background, we do believe there is a different contribution that comes to the study of China in other countries. So exposing the ideas and the things that we do to a European audience is very important to us. We’d be very interested in receiving contributions to The China Story project that are non-academic, like opinion pieces from scholars in Europe. So if you have something really interesting that you think should be translated and published in The China Story, we hope you will help us do that.

Sure, that sounds great! …

(Luigi asking curiously) Why did you call it SINONERDS? That would be an interesting question.

That was actually quite funny. There were four of us friends and we were all studying Chinese. We had this grand idea of creating a community where everybody could share their experiences and opinions on China. So the idea was there, we just didn’t know what to call it. And then we decided to have a brainstorming session with all four of us where we were trying to find a name. We came up with a few, but in the end we decided for SINONERDS, because “sino” relates to both China and Taiwan. And “nerds” came in there because that’s what we are. We are fascinated by China and want to share this fascination with other people, but we don’t want to sound like a full-on serious academic journal. And the name stuck both in English and German. Now we can use “sinonerds” both as a brand and as name to call ourselves and our contributors.

…but you ended up using an English name.

That’s true, but it works in both languages. In German we say “zeenonerds” and in English it’s simply sinonerds. The word nerds is just as common in German as in English.

Maybe just a few closing words on The China Story Yearbook. What is it and how should one use it? 

Yearbook

2013 Yearbook

The China Story Yearbook is an actual book, a summary of our reflections on China’s last 12 months. It’s carefully edited and designed. The editors (for 2014 they will be Geremie Barmé, Linda Jaivin and Jeremy Goldkorn) decide on a title and a narrative that represents the major developments of the year and reflects our research. Almost everyone at the centre contributes essays from their specific disciplinary perspectives.

The 2014 volume will be called “Shared Destiny”, as a reference to Xi Jinping’s references to a “community of shared destiny” in its approach to international affairs. It contains our analysis of what’s been happening in the last twelve months and so it’s not simply a collection of data or information. It’s a reading that will bring you up to speed with current topics through a number of chapters that tie together different debates.

It’s our assessment on the major discussions in society, the economy and politics, as well as the humanities and the arts in China. And clearly, this year it will be much about the tightening up of Xi Jinping’s power and the political, economic and social consequences this is having. My own modest contribution will be on the increasing role Chinese consumers are playing in the rest of the world.

The yearbook has a physical incarnation but it’s also available for free download in all e-formats. I would suggest reading the whole thing, even from the first page to the last… But one can choose to only download certain chapters. We will also use it as a supplementary source for our master’s courses from next year, especially for the course that we call “China – The Big Questions”, which is a course about all the public debates that are constantly taking place around China. But we’re not dogmatic about how to use it. We simply hope it contributes to debates and public awareness about the significance of things Chinese.

Many thanks, Luigi, for this insightful interview! 

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Lewe Paul

Lewe hat Chinastudien an der Freien Universität Berlin studiert und in Australien einen Master in Asia Pacific Studies gemacht. Er ist begeistert von der chinesischen Sprache, liebt Taiwan und lebt zurzeit in Berlin.

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