'Fake news' is nothing new

June 24, 2019 18:10
A file picture depicts a photo exhibition marking the 120th anniversary of the First Sino-Japanese War, in Shengyang in July 2014. The ‘fake-news’ phenomenon during and after the 1894-95 war bears resemblance to the internet hoaxes we see now. Pic: Xinhua

US President Donald Trump has given currency to the term “fake news”, a jab on the media that has now become widely known to people around the world.

But the phrase is nothing new, nor is the United States the first country to witness the rise of the “fake news” controversy.

As a matter of fact, during the first Sino-Japanese War between 1894 and 1895, fake news about which side lost and which side won ran rife in both the Qing Empire and Japan as a form of state-sponsored and non-state-sponsored war propaganda.

Two years ago, a mainland academic known as Chen Xubin told a seemingly sensational story: for a long period of time, the late Jiang Menglin, a prominent scholar during the Kuomintang reign in the mainland, was actually under the impression that China had won the first Sino-Japanese War, when the truth is exactly the opposite.

What had given rise to such a false impression was the paintings produced by late-Qing artists in the community that were all the rage at that time.

In those days of the Qing dynasty, illiteracy was still pretty common among the mainland population, particularly in villages. Given that, most people could only learn about what was going on in the outside world through paintings and images.

The problem is, paintings and images didn’t necessarily tell the truth.

It is because the Qing government was imposing rigorous censorship on the news about the war with Japan, not least out of concerns about domestic stability.

As a result, many painters themselves were under the impression that the mighty Qing Empire had beaten the Japanese hollow, when the truth is actually the other way around.

Also, even though the media industry in major coastal trade hubs like Shanghai was already quite thriving, and was providing authentic news coverage of the war, the vast majority of Chinese people just couldn’t believe that the “Celestial Empire” would be defeated by the tiny and inferior Japan.

And such a popular myth about China’s might among the general public automatically translated into huge market demand for war paintings that depicted the Qing empire’s victory, although many painters had perhaps learned through the newspapers that both the Qing army and navy were crushed by the Japanese.

The “fake-news” phenomenon during and after the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War bears a striking resemblance to the rampant internet hoaxes we see these days.

After all, people tend to only believe in what they want to believe out of their collective social consciousness, no matter whether it is in the past or in the present.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 11

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal