“In this book, I will make and justify the following two claims: (1) There is no ontological difference between virtual reality and actual reality. (2) As co-creators of the virtual world, we—humankind as a whole—for the first time begin to live a systematically meaningful life.” (Zhai, 1998, p. xiv)
A few years ago, I read Philip Zhai’s Get Real: A Philosophical Adventure in Virtual Reality without knowing much about neither the book nor the author, just because Amazon’s recommendation algorithms decided that the text was relevant to my repeated search queries about the Internet in China. And the suggestion wasn’t that far off: Get Real is in fact one of the earliest English-language texts about computing written by a Chinese author.
Philip Zhai (翟振明 Zhai Zhenming in Mandarin) got his PhD in philosophy at the University of Kentucky in 1993 with a thesis on communicative rationality, has taught in American colleges during the following decade, and in the year 2000 has moved back to China, where he is currently Professor of Philosophy and Director for the Center of Virtual World Research at Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou. Get Real came out in 1998, and consists of a series of playful and dizzying inquiries into the ontological possibilities of virtual reality, one of the most prominent tech buzzwords of the time:
“We have to die regardless. But we can achieve immortality in a mitigated sense: our personhood as composed of meaning-complexes goes beyond the experiential contents of our life. Since VR makes us more creative, it also enables us to project a richer personhood beyond our lifetime. Cyberspace is therefore a habitat of humanitude. It will allow us to participate in a process of the ultimate re-creation of our entire civilization.” (Zhai, 1998, p. vii)
The reason for going back to Get Real once more wasn’t my interest in Chinese media theory nor a nostalgia for utopian theorizations of virtual reality – rather, it was because of GeoCities. I was doing research into the early years of Chinese homepage design, sifting through hundreds of pages created in the late nineties, taking screenshots and saving graphic elements, when I came across Athens/3328. As soon as I opened the “Virtual Reality, Philosophy, Cyberspace” HTML homepage preserved in the GeoCities archive, I knew I had found something familiar.
At some point in 1998, Philip Zhai set up a GeoCities homepage, dedicating it to the promotion of his newly-published book. “I built the page just for the sake of publicizing my book, with ignorable effect, of course,” he explains, with a hint of sarcasm, when I ask him about his website nearly two decades later. His homepage is welcoming, well-balanced, the Times New Roman body clearly readable on the smooth yellow background. “I did very little coding with html, basically I just used the templates provided by the system, plus some additional marking adjustment with simple html code,” prof. Zhai recalls.
Interspersing book excerpts, a few blurbs recommending the text, a table of contents and some links to additional materials, the page seems to be a strictly promotional affair fortuitously preserved in the GeoCities archive, a document of academic authorial practice in the late 1990s. But the homepage itself is unusually long, and as I scroll downwards, trying to follow all available links, my eyes are drawn by one underlined sentence placed near the bottom of the page:
“Read his poems in Chinese here!”
This unassuming link leads to “shi.html”, a light green page titled “Dreaming Attempts” (Meng de changshi), garnished by a looping GIF icon of a steamboat traveling down a river. Under it, a list of hyperlinks point to other pages called “Part1”, “Part2”, “Part3”, Part4”, Part5”, “English Part” and “Mountain and Voice”. I click on the first link and I land on “sh1.html”, where things get even more minimal: a programmatic title, “1. On Artistic Conception” (Yi, yijing pian), is inscribed on a monochromatic DOS-blue background.
Again, it’s a matter of scrolling. But this time, as I travel down the apparently immobile blue emptiness, I start to encounter short poems floating over the background, orderly configurations of white characters hovering across my 800×600 browser window with an irregular rhythm, without any paratext or context. There’s more than a dozen poems on each of the five HTML documents, yet prof. Zhai himself doesn’t immediately recall the existence of these pages:
“What poems are you talking about? I don’t think there were any poems in Chinese on the website. My poems on that page were not published anywhere else but are placed before the beginning of each chapter as printed in the book. Two poems in the book were composed in English directly, but others could be regarded as being translated from or based on the Chinese version. Can you show me which webpages are you referring to?”
When I show him the original-size screenshot collages of the five pages of poems I have meticulously put together, he remembers: “Oh yes, these are the ones in Chinese. A few of them have been published somewhere in China before. I remember I also placed some musical clips of me playing the Chinese instrument erhu on the website. I don’t know if you can still find that as well.” Unfortunately, the links to the audio clips of prof. Zhai’s erhu playing are broken, but the dozens of poems scattered across his website testify to his passion for poetry, which is also timidly used as a philosophical example in the pages of Get Real:
“If everyone else wanted to become a millionaire and set that as the goal of life, but I alone set it as my goal to become a published poet, then the only measure of my success is whether I have published at least one poem. Suppose it ends up that everybody else has published a poem but none of them has become a millionaire despite all of their effort, but I have happened to make a few millions yet published not a single poem despite all my effort, neither I nor anyone else has succeeded.” (Zhai, 1988, p. 133)
Besides the five long scroll-like pages and a collection of his English-language poems, the last link, “Mountain and Voice”, points to a shorter page, “shan.html”, sporting a peculiar bright red background and a yellow font, hosting a single poem titled “山” (Shan, ‘Mountain’). The geometric arrangement of the poem plays on the ideographic nature of the山 character to hint at the shape of a mountain in the empty space between the verses. In my rough attempt at translation into English, the poem reads:
Spectacular Empty danger
Abandoned clothes No falling back
Clouds around its waist Clinging to the horizon
Prof. Zhai offers some precious insight into the process of composition of this specific poem: “山 was first composed directly on word processor and placed on the web before being printed on paper,” he recalls, and the formatting options offered by the software played an important part in the creative process, as they allowed precise choices of spacing: “The architectonic consideration for the visual aesthetic effect was one of the motivating factors of my composition.”
With the permission of the author, I have carefully converted the five long-form pages of poetry from Philip Zhai’s GeoCities homepage into composite image files, preserving their original proportions when viewed on an older version of Firefox at a resolution of 800×600 pixels. In their printed form, inadvertently referencing the traditional Chinese hanging scroll format and kindly produced by the GeoCities Research Institute, they are currently displayed in the Digital Folklore exhibition at HMKV Dortmund as an artwork titled “Philip Zhai: Read his poems in Chinese here!”.
Online poetry has been documented as a minor but thriving genre of literary production in China for at least a decade, and these pages collecting Philip Zhai’s compositions could be among the earliest examples of poetic production directly shaped by the technical constraints of online platforms and digital devices. When asked about the relationship between his philosophical engagement with the intricacies of virtual reality and his poetic production, Prof. Zhai minimizes the link: “I would say that there is no logical connection as such. But my poetry does have some vague connection to my idea of cyberspace as open-ended possibilities of continuity and separation, between unlimited numbers of units of positive and negative volumes.”
I doubt that my small effort in digital preservation will guarantee the “immortality in a mitigated sense” that prof. Zhai foresaw as a consequence of virtual reality. But as a trivial attempt at curatorial conservation of vernacular creativity, these printed webpages offer a partial glimpse into the first years of amateur web design in China, document the work of one of the earliest authors of Chinese digital poetry, and provide an example of the fundamental role of users as “co-creators of the virtual world” (Zhai, 1988, p. 2).