In the 13th century, the travels of an Italian merchant to China became the first best-seller in Europe – so fantastic did it seem that we could even describe a world so remote. Today, millions of new Marco Polos are interacting daily with unfamiliar places and people.

As globalisation brings more of us together across cultures and languages, we must invent new forms of education for the Marco Polos of today and tomorrow. Founded in 2011 and inspired by the multicultural fabric of Melbourne, Marco Polo Project exists in order to create new forms of cross-cultural education for schools, universities, businesses and communities, with a focus on connection, culture and communication.

The Marco Polo Project started a digital organisation promoting China literacy through peer-learning. Our first initiative was a website offering a selection of online writing from China formatted for non-Mandarin natives, with bilingual titles, tags, and author biographies – and inviting learners to practice their translation skills. Building on the knowledge and community assembled through this initial platform, we started developing offline events, including collaborative translation events, a Festival of digital literature, and cross-cultural engagement programs for schools and universities

This blog documents the progress of our organisation since its inception. On those pages, you can read what we did and who we did it with under our community, and you read how we operate and why we do what we do under our model.

You can also read through summaries of selected texts from the Chinese blogosphere to discover and understand China from inside – or look for more focused insights on aspects of China by exploring our Reading Threads.

In 2014, we organised the Marco Polo Festival of Digital Literature. This post, written four years after the event, aims to celebrate this key milestone in the development of Marco Polo Project, describe the key features of the event, and acknowledge those who supported us. For a stereo view, you can read through this post by co-director Hugh Davies.IMG_0499

Marco Polo Festival – the story

The Marco Polo Festival was born of a question: how has the Internet affected the way that people read, write and translate, in China and Australia? From the rise of digital literature to the emergence of collaborative translation platforms, and from the engagement of global audiences connected through social media to the rise of new linguistic and cultural norms in digitally mediated communities, this festival engaged with questions at the cutting edge of creative efforts, technological development and the new forms of collective experience.

The Festival was initially sparked as two distinct project: a mainly digital, distributed event, with panels in Beijing from Marco Polo Project – and a project to bring cutting-edge Chinese writers to Melbourne from LaTrobe University. Both projects aligned from the start and received funding from the Australia China Council – and eventually merged into one festival event, with two co-directors, Julien Leyre and Hugh Davies.

Marco Polo Festival – the event

Marco Polo Festival events

Engaging with new materials and a new medium called for an original approach to the design of the Festival. As such, we chose to run the Festival over one year, with a more intensive period of engagement over one week in Melbourne.

Prequel – early 2014

We lay the conceptual ground for the ideas discussed at the Festival in two public interventions:

  • a talk between Julien Leyre and Jiamin Zhao, founder of collaborative translation platform Yeeyan, as part of the 2014 Digital Writers Festival
  • a talk by Julien Leyre on ‘A Journey Through Digital China’ at Sydney Ideas.

We then kicked off community engagement by hosting a parallel translation event between Melbourne and Nanjing.

Translation tour – June 2014

As a way to engage a global audience, we took our ‘All-you-can-translate’ collaborative translation show on the road, and organised a Tour in June 2014, that took us to London, Leeds, Manchester, Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing, Chengdu, and Beijing.

We invited bilingual groups to translate texts related to our topic, English to Chinese and Chinese to English – poems from Yisha’s Anthology ‘Poems for the New Century’, essays on digital literature by cultural analyst Zhang Tianpan, twitter poems by Kate Larsen and essays on Australian culture by Mel Campbell.

Melbourne Festival – August 2014

The core of the Festival took the form of six coordinated events taking place over one week in Melbourne:

  • Two panels with Melbourne Writers Festival: City-to-City Beijing, with Julien Leyre and Zhang Tianpan, facilitated by Nic Low, interpreted by Charles Qin; and ‘The Third Culture’, reflecting on digital China, with Julien Leyre and Jiamin Zhao.
  • A translation event with Chinese and Australian guests at Richmond West Primary School.
  • An afternoon event on digital writing in China at LaTrobe University.
  • A panel on ‘Writing online and shaping culture‘, with Rick Chen, Mel Campbell, Zhang Tianpan and Jiamin Zhao, chaired by Esther Anatolitis, interpreted by Chelsea Zhou.
  • An afternoon of reflections on ‘the Creative in Translation’, with panels on video game culture, visual arts and magazine publishing in Australia and China.
  • A workshop at Writers Victoria, offering a Journey through the Chinese Internet.

Sequel – Late 2014

We finished the year with four events:

  • A Beijing panel on Digital Literature in China and Australia, with Kate Larsen and poet YiSha, facilitated by Zhang Tianpan, hosted by the Beijing Bookworm.
  • A boutique poetry-translation event followed by a reading as part of ‘Poetry Cafe‘ at Montsalvat, Melbourne
  • Marco Polo Marathon – a day of engagement with Chinese culture at Melbourne Knowledge Week
  • A collaborative translation event at Singapore Writers Festival, in partnership with Books Actually, bringing together poets writing in English and Chinese.

Marathon pic_1024


Marco Polo Festival – time for gratitude

The main learning was the importance of gratitude, and this post will also serve to thank some of our key partners.

Our co-director extraordinaire, Hugh Davies.

Our financial supporters: the Australia China Council, The Victorian Multicultural Commission, the City of Melbourne.

Our event and outreach partners: LaTrobe University, Melbourne Writers Festival, Digital Writers Festival, Writers Victoria, Sydney Ideas, Leeds University, SOAS, Manchester University, the BookWorm network (Beijing, Suzhou, Chengdu), BanPoCun Cafe, XiaoHu Cafe, Melbourne Knowledge Week, Books Actually, Singapore Writers Festival, Peril Magazine, Danwei Media, Wheeler Centre for Books and Culture, Language Connection, Australia-China Youth Association, Richmond West Primary, Pozible, Chin Communications, Asialink.

The people who believed in our work, and opened their agenda and their address book to support our work, as panelists or special advisors: Esther Anatolitis, Mel Campbell, Rick Chen, Lisa Dempster, Julia Fraser, Peter Goff, Jeremy Goldkorn, Michel Hockx, Mei Hu, Nikki Lam, Kate Larsen, Harry Lee, Lian Low, Nic Low, Lucy Qianqian Lv, Alvin Pang, Alice Pung, Ouyang Yu, Charles Qin, Kate Ritchie, Zhang Tianpan, YiSha, Jiamin Zhao, Chelsea Zhou, Michael Zuo.

The people who worked behind the scene, making fliers, sending emails, hosting workshops, taking pictures, bringing people to the party, or helping us find a place to rest our heads on the road: Samuele Dumas, Philip Thiel, Ron Killeen, Karen Pickering, John Paul Grima, Zoe Hatten, Hugh Douglas, Sichao Zhou, Tracy Wang, Jingzi Li, Hayley Ward, Britte Marsh, Julian Waters-Lynch, Jodie Kinnersley, Ross Ensbey, Raphael Trantoul, Dan Ednie-Lockett, Samuel Taylor, Anthony Verdi, Notty, Lysha Von Adlerberg, Andrea Carlon, Ben Redden, Aaron Zhang, Heather Inwood, Wing Yi, Lan Yang, Kingsley Edney, Zhi Fu, Su Yingxie, Di Yuan, Gordon Douglas.

And to finish, a photo-montage commemorating the event.

Marco Polo Festival_1024

Who are you? – Liumilk

Comparing the subtle differences between China’s mainland, Hong Kong and Macau is an occasion to reflect on the concept of self and identity.

Why do Chinese people suffer from a lack of love? – Ye Kuangzheng

Is love culturally determined? This insightful post explores the Chinese way of thinking about love, and the impact of deep cultural values on contemporary attitudes.

Can boycotting Christmas save Chinese culture? – Chu Qing

The end of the calendar year in China is also the time for a particular phenomenon: a wave of ‘anti-Christmas’ demonstrations. This rejection of Western festivals is intended to protect Chinese culture.

Why does Xinjiang reject the Uighur? – Luqi Piaopiao

During a trip to the border region of Xinjiang, writer Luqi Piaopiao encounters a number of locals, Han and Uighur – and notes with sadness the ongoing gap between both groups.

Just how special are we – Guo Yuhua

Chinese exceptionalism is a recurring theme in public discourse – but what is it founded on, and to what extent is it justified? A reflection on cultural variation and universalism

A changing China

The unbearable lightness of blogging – Muran

How did the rise of WeChat affect micro-blogging? This fascinating piece follows the ups and downs of Weibo as a consensus making platform in contemporary China.

A young man’s magic time machine – China30s

Is magic the new thing? This interview from website China30s with magician Wang Jiabao explores the future of Chinese entertainment.

From Harvard to the Alpaca business – China30s

How do you bring a new product to the Chinese market? This young entrepreneur is making Alpaca cool!

From Everest to the deserts, why am I always on the road? – China30s

Ma Yao grew up in a family of scientists in the deserts of Xinjiang. He now works for Tencent, coordinating the streetview project, taking 360 photographs of exceptional landscapes around the country. China30s brings us the stories of a modern day Chinese adventurer.

Traditional paper media should not let itself collapse – Wei Yingjie

Online publishing is challenging the traditional business models of the printed press – sure, argues Wei Yingjie – but maybe media groups gave up too early.

68 year old grandmother can speak 11 languages – Youquxinwen

China is full of surprises – this old woman from Guanxi proves to be an exceptional polyglot

Personal reflections

Many people and things inspire awe – Yezi

A short ethical piece on ‘things that inspire awe’, and the tendency we have to not always do the best we can.

Telephone call with an old friend – Zhao Qiang

Reconnecting with an old friend after an illness, blogger Zhao Qian measures the distance that now separates them.

Why do men like an ugly woman like me? – Shudong

A one paragraph personal interrogation from secret-sharing website shudong: why would a plain woman attract so much sexual attention from men?

Anger won’t accomplish anything – Yezi

Anger is a natural reaction when facing irrational or arbitrary setbacks – but what is its ultimate usefulness? This short piece advocates for a wiser, more balanced approach to life, and warns about the dangers of blind anger.

What’s a real friend like – Li Yinhe

Reflective soul, emotional alignment, and the unique capacity to make you feel warm, these are the features defining in a real friend.


Burning the ashes

This month, we welcomed our new Chief Editor Michael Broughton, who has been selecting new pieces for you. Translations have been abundant – wxtra cheers to our new translators Pei Y L, Fu Shaolun and Gillian! We will circulate them in a new, serial format – so keep posted!

Don’t date poor people – Xiuxian Lu

A discussion between two girl friends uncovers harsh expectations – if you’re poor, you will not find love.

Haze – Liang

A poetic expression of depression – a meditation on the colour grey

Marathon: a middle-class trap – Yukuan

What underpins China’s obsession with sport? This article sheds a critical look at the new enthusiasm of the Chinese urban middle class for Marathon running.

A top score essay from the 2015 university entrance examinations held in Beijing – anonymous

Many people talk about the Gao Kao, China’s notorious university entrance exam. But what does a successful Gao Kao essay look like? Here is an example from Beijing

Flowers reeking hatred: the songs of the cultural revolution – He Weifang

Lawyer and intellectual He Weifang looks back on the times of his childhood during the cultural revolution, and the ideology carried by the songs he used to sing.

Aladdin – Sweetheart Cooks Mr Bean

Because Chinese poetry is a living genre – this short piece brings together Aladdin’s lamp and anime imagery to paint a picture of adventure and maturity.

The pain of going home – Dizi

Every Festival, millions of Chinese people get to the roads and return to their family. This migration expresses filial piety, but is often accompanied by scenes of pain and extreme tiredness on the road. This piece explores the tension between old customs and the demands of contemporary life.

At bookstore in nanjing

New texts published

Why do Chinese people suffer from a lack of love? – Ye Kuangzheng

Is love culturally determined? This insightful post explores the Chinese way of thinking about love, and the impact of deep cultural values on contemporary attitudes.

Why are artists always sensual? – Li Yinhe

Sexologist and sociologist Li Yinhe reflects on the sensuality of artists – if art is sublimation of desire, then it may also mean that artists have more desire than others.

How to understand innovation? – Zhou Qiren

A visit to Israel is an opportunity for economist Zhou Qiren to reflect on the nature of innovation, and the national features that support its expansion.

Who made us more tolerant of ugly actions? – Wen Qiong 

A dinner with mid-ranking government officials slightly older than him offers Wen Qiong a sudden insight into our moral expectations. Confronting them with contemporary social evils, they call on the wisdom of age. In response, this post reflects on the dangers of excessive tolerance.

Why are people more rational on Weixin? – Muran

Comparing China’s two main social media channels – more public Weibo and more private Weixin – cultural analyst Muran reflects on the alleged rationalist of Weixin.

Can boycotting Christmas save Chinese culture? – Chu Qing

The end of the calendar year in China is also the time for a particular phenomenon: a wave of ‘anti-Christmas’ demonstrations. This rejection of Western festivals is intended to protect Chinese culture.

A lonely hotpot – Yang Wenyi

What kind of memories come with food? This post reflects on hotpots past and present.

New translations completed

Talking about books – Li Tianqi

Some people are obsessed with books. What are the psychological traits and aspirations that come along with this obsession? This post by intellectual Li Tianqi presents the confession of a Chinese bookaholic.

Love is a double-edged sword – Li Yinhe

Love is not a simple thing. Reflecting on the story of a friend involved in an affair, sexologist and sociologist Li Yinhe offers insights into the complexities of love and marriage in today’s China.

Confucius statue

New texts published

Secretaries, eunuchs – Zhang Ming

Observing the power held by the secretaries of high officials, Zhang Ming goes back to the tradition of eunuchs in imperial China to denounce administrative holding of power, and the influence that administrative supporters can have on the highest decision makers.

What kind of inequality is harmful? – Muran

After a speech by Martin Jacques encouraging China to address the question of inequality, Muran offers a sweeping perspective of inequality as theorised in the Western tradition, and how harmful various types of inequalities may be to China.

Understanding these hard to read books – Sang Bing

As the pace of society increases, do we still have time to read books, especially hard to read books? Sang Bing calls for a revival of reflective reading, in the face of new student generations who may never have the chance to read an entire book.

Personal memories and collective reflections – Zhu Dake

This piece written during the Shanghai book fair reflects on the many uses of memory, from personal use to collective identity formation.

Leaving, leaving, leaving – traveller 

What happens at the end of university? This fresh graduate from Wuhan shares short impressions of the last days in the place he studied, before moving on to the broader world.

Anti-intellectualism at university – Muran

How can universities resist the powerful tide of anti-intellectualism? Muran offers a structural explanation of the sources for anti-intellectualism in Chinese universities, as a potential tool of resistance.

A flower garden from the past – Yefu 

A journey back in time to a flower garden in the mid-70s and a passing flower of romance is brought forth by the changes in the moon in this very personal reflective piece.

No more dreams for the Chinese elderly – Muran

As China faces the fast prospect of an aging population, worsened by decades of one-child-policy, what is the predictable future of the Chinese elderly? This piece is an invitation to rethink the pension system in China, considering potential options from families, communities and government.

New translations completed

This place nearby we’ve never been to – Liu Shisan 

There are places around us that we think we should visit – and yet we never do. Liu Shisan shares his experience of life in Beijing, and finally heading to the zoo with his child, or the Forbidden City with his parents. Insights into the mind of Beijing residents.

Does China still have friends? – Feng Qingyang

Though the news talks of ‘old friends of China’, what countries can be described as actual friends? This piece paints a dark portrait of China’s neighbourhood relationships, from the potential traitors – Russia, Vietnam – the dangerous ally – North Korea – and the greedy countries in the rest of the world that only care for China’s riches.

From Harvard to the alpaca business – China 30s

Tan Kou is one of the young original Chinese entrepreneurs interviewed by China30s. While studying a Master in Public Health Management at Harvard, he set up an alpaca import business, looking to bring alpaca to Chinese fashion shows, and plates.

Sun yat sen mausoleum

New texts published

Assessing history – Yang Kuisong

Historical does not necessarily equate to progress. In this piece, Yang Kuisong reflects on the complex ways that we reflect on the past as a cause of the present.

Five puzzles about Chinese prose – Zhu Dake

What exactly is ‘prose’ – 散文 – in Chinese literary history? Cultural analyst Zhu Dake reflects on this apparently minor, yet incredibly influential genre of writing in the Chinese tradition.

Do Chinese people really not care about privacy? – Ye Kuangzheng

Taking a modern journalistic scandal over illegal phone-tapping, Ye Kuangzheng belies the belief that Chinese people do not value privacy, looking back at the long Chinese tradition.

Theft – Wei Zhou

A train trip from Shanghai to Nanjing is the scene of a little social drama, as a middle-aged man cries out for theft, then finds his bag a few seats down the aisle.

Secretaries, eunuchs – Zhang Ming

Shift of power from officials to their secretaries is a rampant phenomenon in China, denounced even by President Xi. Zhang Ming proposes a historical parallel with the role of eunuchs, who regularly usurped power through sheer proximity.

What kind of inequality is harmful? – Muran

Reflecting on the recent invitation of Martin Jacques to a Chinese colloquium, Muran evokes various conceptions of equality in the Western tradition, and how they may help understand the difficulties faced by contemporary China.

Understanding those hard-to-read books – Sang Bing

As the pace of the modern world increases, do we still have time to understand complex arguments? Sang Bing argues in favour of complexity, and proposes ways to help us appreciate difficult writing.

Personal memories and collective reflections – Zhu Dake

From Shanghai Book Fair, cultural analyst Zhu Dake offers a panorama of the many books related to memory – from historical commemoration to self-help and biographies. In passing, he offers a celebration for the faculty to connect with the past.

New translations completed

This place nearby we’ve never been to – Liu Shisan

Beijing writer Liu Shisan engages in imaginary local tourism, as he tells of the places he never visited, the zoo, the palace museum. A reflection about space and the city.

Can princesses have abortions? – Ka Hu

Is it wrong for a primary school girl to write a princess abortion into her fairy tale narrative? This piece invites reflection on children and the complexities of our adult world.

Men playing cards

New texts published

Why so many tiger mums and wolf dads? – Yu Ge 

The concept of ‘tiger mum’ and ‘wolf dad’ have been popularised in China – but what is the ultimate consequence of this form of education, not only for individuals, but society as a whole?

Equality is a complex concept – Ye Kuangzheng

A philosophical inquiry into the concept of ‘equality’ as it is articulated by Ancient and Modern philosophers, in China and the West.

Don’t turn the cities into graveyards – Ye Kuangzheng

As Beijing government is taking down street kiosks selling food, water and papers, cultural analyst Ye Kuangzheng warns of the danger to turn the city into a graveyard.

My June self – Douhao

How pleasant are the last weeks of a student before graduation. Blogger Douhao reflects on these last moments of intellectual engagement under the June rain.

Two modes of living I most enjoy – Li Yinhe

Calm and ecstasy both have their unique appeal. In this short reflective peace, Li Yinhe describes her moments of pleasure hovering between these two states of mind.

Where is China’s outstanding generation? – Zheng Yongnian 

As China faces the risk of a crisis, leadership becomes a question. What is the current situation of Chinese political and social elites? Singaporean analyst Zheng Yongnian inquires into the ruling layers of the country.

Temples and countryside – Lan Ran

A romantic journey through the memories of monks and hermits, this piece evokes the happiness of a religious life spent between temples and natural environments.

Telephone call with an old friend – Zhao Qian

Reconnecting with an old friend after an illness, blogger Zhao Qian measures the distance that now separates them.


New texts published

Pray for forgiveness and forgive others – Yezi

What is the best way to react to a wrong? This short piece offers a reflection on the virtues of forgiveness.

Benevolence and independence – Ye Kuangzheng

A philosophical piece exploring the Confucian concept of benevolence, from the initial context of the Analects to contemporary times.

Love and revolution (12) – Yefu 

Next chapter in Yefu’s family story – romance in the times of the great Chinese war.

New translations completed

The end of literature: the subversion of literary rules – Zhang Tianpan

Cultural analyst Zhang Tianpan explores a new phenomenon in Chinese letters. As literature shifted from paper to digital, and new generations took over from the old, new modes of appreciation emerged, judging success from audience reception and royalties over peer reception.

team work

New texts published

An embarrassing thing about the GaoKao – Liu Shisan

Writer Liu Shisan shares the embarrassing experience of taking the Gaokao four times – and reminisces on experiences of this crucial Chinese rite of passage.

The price of cultural heritage – Zhu Dake

In this piece, cultural analyst Zhu Dake underlines the sharp contrast between the growing traffic in old cultural artifacts and the relative lack of cultural interest in China today.

New translations completed

China’s two networks – Jin Zaixian

Exploring the two parallel and different Chinas – China getting its news and information through TV, and China getting it from the internet.

Urban redevelopment: a city’s life and death – Zhang Tianpan

From Kaifeng’s new proposal for a city centre renewal to the destruction of Beijing’s Hutong, this piece by sociologist Zhang Tianpan explores the many shapes of China’s current urban renewal boom, and advocates for a greater focus on livability for city planning.