It’s a large web out there

This post comes as part of a reflexive series accompanying our first crowd-funding campaign. Please visit

No website is an island, entire of itself. The web is a living ecosystem where each individual platform largely depends on others around it. The Marco Polo Project does not operate in a void, but in relation to a number of existing online organisations who share parts of our mission. It is therefore crucial to be clear about where we propose to fit, and contribute to that existing ecosystem.

This post is also an acknowledgement of our main collaborators and sources of inspiration. This post is not intended as an exhaustive list.

When people ask me where I see the Marco Polo Project in 5 years time, I generally reply that I would like it to be ‘one of the twenty reference websites for people wishing to learn Chinese and read about China’. ‘One of’ is the key part here. We do not wish to build a one-stop-shop for Chinese literacy, but be part of a network of like-minded online (and offline) organisations.

Our mission combines language learning and the publication of Chinese writing in translation. In both areas, we complement existing ventures

‘Learn Chinese’ websites are not rare. But most of them just offer lists of words and grammar rules for beginners, complemented, at best, with a few podcasts and ‘cultural facts’. For intermediate and advanced learners – our target user group – the choice is still very limited. And, in particular, opportunities for active learning are rare. So there seems to be a gap for semi-fluent learners, those who’ve outgrown all ‘beginner’s’ resources, yet are not comfortable enough to just navigate Chinese-only websites, and want to improve their reading capability. This is our core niche – not a huge one, but an important and a growing one. At the moment, two main platforms share it with us. FluentU offers a selection of videos from the Chinese web with subtitles. Lang-8 offers the possibility to write a blog in Chinese, and have native speakers correct it. Users can also read the blogs of other learners. Another website worth mentioning is the brilliant Chinesepod, who propose very good podcasts tailored for all levels. These websites are great for practicing listening and writing skills; we may currently be the only one focusing on reading capability for high intermediate and advanced Mandarin learners, and combining quality contents with active language practice.

Though rare in light of the extreme wealth of material, a number of websites offer bilingual versions of Chinese writing. These are mostly not labelled as ‘language learning sites’, but can be of use to language learners. The main ones to quote are brilliant Chinasmack for ‘pop culture’ trends on the Chinese web, Ministry of Tofu for social trends, China dialogue for the environment, and Paper Republic for literature. Our contents selection complements that offered on these platforms: we are the only ones to really focus on long-view opinion and reflection pieces by leading intellectuals and a representative selection of blog-posts by young Chinese urban bloggers.

By filtering and translating this content, we act as a mediator between Chinese and English language online magazines. Our existence depends on that of a few Chinese blog aggregators – 1510, consensus network, niubo, and the social networking system douban – who do the hard work of selecting, filtering and organising the original contents. It also largely depends on online magazines and websites about China targeting a Western audience, not just by providing translations, but also commentaries and analyses. Among those, we already collaborate with Danwei and the China story, and wish to extend these collaborations in the future, becoming a regular contributor to other online (and offline) magazines for China-focused contents. Danwei proposes a good list of those, as well as high quality China-focused blogs.

Finally, we complement an existing and more established China-based website: Their platform proposes a selection of English-language writing in Chinese translation, and their translations are crowd-sourced. To an extent, they are a mirror organisation to us. Their focus however is less on training language learners, and more on making content accessible. Probably because translators typically work from their second to their first language, and many more Chinese people read English than English-speakers do Mandarin. We are now in contact with yeeyan, and discussing the form a collaboration could take – collaborative events or online collaboration.

Another similar project was a source of inspiration – and early advice to us: Their goal is to promote dialogue between the English- and Arab-speaking world, with a focus on news and events in the Middle East. Their website offers various articles about an event, from English or Arabic language sources, with automatic translation improved by users. Comment threads themselves appear in bilingual format.

So this is where we fit in the landscapes. These are the closest knots to us in the fabric of the web. For more general inspiration, we should finally quote Wikipedia, and their work on crowd-sourcing knowledge organisation and translation.

Can you think of other websites we should add to the list? Please, send us their reference, we’d love to learn about them!

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