The “surrounding gaze” is the notion, rooted in modern Chinese literature and culture, of crowds of people gathering around some kind of public spectacle. Related to Lu Xun’s notion of kanke wenhua (看客文化), a term the writer used to describe the cultural phenomenon of Chinese who would look on blankly, with cold indifference, as their fellows were dragged off for execution or subjected to other injustices, the “surrounding gaze” has taken on a new and different meaning in the Internet age. The term can now point to the social and political possibilities of new communications technologies, such as the Internet and the microblog, which might, say some, promote change by gathering public opinion around certain issues and events.
The term wei guan can refer to the larger phenomenon of the “surrounding gaze,” including its pejorative sense, but also often refers to its positive or potential dimension as concentrated public opinion. The term “online surrounding gaze,” or wangluo wei guan (网络围观), is also commonly used today.
In an interview with CMP fellow and Peking University professor Hu Yong (胡泳) posted in January 2011, blogger Xiao Mi (小米) addressed the issue of “the surrounding gaze,” and its historical roots and importance. Here is a translated portion of Hu Yong’s response:
Xiao Mi: So exactly what idea does the “the surrounding gaze,” or wei guan (围观),
Hu Yong: Lu Xun once expressed extreme concern over the coldness and indifference of Chinese, and “the culture of the gaze”, or kanke wenhua (看客文化), he chose as an expression for this coldness and indifference is in fact the surrounding gaze. [NOTE: In his short story Medicine (药), Lu Xun wrote about the "culture of the gaze," referring to the crowds of ordinary Chinese who craned their necks to dumbly watch the spectacle of the beheading of revolutionaries who had fought for the freedom of these same people]. When, though, did this idea (of the surrounding gaze) take on such a strongly positive meaning? The change in [the import of] this expression stems from this technology age in which we now find ourselves. It stems in large part from the age of the Internet. Put another way, there has been some evolution of the surrounding gaze in the era of Internet. In the process of this evolution what might be called “the politics of the surrounding gaze” has emerged.
Xiao Mi: Has the surrounding gaze brought change to the distribution of so-called discourse power in China?
Hu Yong: I want to stress the point that the surrounding gaze is a kind of minimal (or “bottom-line”) form of public participation (公共参与). In fact, it is very far from the process of reaching consensus through participation, or reaching the stage of policy-making and action through consensus. So, if we hold the simplistic view that by means of the surrounding gaze we can change China, this is most definitely based on a naive reading of the Chinese situation. On the other hand, we cannot for these same reasons make the mistake of underestimating the importance of the surrounding gaze online (网络围观). This is because it has lowered the threshold for action, making it possible for many people to express their positions and their demands, and these positions and demands, though small, add up to a great deal (积少成多). Taken together, they can make for a formidable show of public opinion. And there is another important aspect of the surrounding gaze. And that is that the so-called surrounding gaze enables us to see those standing across from us, and this mutual seeing is also very important.
Organized strength without organization rests on the micro-forces (微动力) arising from the voluntary engagement of masses of people (是大量人群自愿形成的微动力). Change in China today does not require a powerful revolutionary force of some kind — what it requires are this kind of micro-forces. Why are these micro-forces important? Because in the past the relationship between the many to the few was fractured. There were always small numbers of people vested with an abundance of force who advanced certain matters or causes [NOTE: such as the revolutionaries in Lu Xun's Medicine]. But what these [energetic minorities] could never figure out was why the vast majority of people cared so little about what they were doing, even when they were fighting on behalf of this majority. And the majority would often believe that these energetic minorities were too political in their outlook, and suspect that they had their own agendas. In my view, the emergence of micro-forces will serve to build bridges across this fracture between the two sides, and this is one function micro-forces have.