Hoax or Counterfactual? The Chinese Wikipedia Scandal

I don’t usually take the time on my blog to merely re-post news stories relating to counterfactual history, but when such stories threaten to discredit the field, I perk up.  

This latest story on Literary Hub, “A ‘Chinese Borges’ Wrote Millions of Words of Fake Russian History on Wikipedia For a Decade,” caught my attention, as it promises to add ammunition to people who are already opposed to wondering “what if?” about the past.  

As the story’s author, Jonny Diamond, reports:  

"For over a decade, a Chinese woman known as “Zhemao” created a massive, fantastical, and largely fictional alternate history of late Medieval Russia on Chinese Wikipedia, writing millions of words about entirely made-up political figures, massive (and fake) silver mines, and pivotal battles that never actually happened. She even went so far as to concoct details about things like currency and eating utensils….  

“Zhemao’s drama centered around an enormous silver mine known as Kashen, a flash point for political tensions between the “Princes of Tver” and the “Dukes of Moscow”—Kashen, though, never actually existed.”  

A million words on Wikipedia is remarkable enough.  Now, apparently, they have all been deleted, leading Diamond to lament that “we are denied a chance to read the one, true, Great Internet Novel.”  

Since I don’t read Chinese and since the words are gone anyway, it’s impossible to know whether the narrative was straight historical forgery or more playful alternate history.    

But in our world of fake everything, critics may throw the baby out with the bathwater and blame the fabulism on counterfactualism more broadly.  

The story may remain an internal Chinese matter, but readers of this blog will hopefully see its relevance for the western world’s ongoing debate about “what ifs.”