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Tumblr’s Adult Content Crackdown Hits an Obscure Online Enclave of Rural Porn in China

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Editor’s note: Dino Ge Zhang is an ethnographer and academic most of the time (the boring stuff). But occasionally he likes to write commentaries on a variety of happenings on the internet (the fun stuff). You can find him at his website anthropos.live. In this article the explains a sub-genre of Chinese internet aesthetics that he dubs “agri-porn”…

Tumblr used to be known in China not as a hobby blog, but solely for its variety of amateur pornographic content. The recent crackdown on pornographic content on Tumblr was a big hit to the enclave of Chinese internet users that’s been stationed on the platform for years. In the past few days, this whole community has been thrown into disarray, desperately looking for platforms to migrate to; everyone knows the party has come to an end. This is an opportune moment to remember one unique form of content that has circulated almost exclusively on the transient archive offered by Tumblr’s platform: what I’ve come to call “agri-porn.”

The lack of an official institution of a porn industry in China — where the genre is illegal and stringently banned — has resulted in an absence of efforts to categorize it, despite the fact that many amateur and professional videos are produced in the region. What I call “agri-porn” may not be an established genre, but its emergence is certainly an interesting story.

Agri-porn is mostly made or documented by unprofessional video makers from small counties, towns, and villages across China, and circulated as under-five-minute “short clips” (小视频 xiao shipin) on social networks such as Miaopai, WeChat, and QQ before getting re-posted to Tumblr, where I began to collect and archive them.

agri-porn china rural tumblr pornography

Agri-porn videos are widely consumed on multiple platforms, but at the same time marginalized in mainstream internet culture for being the most repellent kind of pornography. In my attempt to probe “agri-porn” in spite of its ephemeral nature, I am not treating it as a case study in the quest for sexual liberty, nor as well-publicized sex scandal, but as self-documentaries of ecstatic exhibitionism, banalized sexual deviancy, and a kind of weird realism.

I coin the term agri-porn after the Chinese neologism “agri-metal” (or 农金 nongjin): a music genre that captures the preposterous aesthetics of the forgotten hinterlands of China. Resolutely set against a glorified urban cosmopolitanism, bands like Chairman Ba & Yumbi and Urethral Fracture managed to (re)present the most stigmatized forms of rustic crudeness through a détournement (or 恶搞 e’gao) of established musical and visual styles. It was a much-underrated, monumental backlash against the pretense of sophistication in “cultivated” urbanity.

However, unlike agri-metal, which is conscious aesthetic subversion, agri-porn’s performativity of poverty is unconscious. This poverty absorbs discourses of the officially heightened realms of exotic 原生态 yuanshengtai (literally “original ecology,” but when invoked it often refers to the rural, and connotes a sense of environmental primitivism). The imagery of agri-porn also negates the televised rural celebrities that perpetuate civility. In other words, rather than identifying with the society of the spectacle and the normative ambitions of 网红 wanghong (internet/social media celebrities), agri-porn’s creators seem to be the raw force of an “agricultural” (for lack of a better adjective) desire for exhibitionism. The opposite of agri-porn also exists, and I would like to call it “metro-porn” — urban amateur porn shot with the metropolitan view of concrete jungle of skyscrapers and dense traffic as its background.

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On Tumblr, where I established my own outpost to interact with other Chinese users and archive their work, originality is a big concern, since only a small proportion of Chinese Tumblr users upload original photos or videos of their own bodies as consistent personalities. This original content is often protected by various watermarks, carnival masks, a piece of paper with their usernames on it, and gestural forms of identification in the video. Many micro-celebrities on Tumblr have posted angry public announcements about how their images have been stolen and re-appropriated by porn accounts that dissociate their images with the original context, reattaching them to new, fabricated contexts or stories and text, image link, or even QR code advertisements. These are commercial accounts of various sorts — some run by pornographic camgirl sites, some resellers of porn videos — and also a number of original content contributors requesting donations.

Navigating through the ad-infested Chinese Tumblr porn blogs, agri-porn videos are a fraction of hundreds of thousands of videos (re)posted by Chinese Tumblr users, but are usually easily discernible. The first defining characteristic of agri-porn is its poor image quality, a result of both the recording device (usually a cheap smartphone) and the swarm circulation and dispersion of the video across platforms. The process usually goes like this: Step 1, upload to Miaopai, where the video is compressed, then watermarked, and later censored (i.e. deleted from the platform); Step 2, save the Miaopai video as a video file to smartphone, resend to WeChat group chat, where it’s compressed again to save mobile data; Step 3, save as a video file from the WeChat group, upload to Tumblr, add tags. In contrast to the grey business commercialization of micro-porn-celebrity discussed above, the illicit and degraded poverty of agri-porn — its marginality and displacement — often exempts these videos from outcries of anti-piracy, immorality and, at least for now, commercialization.

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In agri-porn, the presence of the camera is often not acknowledged by the participants, and bodies are often exhibited in grotesque forms: muddy swamp, flood, sanitary pads, oblivious crowds, genitals pixelated not by the censorship regime, but as a natural result of low image fidelity. Weddings and shamanistic village rituals emerge as prominent sub-genres. Brides and grooms are requested to perform awkward mimes of oral sex or intercourse, and sometimes even actual sexual acts in front of friends and family. In village rituals or some ceremonial events, ecstatic (predominantly male) crowds gather to watch a woman strip and masturbate. Another major source of inspiration for agri-porn is KTV (the Chinese version of karaoke bars), and in particular, the rural KTV. In one video, heavily polluted by background noise of a distorted Cantopop song, a woman smokes a cigarette and opens a beer bottle with her vagina in a discernibly dilapidated karaoke parlor.

One prevalent feature of agri-porn is that it often exhibits the obliviousness of people toward their own bodies — for instance, accidental exposures of panties of an unsuspecting woman on scooter captured by the passenger on the following car, or an amateur digital zoom-in shot of a woman straddling a man in the front seat of their motorized tricycle. Agri-porn also exacerbates the weird realism of everyday rural settings: the mah-jong parlor, the tricycle on the half-built, empty asphalt road, the large public LED screen that usually replays propaganda videos, but instead plays a porn video (while no one seems to be bothered by the “malfunctioning” screen).

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According to the people I’ve spoken with about these videos, agri-porn is often not titillating. I am not sure of the original intent of the video makers, as it is almost impossible to trace them down, as opposed to the Tumblr micro-celebrities who upload the content and communicate with fans. The appeal of agri-porn, for the people that circulate them in bohemian WeChat groups, is not the pleasure of the male gaze — at least not in the erotic sense. For agri-porn aficionados, the format challenges the colloquial urban discourses on the conservative countryside, and the yuanshengtai (or the idealized “natural state”) of village life.

When interviewing one rural viewer in a WeChat group, however, I sensed neither curiosity nor excitement, but rather a sense of indifference or even embarrassed confusion. In my opinion, these images epitomize a mixture of frequently anthropologically theorized but rarely exhibited village traditions and fantasies of “modern” eroticism — perhaps a false interpretation of the urban sensation — that exceeds the expectation of urban porn viewer, who are supposedly spoiled by too much porn.

As Georges Bataille writes, “a transgression is not the same as the back-to-nature movement; it suspends a taboo without suppressing it.” Agri-porn is not an artefact of an uncivilized past captured by smartphone cameras, as one of my informants has suggested. Rather, it is a transgression of the hegemonic contemporary urban ideal, an anomaly running parallel to (but not connected to) the “back-to-nature” movement of yuanshengtai.

Cover illustration from Mojo Wang‘s Between Rivers series

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Dino Ge Zhang
Dino Ge Zhang is an ethnographer and academic most of the time (the boring stuff). But occasionally he likes to write commentaries on a variety of happenings on the internet (the fun stuff). You can find him at his website anthropos.live