水木清华: The Earliest BBS in Mainland China and Its Regulation

Posted by

In the US, BBS slowly faded out as other web based services took its place. This is not what happened in China. BBS culture, despite the original telnet technology that is associated with it became deprecated, is still going strong as of today. While many internet forums (reddit) and social media group pages (facebook) are considered the spiritual successor of BBS in the US, BBS in China has direct successors. Many of these communities and cultures largely stayed the same. Usually under the same name, these sites simply got a new paint job and an IP with the introduction of WWW technology. Due to to nature of BBS however, many did not last forever in the highly censored internet landscape of China. One of these sites is 水木清华 (Shui Mu Tsinghua), which I will refer to as SHTM for the rest of this blog post.

Old SMTH BBS accessed on an Telnet emulator in 2005 (web.archive.org)

BBS with Chinese character support was first introduced to Taiwan Zhongshan University in 1992, where its success quickly propagated to the Mainland. In 1995, SMTH was founded in Tsinghua University (清华大学). Students were able to log in and access it using the many new computer clusters on campus or with personal computer in the dorm room.

By 2005, SMTH had more than 500 discussion boards with more than 300 thousand
registered users from inside and outside the Tsinghua campus. As a record, 23674 users
were online visiting SMTH at the same time. These data clearly demonstrates the
popularity of SMTH BBS.

Jin, S., 2020. Chinese Online BBS Sphere : What BBS Has Brought To China. [online] Dspace.mit.edu. Available at: <http://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/45380?show=full&gt; [Accessed 28 September 2020].

One of the reasons for this popularity is the availability of news outside of the mainstream media. Being highly regulated and controlled, almost all newspapers and TV channels are heavily censored and biased. This is where BBS shines – since contents are user submitted and are decentralized, any regulation must play catch up instead of operating in a topdown manner. Specifically, if you are a user of a popular BBS, as long as you don’t include easily detectable phrases in your post, a discussion of a sensitive topic could go on for as long as it does not become too popular to land on a moderator’s radar. This is such a common feature of discussion on the BBS that net jargons has developed to circumvent the usual list of banned words.

Since all censorship is done under the slogan of “constructing a harmonious society,” a frequently used new net jargon is “hexie” (“harmonize” 和谐), so as content is censored, it is so-called “being harmonized.” In Chinese, “hexie” (harmonize 和谐) is pronounced the same as “River Crab (河蟹),” and a crab in folk language also refers to people who are bullies with violent power, so the image of a crab has become a new satirical, politically charged icon for the “River Crab Society“, just like “Wears Three Watches” 带三个表Dai Sange Biao) is a nonsensical anagram of Sange Daibiao (三个代表), or “Three Represents” – the name of the contribution of the former communist leader Jiang Zemin to party ideology.

Under the Internet Police’s Radar: http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2007/08/under-the-internet-polices-radar/

Because of this prevalence of sensitive topics, BBS such as SMTH are always monitored, and even temporary shutdown a few times by government agencies.

In September 18th of 1996, many discussion posts regarding the Senkaku Islands dispute popped up that included phrases that triggered the censor filters, which led to the BBS being taken offline for the day. Subsequently, SMTH has removed “History”, “Military”, “Virtual Salon”, and “Spacetime News” discussion pages from the BBS.

In late February of 1997, Deng Xiaoping’s death led to SMTH being preemptively taken offline. This shutdown lasted until the started of April in the same year.

It is important to note that the moderators of the site are all students or graduates of the university, and strict moderation of the site is more an effort to ensure the longevity of the site under the Chinese government’s scrutiny rather than an idealogical choice. This is more apparent in the follow events.

SMTH has largely remained a grey area of discussing sensitive topics, where users can enjoy semi-anonymity. This almost changed in late 2000, where a new legislation regarding online communities has required a stricter regulation on the users of SMTH. Specifically, university officials demanded the site moderators to require users to link their accounts with traceable real life IDs (school ID for students and passport for external users). Moderators at the time stated that they cannot comply, and the school officials in response has given them 2 weeks to peacefully step down from moderating roles and allow the new moderation team to take over.

Zixia, the original top moderator, has posted a letter at dawn on the day of transition along with his very public “virtual suicide” (deletion of his account), including this quote:


[Translation] “Promises made by the previous moderation team, including ensuring user privacy and user data security, can no longer be met.”

original moderator zixia

This prompted a mass “virtual suicide” where people publicly deleted their own accounts. “Dire”, a member of the old moderation team, created a new site under the IP of “smth.net”, which attempts to clone the SMTH site as it was before the transition of power. For a while, “smth.net” was regarded as “real SMTH” and the original “smth.org” “fake SMTH”.

“ace”, the only member of the old moderation team that stayed behind on the new team, negotiated with the government agencies that is in charge of enforcing the new legislation. Eventually, they reached an understanding where the old registration checks are considered adequate. With this, the school administration relented, and SMTH has been restored to its former state.

This, however, did not last forever. In 2005, government agencies forced a transition of SMTH from a public BBS to a university only site. This involved IP restrictions, where only school IP can log in to the BBS. This led to 82% of the external users unable to log in, and the remaining users mourning what they consider the death of SMTH.


新闻传播系版: 如果没有了沟通 我们的新闻 向谁去传播


Multiple top posts on the day of IP restriction, http://lkcn.net/bbs/index.php?showtopic=68080


lostfound forum:【Lost】We lost our SMTH

news communication forum: Without dialogues, to whom will we communicate our news

chemistry forum:Science does not distinguish between rich and poor, age, gender, skin color, not to mention IP…

Multiple top posts on the day of IP restriction, http://lkcn.net/bbs/index.php?showtopic=68080

Later the same year, moderation team has been forcefully removed from post. This allegedly involved government officials going directly to the server rooms and removing the server shards, and reinstalling them in their own server rooms. Old moderator team immediately noticed that after the unscheduled shutdown all their site permissions has been removed, and a new moderation team has taken over overnight.


[Translation] Members of SMTH committee has always been united, but we are powerless against authoritarianism.

SMTH committee public notice post

This led to many students mourning their loss of their BBS, and along with it the lost culture and virtual friends they made. Many friends who only met online would never be able to contact each other again. Here is what one user has to say after attending the unscheduled mourning event:

現在玻璃球被打破了, 雖然覺得憤怒, 但看著一隻隻的紙鶴, 飛出玻璃球, 世界還是充滿希望的…

[Translation] Now the glass ball is broken. Although I feel angry, watching the paper cranes flying out of the glass ball, the world is still full of hope…

Archived posts, https://web.archive.org/web/20050430001544/http://www.inmediahk.net/public/article?item_id=21440&group_id=16
Real life mourning of SMTH in Tsinghua University
Different angle of the event
Paper cranes on the statue

Mourning the loss of SMTH
A foreigner folding more paper cranes

Now, despite the site still running under new admins, many has considered it dead in spirit and only the empty husk remains.

SHTM renamed to THU (Tsinghua University), along with a new look, under the new leadership

Leave a Reply