Some like to think of the Chinese internet as a garden.

The former deputy head of the Chinese government’s propaganda department and ex-internet czar Lu Wei, was prone to metaphor. In a 2013 speech addressed to the 13th Chinese Online Media Forum, he referred to Chinese cyberspace as a “spiritual garden which worships virtue and the good” and “castigate[s] the false, the bad, and the ugly.”

The grand gardens of ancient China aspired to the same purity. Recently, I visited a penzai (or bonsai) garden in Suzhou, the idyllic city an hour’s train ride from Shanghai, known as the “Venice of the East.” Penzai, a Chinese art form that uses cultivation techniques to produce miniature trees, is founded on a belief in order, harmony, and man-made perfection: If you pruned, trimmed, and grafted the tree in the right way, you could control the direction of its growth.

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Yi-Ling Liu

Yi-Ling Liu is a writer based in Beijing, who covers technology, culture, and society. Her work has been published in The New Yorker, Foreign Policy, The Economist, Guernica Magazine, and SupChina.