Chinese woman spent a decade building Borgesian fake Russian history on Wikipedia

Sixth Tone has a fascinating story about a Chinese woman known only as Zhemao, who over the last decade has written over a million words of a labyrinthine alternate history narrative of Medieval Russia … told through the medium of 200 interconnected Wikipedia pages on the subject, purporting to be fact.

Even more remarkable is that no one knew about this, until fairly recently, when another author was doing research into the time period and noticed something was off.

"Chinese Wikipedia entries that are more detailed than English Wikipedia and even Russian Wikipedia are all over the place," Yifan wrote on Zhihu, a Quora-like Q&A platform. "Characters that don't exist in the English-Russian Wiki appear in the Chinese Wiki, and these characters are mixed together with real historical figures so that there's no telling the real from the fake. Even a lengthy Moscow-Tver war revolves around the non-existent Kashin silver mine."

An investigation by Wikipedia found that a contributor had used at least four "puppet accounts" to falsify the history of the Qing Dynasty and the history of Russia since 2010. Each of the four accounts lent the others credibility. All have now been banned from Chinese Wikipedia.

Over more than 10 years, the author wrote several million words of fake Russian history, creating 206 articles and contributing to hundreds more. She imagined richly detailed war stories and economic histories, and wove them into real events in language boring enough to fit seamlessly into the encyclopedia. Some netizens are calling her China's Borges.

Zhemao — who is allegedly the daughter of a Chinese diplomat stationed in Russia, and who is now a full-time housewife with a high school degree — did offer an explanation for his massive fictional world-building, in the form of an apology for violating Wikipedia's terms of use:

As the saying goes, in order to tell a lie, you must tell more lies. I was reluctant to delete the hundreds of thousands of words I wrote, but as a result, I wound up losing millions of words, and a circle of academic friends collapsed," she wrote. "The trouble I've caused is hard to make up for, so maybe a permanent ban is the only option. My current knowledge is not enough to make a living, so in the future I will learn a craft, work honestly, and not do nebulous things like this any more.

Unfortunately, none of us will ever get to mine the depths of her sprawling narrative, because Wikipedia deleted all of her edits and banned her from the site.

She Spent a Decade Writing Fake Russian History. Wikipedia Just Noticed. [Wu Peiyue / Sixth Tone]

Image: a now-deleted map of Eurasia, uploaded by Zhemao as part of her narrative