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The Rise of the Press in Late Imperial China

By Ian Lamont

(For graduate credit)

HUMA E-105: Survey of Publishing, from Text to Hypertext

Harvard University Extension School

November 27, 2007
The Chinese newspaper industry was born in the last half of the 19th century. In

foreign colonies and concessions along the coast, missionaries and entrepreneurs

launched dozens of newspapers to spread religion and commercial news. Just before the

turn of the century, the press received a spectacular boost from reform-minded Chinese,

who launched hundreds of periodicals that not only introduced new styles of journalism

but also agitated for reforming the imperial system of government under the Qing

dynasty (1644-1911).

Many sources point to Western influences — printing technologies, writing styles,

business models and political ideologies — as explaining the rapid rise of newspapers in

China. The literature also gives passing acknowledgement to an older, domestic system

of distributing news throughout the empire — the official “gazettes” that central,

provincial, and local agencies used to inform and instruct their subordinates, and by

extension, all imperial subjects. This paper will give an overview of the emerging

Chinese-language newspaper industry during the late 1800s, and explain how the

imperial government attempted — and ultimately failed — to offset the influence of

reformist periodicals through press controls and the expansion of the gazettes.

Written communications were the glue that maintained China’s imperial system

of rule for millennia. The Confucian values that dictated government policy, law, and

social conduct were spread through a collection of ancient classics, many of them dating

from the Zhou dynasty (1122 – 256 B.C.E.). In order to become a scholar-official — the

elite members of society who ran the extensive imperial bureaucracy — men had to pass

written civil service examinations based on understanding of these classic works. This

exam system started in the Sui dynasty (581-618), and was firmly established in the Tang
dynasty (618-907).1 The Chinese writing system was also vital for communication within

the sprawling empire. Officials used writing to communicate with each other over long

distances, and agencies in the capital would copy important documents and distribute

them to the provinces. However, the central ministries, provincial governments, and even

local authorities used an additional one-to-many communications medium: “Gazettes,”

which published edicts, memorials to the throne, and other information that officials

thought important, such as the announcement of appointments and the court diary. The

intended audience of the gazettes was other officials, but some of the information

contained in the gazettes was further spread by writing and word of mouth to the Chinese

population. According to one source, at the village level “government policy was

announced by posters and notices read aloud to the illiterate.”2 Many of these

announcements were doubtlessly gleaned from the pages of gazettes.

The English-language literature on gazettes gives varying accounts of their

history. Henrietta Harrison stated they were started in at least the 15th century, and were

created daily in the capital for distribution across the empire. She adds that provincial

authorities published abridged versions for local distribution.3 Joan Judge said the

publications were at first called dibao (“metropolitan gazettes”) and were started in the

Tang dynasty, and possibly as early as the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 220 A.D.). The

term used to describe these publications by the end of the Qing dynasty was

John King Fairbank, China: A New History (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, 1992), 84.
Leo Ou-fan Lee and Andrew J. Nathan, “The Beginnings of Mass Culture: Journalism and
Fiction in the Late Ch'ing and Beyond.” In David Johnson, Andrew J. and Nathan, Evelyn S. Rawski (eds.),
Popular Culture in Late Imperial China (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985), 362.
Henrietta Harrison, China: Inventing the Nation (London: Arnold, 2001), 112.
guanfangbaozhi (“official newspapers”), or guanbao for short.4 Leo Lee and Andrew

Nathan also noted the term jingbao (“capital newspaper”) to describe the late-Qing

gazettes originating in Beijing. These had circulations numbering in the tens of

thousands, “presumably mostly government officials.” Many readers also subscribed to

local gazettes published in provincial capitals.5

While gazettes were the “official medium of communication” between the court

and the provinces, they were technically “a form of private correspondence sent to

provincial authorities by their accredited agents in the capital,”6 as opposed to a sort of

internal newsletter for all bureaucrats. This suggests that the gazettes were customized or

restricted to specific subsets of the bureaucratic population, based on location or rank. It

also suggests that the gazettes may have been copied by hand in earlier times. In 1851, a

proposal to expand the gazettes to a wider bureaucratic audience was rejected by the

emperor, who believed that allowing “all officialdom to know what was going on its

various parts was only to encourage people to meddle in what did not concern them.”7 As

records of government decisions, gazettes were “widely read and discussed”8 but were

filtered, formal, and hardly the realm of what anyone now would consider breaking news

or public opinion. However, developments in the final decades of the Qing dynasty

would force authorities to change the character of the gazettes in order to stay relevant to

their official audience.

Joan Judge, Print and Politics: ‘Shibao’ and the Culture of Reform in Late Qing China (Stanford,
CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 20.
Lee and Nathan, 362.
Judge, 17.
Lee and Nathan, 365.
Harrison, 112.
The developments were rooted in the introduction of Western-style newspapers in

China, and political change in the waning years of the Qing. In 1815, the first newspaper

was published in China. The publication was in Portuguese, the language of the

Portuguese colony of Macao. From that year until 1894, 150 foreign-language

newspapers were established in China, mostly in English, and mostly in the colonies and

treaty ports that lined the coast. Foreign missionaries and foreign merchants started these

newspapers.9 In 1864, a Chinese entrepreneur who had worked as a translator for a

Scottish missionary started the first successful Chinese-language newspaper in Hong

Kong.10 This paper was actually an exception in that it was run by Chinese; Judge notes

that approximately 70 Chinese-language papers were founded in China through 1894 but

all were owned and/or managed by foreigners. This included the Shenbao, one of the

more well-known Chinese newspapers of the Qing and Republican eras. The Shenbao

was started in Shanghai in 1872 by two English brothers engaged in the tea trade, and

like the other Chinese commercial newspapers, focused on shipping news and other

business activities, and the occasional news event that might impact commerce. The

limited audience of these newspapers included Chinese merchants, compradors, and

clerks who needed to be attuned to domestic and international business developments.11

The Qing authorities apparently tolerated the commercial and religious newspapers,

probably because their circulations were so limited, and they did not attack the


Judge, 19.
Lee and Nathan, 365.
Judge, 20.
While the concept of a public newspaper came from the West, the success of

Chinese-language newspapers owed much to Western technology. The Chinese had

developed woodblock printing during the Sui dynasty12 and metal moveable type in the

Song.13 However, Chinese printers found that lithography — introduced to them by

Westerners in 187614 — was better suited to periodical and book printing in Chinese.

They found that this chemical printing process preserved the calligraphic nature of

Chinese literature, which was difficult to do using moveable type technologies from that

era. Lithography also enabled the production of miniature editions, which was impossible

using woodblock printing.15 Other Western innovations that impacted the Chinese media

industry during the late Qing were the introduction of telegraph services, which enabled

the publication of breaking news from other parts of China and overseas, as well as the

creation of railroads and motorized river transportation, which allowed newspapers —

and the news, information, and opinions contained within them — to be distributed deep

into China’s interior. For instance, in 1909, it was possible to buy 20 different

newspapers in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan. These included local

publications as well as newspapers from Shanghai and Hong Kong,16 coastal cities that

were thousands of miles to the east.

Judge, 17.
Xiuming Zhang, “Hanzi yinshua de fazhan,” etc., in Zhonghuo yinshua shi (Shanghai: Renmin
Publishing Co., 1989) 669-729. Cited in Christopher Alexander Reed, Gutenberg in Shanghai: Mechanized
Printing, Modern Publishing, and their Effects on the City, 1876-1937 (doctoral dissertation) (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1996), 144.
Reed, 22.
Reed, 150.
Harrison, 115.
However, the critical development that ultimately forced the government to react

to the newspapers was the fallout resulting from China’s defeat by Japan during their

1895 war. Under the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, China was forced

to grant a large indemnity, new concessions, and control of Taiwan and the Liaoning

Peninsula to Japan. There was widespread public anger toward the Qing government over

this episode. Debates about China’s international weakness, prospects for modernization,

and even limited political reform had taken place before in scholarly and official circles,

following earlier foreign incursions. But the defeat at the hands of Japan — a former

tributary state — brought a new sense of urgency to the discussions. In the minds of

many intellectuals, China’s future was at stake. The reformers among them decided that

the debates needed to be brought to a wider audience in order to foment political change

and enable China to stand up on the world stage.

The reformers appreciated the ability of newspapers to relay news and

information. But the reformers also looked to the examples of missionary newspapers and

foreign-language newspapers, which attempted to influence public opinion through

editorials, filtered news, and propaganda. Some had missionary connections through their

education or earlier publishing work, and these experiences may have channeled the

discussions into the press, as opposed to steering the energy of the reformers into other

anti-Qing activities, such as starting up political parties. For instance, Liang Qichao, one

of the central figures of the reform movement in the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th

century, worked for a British missionary publisher in Beijing from 1895 to 1896.17 Liang

and others started newspapers and magazines to take the debate to the public sphere,

promote nationalistic sentiment, and agitate for reform.
Lee and Nathan, 364.
The number of “modern periodicals” entering the Chinese market beginning in

1895 was startling: According to one source, 216 newspapers and 122 magazines were

published “in the few years after 1894,” many of them outside of the treaty ports.18 These

papers contained a variety of innovations. Besides emphasizing news, there were also

essays, editorials, and even literary sections containing excerpts from novels and plays.

Almost all of the newspapers used a form of classical Chinese that used vernacular

language as well as new terms adapted from Western languages or Japanese. They were

widely available in libraries, reading rooms, schools, clubs, guild halls, and newsstands.19

The impact of the new publications upon China’s public political life was dramatic:

While print journalism served a political function in many
nations, this role was particularly consequential in late Qing China,
which had neither a system of political parties nor a representative
national assembly. Independent of the dynasty and accessible to the
reading public, the political press provided one of the few forums
where reformists could advance their political agenda. Opening a
field of mediation between the different spheres of late Qing China
made it possible for reform publicists to challenge imperial
authority and express popular grievances, encourage debate over
government policies, and educate their compatriots about the urgent
need to reform the structure of dynastic power.20

The Qing government was forced to respond. In 1898, there was a short-lived

blossoming of political reform under the Guangxu emperor, who was advised by Liang

and other modern intellectuals. However, conservative elements in the imperial family

led by the empress dowager Cixi crushed this movement and removed the emperor from

power. Her regime also enacted a series of strict censorship laws from 1898 to 1901.
Ko Kung-chen, Zhongguo Baoxue Shi [History of Chinese Journalism] (1927, reprint ed. Taipei:
Xuesheng Shuju, 1964), 145-150. Cited in Lee and Nathan, 364.
Judge, 37-38.
Judge, 4.
Many of the periodicals had to close. Liang and a few other editors relocated their

publishing activities to the treaty ports and even Japan, where Qing authorities could not

shut them down.

The government also reacted by changing the character of the official gazettes. In

the late 1890s and early 1900s, reformist newspapers became so popular that governors-

general in 11 provinces actually ordered their subordinates to read them. The central

government responded by having more gazettes published in the provinces, and by

excerpting segments of the reform periodicals and republishing them in the gazettes. The

circulation of some of the gazettes grew into the thousands, which indicates they were

printed on presses. However, “no matter how many official journals were published, they

were ultimately incapable of attracting many readers.”21

Still, these responses were a watershed. In earlier decades, the Qing’s imperial

mandate and China’s Confucian value system allowed authorities to largely ignore public

opinion whenever crises arose. There were internal debates about modernization and

limited reform following the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, and other disasters in

the mid to late 1800s, but the scholar-officials did not attempt to engage the public or

cater to public opinion. The rise of the modern periodicals forced them to reconsider this

stance. They had to counter negative publicity and the challenges of the reformers, not

only among the subjects of the empire, but also among their own ranks. The simultaneous

attempts to shut down and mimic the reformist publications proved to be ineffective, but

these actions demonstrate that the imperial authorities had finally realized the importance

of public opinion and the power of the press.

Judge, 23.