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  • A Newspaper for China? Power, Identity, and Change in Shanghai's News Media, 1872-1912
  • Chang-tai Hung (bio)
Barbara Mittler . A Newspaper for China? Power, Identity, and Change in Shanghai's News Media, 1872-1912. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center; distributed by Harvard University Press, 2004. xvi, 504 pp. Hardcover $60.00, ISBN 0-674-01217-8.

Barbara Mittler's book A Newspaper for China? Power, Identity, and Change in Shanghai's News Media, 1872-1912 is part of a rapidly growing body of scholarly publications on the history of newspapers, books, and periodicals in modern China. But A Newspaper for China? is markedly different from other works in this category, for it does not deal with social and cultural aspects or the institutional development of the Chinese press. Instead, it studies Shenbao (Shanghai news), a successful Chinese-language newspaper, as a text, focusing on the newspaper's rhetorical devices of forms and allusions, and its readership.

Shenbao was launched by British merchant Ernest Major in the treaty port of Shanghai in April 1872 as a commercial enterprise. Printed daily since May 1872, it was the longest-running newspaper in modern Chinese history when it ceased publication in May 1949 as Chinese Communist forces occupied the city by defeating the Nationalists in the civil war. Mittler's book does not chronicle the entire history of this influential and profitable newspaper. Rather, the focus is on the newspaper's early period, from its inception to the collapse of the Qing dynasty. The book is divided into two parts. The first examines how Shenbao, a Western-style newspaper, was transformed from an alien medium into a native [End Page 203] product embraced by the Chinese. Part 2 examines, in great detail, the newspaper's implied and actual audiences, which included women, city dwellers, and Chinese nationalists.

To appeal to Chinese readers, Shenbao, according to Mittler, did not copy foreign styles of newspaper writing; instead, it relied on what Mittler calls "clever packaging" (p. 116), borrowing, for example, conventional Chinese parallelisms and repetitions to report news and to write editorials and commentaries. Maintaining that Chinese newspapers in the late Qing primarily reflected literary journalism from the beginning, Mittler marshals a wealth of linguistic devices and textual sources to buttress her arguments with great clarity. In part 1 she provides an excellent account of how Shenbao domesticated its language by adapting to Chinese forms. The use of Chinese classics (for instance, the sayings of Confucius and Mencius) and the inclusion of Jingbao, the court gazette, in its pages to lend the daily a more authoritative voice were two ingenious steps utilized by the publisher to win Chinese readership and to enhance sales.

In the first part of the book we also learn about the actual writings and presentations of Shenbao's stories, editorials, and news. Mittler is particularly sensitive to changes in the newspaper's writing style. For example, she questions the originality of Liang Qichao's celebrated xin wenti, a new and influential style of newspaper prose avidly read and widely followed in the late Qing. She argues, convincingly in my opinion, that Liang's distinguished prose was not novel or unique, for Shenbao articles had already predated Liang's writings by many years.

In part 2, which turns out to be the more provocative of the two sections but also somewhat problematic, the author turns from form to content to show how a reading public was constructed in the text of Shenbao. Mittler challenges the accepted view that the late Qing news media was a powerful tool. She repeatedly warns against attributing many of the social and political changes that occurred in the waning days of the dynasty to the power of the press. On such questions as women's independence and their equality with men, for instance, Mittler contends that the views expressed in Shenbao were ambiguous. Indeed, it was not the modern values of female liberation that were repeatedly touted in the newspaper; rather there was an emphasis on the virtues of the woman's traditional role as homemaker. Thus, Mittler disputes the idea that the newspapers of the late Qing created the Chinese women's...


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