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  • The Shenbao in Crisis: The International Environment and the Conflict Between Guo Songtao and the Shenbao
  • Rudolf G. Wagner (bio)

The Problem

Studies on the early history of the Shenbao 1 since the 1920s have assumed a general hostility of late Qing Chinese officialdom towards he Shenbao newspaper in Shanghai, implying that they would have liked nothing better than to see it closed down. In the same vein it has been assumed that reader interest for Chinese language papers before Liang Qichao entered the scene was marginal. 2 Third, it has been assumed that the early Western-owned Chinese language newspapers such as the Shenbao were instruments of Western imperialism or colonialism in exercising an influence on Chinese public opinion. It would follow that the survival of the Shenbao hinged on the privilege of the extraterritoriality of its managing editor Ernest Major, a British subject, and the British Consulate’s enforcement of the treaty provisions ensuring access of treaty port goods including newspapers to Chinese markets. 3 Given [End Page 107] the commodity character of the Shenbao and the dependence of a newspaper on market acceptance, this explanation seems weak. It may account for the Shenbao’s ongoing publication, but it does not account for its success.

Research on the rise of the vernacular press in China remains wedded to a China-centered perspective drawing exclusively on China-related and for a large part Chinese-language material. Given the global dimensions of Great Britain’s foreign policy during the second half of the nineteenth century, as well as the striking parallels in the modernization process of different Asian regions and countries including their print markets, this procedure fails to verify the presumed particularity of the Chinese development. It banks on a mixture of Chinese nationalist focus and the professional blindness and disinterest of specialists in one field for developments in others, but prima facie lacks in scholarly plausibility. 4

The purpose of this paper is to submit these propositions to verification and to open the path for an entirely different approach to the early history of the Shenbao, and Chinese-language newspapers at that, which would focus on their cultural acceptance.

The test case is a conflict between a high Chinese official, Guo Songtao, and the Shenbao during a short and quite exceptional period when British protection was withheld from the Shenbao and there were clear and public signs that the British side would not object to a Chinese ban on vernacular Chinese papers run by foreigners.


By 1876, four years after being launched, the Shenbao had established itself as a commercially successful paper that carried the only public and serious discussion of many public issues in China. It had a circulation between 5600 and 7000 copies a day, had sales agents in “Soochow, Hangchow, Yangchow, Foochow, Woochang, Nanking, Ningpo, Tientsin, Peking, Hankow, Hongkong, and has monthly accounts with native post offices for distribution to less important towns in the interior.” 5 The British Consulate’s [End Page 108] Intelligence Report for early 1876 noted, “the local Authorities are gradually becoming reconciled to the freedom of its [the Shenbao’s] criticisms on their proceedings.” 6 And the Shanghai Taotai began to make use of this medium to make his own views known even while the Shenbao’s editorials continued to take a stance opposite from his. 7

Controlling the Vernacular Press: Japan and India

Another development, however, threatened to jeopardize the entire enterprise. This was the new Japanese press law, and the reaction of the British Plenipotentiary Sir Harry Parkes to it. In the same year when the Shenbao had been founded by the Englishman Ernest Major (1841–1908) with four other shareholders in 1872, another British subject, J. R. Black, had started a Japanese language newspaper, the Nisshin shinjishi in Tokyo. In his own words “this was the first newspaper ever published in Japanese on the ordinary foreign model, with articles, paragraphs, correspondence, foreign intelligence, commercial and shipping news, and advertisements,” a description that also fits the role of the Shenbao in China. 8 Black, a Scotsman with fine writing skills but a reputation for messy finances, had been involved earlier in the English-language Japan Herald and...

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pp. 107-143
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