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  • Joining the Global Public: Word, Image, and City in Early Chinese Newspapers, 1870-1910
  • Dorothee Schaab-Hanke (bio)
Rudolf G. Wagner , editor. Joining the Global Public: Word, Image, and City in Early Chinese Newspapers, 1870-1910. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. ix, 249+ pp. Hardcover $25.95, ISBN-13: 978-0-7914-7117-3.

The last three decades of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century, the time frame chosen for this book, was for China a time of unprecedented humiliation by foreign powers and a weak central goverment in the aftermath of two Opium Wars. Nonetheless, that time span also meant, in many respects, a new chance for China and the Chinese. The present book focuses on one of these new challenges in Chinese history, that of the development of the news media, a chapter of Chinese history that has been badly neglected by China scholars.

Rudolf G. Wagner points out in his preface that the essays collected in this volume are the fruits of the research group Structure and Development of the Chinese Public Sphere, established in Heidelberg in 1993. The questions discussed by the members were, as can be concluded from Wagner's introduction, much inspired by Jürgen Habermas's study on the transformation of the public sphere in Europe. According to Habermas, in late seventeenth-century England, early eighteenth-century France, and finally late nineteenth-century Germany, a segment of society, Bürgerliche Gesellschaft (civil society), established the platform for a rational-critical discussion, largely independent from the state. The spirit of Bürgerliche Öffentlichkeit (civil public sphere) declined, according to Habermas, in the course of the twentieth century, due to the impact of both the transformation of the state toward the modern welfare state and the impact of the modern mass media.

Although the original German version of Habermas' study was published in 1962, it was more than twenty years later, after the publication of its English translation in 1989, that the value of his pioneering work, especially for the young discipline of media studies, became internationally acknowledged.1 Whereas Habermas had at his disposal a wide range of previous studies by historians, Wagner emphasizes, much has still to be done in the Chinese field before any broader conceptualizations could be dared. Thus, the studies collected in the present volume should be understood as an effort to strengthen this base.

In what follows, I will first summarize the main contents of each of the five essays. Then, some of the results of these studies will be reconsidered in the context of the title Joining the Global Public. Moreover, the question will be raised whether and to what degree the conceptualization proposed by Habermas for the development in Europe proves to be valid for the Chinese case. [End Page 276]

In chapter 1, Barbara Mittler traces the process that newspapers underwent, from the initial stage in which they were wholly imported from outside to a stage in which they were accepted by Chinese readers as really "Chinese" media (pp. 13-45). Her study concentrates on the argumentative, rhetorical, and cultural strategies that the new media gradually adapted and integrated into the world of the Chinese readership. Drawing primarily on editorials published in the Shenbao, but adducing also evidence from several other newspapers, she shows how the newspaper as a medium was doubtlessly imported by foreigners and was, thus, a foreign medium. But instead of trying to deny these foreign roots the authors of these editorials arrived at what Mittler calls a "semantic remake." "A semantic remake," Mittler explains, "was necessary to integrate the alien medium into Chinese structures of the public sphere" (p. 30). This process, which Mittler designates as a form of "domestication," was achieved by incorporating into the very concept of the editorial traditional Chinese literary forms such as the "eight-legged-essay" (baguwen), whose mastery was a precondition for any candidate seeking a successful career as an imperial official.2

Natascha Gentz, whose focus is laid on the makers of the first newspapers and magazines in China (chapter 2), decided in favor of a sociohistorical approach (pp. 47-104).3 The papers she...


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