THE NEW APPROACH TO THE POPULAR PRESS IN CHINA
Gender and Cultural Production, 1904-1937
Our project seeks to restore complexity to early-twentieth-century Chinese history by liberating that history from reductive discourses on the failings of tradition and the promise of modernity. Our instrument and object of investigation is the popular press, an as yet understudied medium that dominated the contemporary print market and became one of the prime sites for the production of knowledge and culture. Our thematic focus is the fraught and momentous subject of new gender relations in this period when footbinding ended, formal female education was officially sanctioned (1907), and women’s public roles dramatically expanded. Our geographical locus is Shanghai, epicenter of developments in both the periodical press and gender relations at the turn of the twentieth century. The project combines methods from cultural, print, art and women’s history.
We historicize and contextualize the popular press, in order to examine it as both a discursive text and a cultural artifact. It is a record of the major events of the period, most notably the end of two millennia of imperial rule and the establishment of China’s first republic (1911-12). It also charts prominent trends: the iconoclastic movements to create a New Culture (1915-25) through the appropriation of Western “science and democracy,” to institute a new politics through the adaptation of international socialism (with the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921), and to produce “new” women and men through the selective embrace of foreign ways. At the same time, however, this new medium was an increasingly commercialized cultural product that helped readers manage their quotidian lives.
It counseled them on new vocations and introduced them to new marriage practices. It advertised recently available items from textbooks to soap, and it visually illustrated the glorious architectural and sordid social manifestations of rapid urban development. It also mediated the profound changes in gender relations that marked the era.
We use four influential Chinese women’s journals—a key genre of the popular press—to analyze shifts in gender roles, cultural practices, and in the very media that both drove and reflected these changes. Our approach combines “horizontal” and “vertical” readings of the journals. Horizontal, or integrated, readings restore integrity and materiality to the popular press by approximating the ways journals were read in their own day, not as repositories of disembodied and disconnected articles, images, and advertisements but as organic, physical texts embedded within specific cultural contexts. Vertical, or situated, readings historicize the contents of the popular press over the first three decades of the twentieth century as the medium shifted from more intellectual, politically driven journalism, to increasingly commercialized, market-driven journalism. We trace across journals and over time the emergence of new topics such as hygiene, new social categories such as the “new woman,” and new genres such as free-verse poetry. We are, however, particularly attentive to the persistence of established cultural forms, and to the myriad ways new concepts and narrative devices merged with and recycled the old as well as changing the new.
The vertical and horizontal approach to the popular press is an effective tool for examining this rich body of non-canonical materials that have not been systematically studied to date. It also yields historical insights into the process of modernity in China and in the non-Western world more broadly by challenging narratives of the triumph of foreign ideas and nationalist concerns.