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How newspapers existed in China 900 years ago

It is commonly believed that newspapers first emerged in Europe in the early 1600s. However, there is much evidence to show that publications that could rightfully be called newspapers were thriving centuries earlier in medieval China.

Research carried out by Yangming He of Zhejiang University traces two forms of newspapers that emerged in the eleventh century, and would become extremely popular during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279). The first were official bulletins, known as chaobao, while the second were private, and often illegal, publications, called xiaobao. Both reached wide audiences who were eager to know what was happening with the Chinese government and other events around the country.

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The development of these newspapers can be traced back to the late tenth century, when the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127) created an ‘information department’ that would collect and disseminate official information, such as new government policies and appointments. They would create the first chaobao, which translates as ‘court paper’. With the fall of that dynasty and the establishment of the Southern Song Dynasty in Hangzhou, these efforts expanded even further.

The conditions at Hangzhou would put it in a good position to become the world’s first centre for newspapers and journalism. As it became the capital for the Southern Song, the city would have a rapid rise in population, reaching as many as two million residents. It is believed that Hangzhou was the largest city in the world for all of the thirteenth century. Many of the people who lived there were well-educated and looking for work in the government, and would be seeking as much information as they could about the inner workings of the dynasty.

Moreover, the printing industry in China had become even more prominent after the invention of moveable type in the mid-eleventh century. It became easier to publish materials – allowing one to create hundreds or thousands of copies quickly.

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Yangming was able to trace the rise of the chaobao through many references in both government regulations, chronicles and literary works. Dozens of people were working in Hangzhou on them, and they reached the point where they were being printed daily, and being distributed throughout China. He also notes how they were popular:

There also lived in Hangzhou a mass of loyal, everyday readers of chaobao. Meanwhile, many collectors of chaobao emerged in Hangzhou. For example, it was recorded that a rich and influential family owned a closet full of copies of chaobao from the years 1224 to 1264, and another family named Zhang owned a complete collection of chaobao, but the master of the family was reluctant to loan his chaobao to others. Since there were lots of temporary bazaars in Hangzhou during holidays, collections of chaobao were sold at fairs and shops in these bazaars. There is an inference that there were some people who used to buy and keep these chaobao as their personal collection.

The chaobao would cover a broad range of news besides government announcements, including social events, natural disasters, and obituaries. Yangming points to a few examples of what you can find in these publications, such as the story of how one man was reading a chaobao and learned that in his hometown a fire had burned down the house of a Mr. Wuang. The man knew this person was his neighbour, and was worried that his own home had been destroyed too. He made a long trip back to his hometown, only to discover the chaobao got one detail wrong – the house that burned down belonged to a Mr. Wang, not Waung.

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Journalism and fake news

While the chaobao would continue to thrive until the Mongol conquest of the Southern Song, they had competition from the xiaobao, which means ‘illegal paper.’ They too emerged in the eleventh century, but were hugely popular in Hangzhou. Yangming explains:

During the Southern Song Dynasty, there were wars in northern China, and people fled to Hangzhou and other southern China regions. Though people lived in Hangzhou, they still paid close attention to the wars and political arguments, and even debated between the hawks and the doves. But chaobao, strictly controlled by the authorities, were inclined to report positive news of the empire, and did not always tell the truth about the wars, let alone the political arguments and debates in the courts… For this reason, chaobao lost their appeal for readers because of their increasingly dull and unbalanced contents. More and more people switched to xiap-pao for their broad and colorful contents, especially during the unquiet period. In 1138, an imperial official petitioned the emperor, asking to kill the dovish premier. This memorial was published in xiaobao and attracted people’s attention. Having good prospect of gain, some information officials and some civilians naturally dared to cover news and published xiaobao. The press policies of the government helped xiaobao to survive and develop.

Yangming sees the xiaobao as firmly rooted in journalism. These “were nongovernmental and independent” entities that had their own writers, editors and publishers, who covered topics that the government did not want, and they reached wide audiences. Like the chaobao, they would eventually become daily publications. Their popularity would upset authorities, who called the xiaobao a form of ‘fake news’. Even one Song emperor spoke against them in the year 1188:

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I hear that recently some persons are fabricating some papers without grounds. These papers, so-called xiaobao, circulating both in China and abroad, are very appalling and sensational. From now on, excepting the information and activities sent by the information department, anyone who dares to publish xiaobao will be seriously punished. Those officials who read xiaobao will also be punished if reported to the emperor.

Many efforts were made to shut down the xiaobao, but these publications proved to be too popular for them to go away. Like the chaobao, they would endure until the Mongol conquest of the Southern Song in the 1270s.

In examining the legacy of these publications, Yangming He concludes that “we should consider xiaobao, and possibly chaobao, as newspapers—even consider them as the first daily newspapers; and Western precursors to the newspapers, such as the Italian gazzetta hundreds of years later, are modest by comparison. If the proposal that chaobao and xiaobao belong to the first daily newspapers is accepted by academia, modern newspapers and journalism would be traced back to the twelfth century, even as early as the eleventh century.”

Yangming He’s article, “Hangzhou, the Origins of the World Press and Journalism?” appears in Journalism Studies 16:4 (2015). You can access the article through Taylor and Francis.

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Top Image: “Xi Hu Landscape” by Li Song (1190–1264), showing the Leifeng Pagoda in Hangzhou.

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