150 Years of the Shenbao: Where are the archives?

On 30 April 2022, on the very same date when the Shenbao released its inaugural issue 150 years ago (30 April 1872), two Shanghai institutions (East China Normal University 上海师范大学都市文化研究中心 and Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences 上海社会科学院历史研究所现代史研究室) held a joint conference to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Shenbao 纪念《申报》创刊150周年:一份报纸与中国近代史 and to address its history and legacy, as well as its contribution to the history of the city, both in terms of its role in the development of Shanghai and in terms of its contribution as a major source to write the history of modern Shanghai and even modern China. The main organizers included Su Zhiliang 蘇智良(ECNU), my former PH.D. student and now colleague, Jiang Jie 蔣杰(ECNU), and Ma Jun 馬軍 (SASS). This conference had been in the making for some time and was scheduled to take place at the exact time when the Shenbao saw the light for the first time, day for day. Unfortunately, Covid restrictions have made it impossible to foreign scholars to attend or contribute. Many, including this writer, would have loved to be associated with an event celebrating a newspaper — a historical institution — that they have used so much in their research. Yet, this is a great initiative and I look forward to the proceedings of the conference and hopefully a book in the near future. In-between the organizers have released a short report online.

I started reading the Shenbao in 1980 when I was working on my master degree about the Shanghai Municipal Government (1927-1937). At this time, we had access only to a microfilm version that I used to peruse on a very deficient microfilm reader in Paris. The next year, I took it up again at the Hoover Library in the East Asia Collection (now part of the Stanford East Asia Library). At least, the library was equipped with first-rate microfilm readers. It took me three months to read through all the 本阜消息 (Local news) for the whole Nanking Decade. When I came back to the Shenbao in 1987, Shanghai shudian had released a full reprint that, again, I consulted mostly at the Hoover Library before I succeeded myself to purchase a full run for our library. Although the reprint failed to reproduce the newspaper in its original size — cost considerations must have prevailed — this was a great improvement on the microfilm version and all of my research has relied on this reprint for almost 25 years. In 2011, I discovered one of first digital editions published by Green Apple in China during a summer institute at UC Berkeley. The next year, we established Numerica Sinica, including the digital version of the Shenbao produced by Erudition (愛如生). It is probably the most accurate digital version, but unfortunately the platform imposes too many unnecessary restrictions on downloading or copying full text. It is counterproductive for historical research. Finally, since 2019 I have gained access with the ENP-China project to a digital version that allows us full access to the text and enables us to implement NLP techniques (Natural Language Processing).

The Shenbao (申報) is the most venerable Chinese newspaper in China. It is true that is had a predecessor in English, the North China Herald, that started publishing in 1850, but it branched out as a daily newspaper, the North China Daily News, only in 1864. The pair — Shenbao and North China Daily News — can indeed be considered as the forerunners of mass media in China. There is another link between them, one that sometimes gets dissolved behind their front names: both were established by foreigners, a British businessman, Ernest Major, for the former; a British auctioneer, Henry Shearman, for the latter. Yet these newspapers were created on very different foundations and followed very different trajectories.

The North China Herald/North China Daily News catered to the population of foreign residents in Shanghai and by extension in China. It had no serious competitors before a long time, such as the Shanghai Times (1901) or the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong (1903). It can be said that the North China Daily News represented the interests of the anglophone business community, even if over time it became a source of information for English-educated Chinese.

The Shenbao represents an unusual venture as the founder, a British resident, chose to create a newspaper in Chinese and, to this end, relied exclusively on Chinese literati with the aim of reaching out to the vast pool of educated Chinese in Shanghai and the Jiangnan area. After Major returned to his home country in 1889, the Shenbao passed into the hands of Chinese investors and from then on became fully naturalized.

The year 2022 marks the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the Shenbao. We actually still do not know much about the newspaper as an institution. Most studies have concentrated on its published content. In English language, a whole spate of works was produced under the impetus of the late Rudolf Wagner .((Rudolf Wagner (ed.), Joining the global public : word, image, and city in early Chinese newspapers, 1870-1910 (Albany NY: State University of New York Press, 2007))) The two major studies of the Shenbao include Barbara Mittler’s A Newspaper for China?: Power, Identity, and Change in Shanghai’s News Media, 1872-1912 and Weipin Tsai’s Reading Shenbao. Nationalism, Consumerism and Individuality in China 1919–37, to which one can add two unpublished dissertations, Terry Narramore’s “Making the news in Shanghai : Shen Bao and the politics of newspaper journalism, 1912-1937” (Australian National University 1989) and Natascha Gentz’s “Die Anfänge des Journalismus in China (1860 – 1911)” (Heidelberg University, 1998).

The historiography in Chinese is not just richer, it is massive. It is not my purpose here to cover it all, and academic papers, thesis, and dissertation are thus excluded. If we take the production of books, the total amounts to 19 titles. A good chunk of these works are in fact compilations of original documents extracted from the Shenbao, mostly on places (申报广西资料索引 (1992); 淸季申报台湾纪事辑录(1994); 申報廣東資料選輯 1872-1949 (1995); 《申报》宁波史料集 (2013); 申报中的浦东 (2019); 近代厦门历史资料汇刊 : 申报纪闻 (2020)) and two on an organization, the Ninbo Sojourners’ Association (《申报》宁波旅沪同乡社团史料 (2009)  and the 1911 Revolution in Guangxi (申報”广西辛亥革命资料选编 (2012)). This is an enduring genre. The second largest group is made up of monographs in history that have appeared since 2000 (“申报”有关韩国独立运动曁中韩关系资料选编 : 1910-1949 (2000); 中国近现代经典广告创意评析 : “申报”七十七年 (2005);  上海滩视野下的慈溪商人 : 《申报》三北商帮史料集成 (2012); 早期”申报”与晚清政府 : 近代转型视野中报纸与官吏关系的考察 (2012); 中国近代报业采访史论 : 以”申报”为中心的考察 (2014); 《申报》报道与评论 (2019)),  two of them from a literary perspective (从申报广告看中国近代小说运动 (2015); “申报”刊载旧体诗研究(1872-1949) (2018)). Finally, the last genre consists of historical studies based on advertising materials in the Shenbao (欲望的想像 : 1920-1930年代<申报>广告的文化史研究 (2007); 跨文化广告与市民文化的变迁 : 1910-1930年[申报]跨文化广告研究 (2011); 远去的辉煌 : 申报(1929-1949)海派广告美术字图集 (2019). Doctoral dissertations addressing similar topics would be even more numerous.

It can be seen from the above that the Shenbao has been considered and used foremost as a historical source used in conjunction with other sources, as a central source for the study of a topic or simply a source from which to collect original documents. Very few represent attempts to write the history of the newspaper itself. The closest historians came to examining the operation of the Shenbao is Liu Li’s [劉麗] 中国近代报业采访史论 : 以”申报”为中心的考察 (2014) and to a lesser extent Lu Ning’s [盧寧] 早期”申报”与晚清政府 : 近代转型视野中报纸与官吏关系的考察 (2012). Yet, the Shenbao awaits its historian. It deserves a study, and probably several studies, that place it at the center of historical inquiry. We are in bad need of a social history of the Shenbao.

Why this huge gaping hole in historiography in view of the  centrality of the Shenbao as a historical source? We have multiple histories of the major newspapers in Europe or in the United States or even multi-volume histories of the press. For China, all we have are some guides1)  and directories 2and only a handful of monographs in English3. and three single-volume general histories of the press in Chinese4.

The first reason is the daunting tasks it represents to take up the challenge of studying such a long-living newspaper. We have almost no monograph on individual newspapers in China. Joan Judge’s Print and Politics : ‘Shibao’ and the Culture of Reform in Late Qing China constitutes a rare case of embracing the study of a whole periodical whose life cycle covered the last years of the empire most of the republican period (1904-1939).

The second reason was that stepping into reading 77 years of a newspaper was beyond the human mind until recently. Nowadays, however, historians can access digital online versions that allow more systematic searching and finding. Commercial online versions, however, provide only better facilities for querying, but not to retrieve information through the implementation of advanced algorithm-based NLP techniques (NLP: Natural Language Processing 自然語言處理).

The final and most crucial reason is the lack of first-hand sources. We do not have the archives of the Shenbao. We do not even know precisely where they are, what happened to them after 1949 when the new government ordered the shut down of the Shenbao on 27 May 1949. We can make the hypothesis that the Jiefang ribao (解放日報) that started publication on 28 May 1949 took over the whole material infrastructure of the Shenbao, including its stock of archives. Since 1949, however, nobody has had access to these materials, if they still exist. Yet there are reasons to be hopeful as Chinese institutions are generally great document keepers.

The time has come, now, 150 years after the foundation of the Shenbao, to open these archives. They should be entrusted to a public institution and made available for historical research. It is the responsibility and even the duty of the current Shanghai municipal leaders to pull out the archives of the Shenbao from obscurity and bring them back into the limelight of the city’s brilliant history. The Shenbao deserves no less.





  1. Clarke Prescott. A Research Guide to China-Coast Newspapers, 1822–1911 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 1965 []
  2. In particular the Carl Crow directories for 1931, 1933, 1935, and 1937. Cécile Armand has produced a series of studies of their content on her research blog, as well as an interactive search interface []
  3. He, Qiliang. Newspapers and the Journalistic Public in Republican China: 1917 as a Significant Year of Journalism, 2019; Pickowicz, Paul, Kuiyi Shen, et Yingjin Zhang. Liangyou: Kaleidoscopic Modernity and the Shanghai Global Metropolis, 1926-1945, 2013; Wang, Juan. Merry laughter and angry curses: the Shanghai tabloid press, 1897-1911. Contemporary Chinese studies. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012 []
  4. 梁家禄. 中國 新聞 業 史 (古代 至 一九四九 年 (1984); 馬光仁. 上海新聞史  (2014); 胡道静. 上海新聞事業之史的發展 (2018 []

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