Written by Stephen MacKinnon.

Attention to the Republican era press has been growing in scholarly circles over the last decade or so. In the recent survey by Tim Weston, he points to work on “readership” by Joan Judge, Byrna Goodman, and others; also works on professionalism and journalist education; reporting styles like reportage (Baogao Wenxue); advertising and so on. Probably the most studied daily newspaper is the Shen Bao of Shanghai – followed by the Da Gong Bao of Tianjin.

What is missing is a sense of the role of the owner publisher and his/her dicey relationship with political patrons. Most papers were small and few really made much money. So the motivation for both entrepreneur/publisher and investor in starting a paper was political as much as it was economic. As I have argued elsewhere (1997, January, Modern China article), the 1920s and 1930s were the height of print media activity and freedom of press during the Republican period.

For much of the Republican period, the political situation in various regions of China was quite fluid, especially during the warlord or militarist dominated 1920s. This meant that publishers had to perform a dual role: combine entrepreneur with political protégé who needed protection. Take the Beijing press in the 1920s for example. A young publisher like Cheng Shewo had to be nimble. The record of Cheng’s maneuverings as a young ambitious publisher in the 1920s is the basis for this article.

Cheng Shewo in Beijing and Nanjing in the 1920s

Cheng Shewo (1898-1991) began as a student at Beijing University and reporter for local newspapers during the May 4th, 1919 period. Cheng’s early, initial efforts as a publisher were flops. With Chancellor Cai Yuanpei’s blessing and capital raised from contributions by fellow Beida students, in April 1921, he made an unsuccessful effort to establish a publishing house (xinzhi shushe). Cheng then took what could be salvaged of the equipment and tried to start a small paper called the Zhen Bao, but it too never got off the ground because of inadequate capital and Cheng’s managerial inexperience.

But Cheng Shewo was a quick study, ambitious, and flexible – and quite willing to learn from mistakes. Critical to Cheng’s success as a publisher would be his management of capital, political patronage, and personnel. In 1923-24, wanting to supplement his subsistence salary as a reporter and to find sources of capital, Cheng began cultivating government officials. Cao Kun, the warlord who was in charge of Beijing at the time, controlled the press more by money and patronage than by the exercise of brute force. Cheng developed strong connections with Wu Jinglian, the speaker of the National Assembly, who reciprocated by giving him a nominal position as his secretary (paying 200 yuan a month for no work). For a short period, at about the same time, Cheng managed to wangle similar lucrative appointments through the Minister of Education, Zhang Zhizhao, and the Finance Minister, Wang Zhentan. It was savings from these posts that provided Cheng with the start up capital he needed. In April, 1924, Cheng quit the Yishi Bao where he had worked since 1920. With 200 Yuan (about 100 U.S. dollars at the time), he leased property and purchased the machinery needed to launch the Shijie wanbao.

The paper started in a single room, with an old printing press and a staff of two: Cheng Shewo and Gong Debo. Cheng’s paper was aimed at a student readership but followed the model of a small, earlier publication, the Qunqiangbao, which had a brief success on the streets of Beijing in 1921-22. As Cheng said later in a memoir the idea was to produce a small four page paper that reprinted stories in simplified, ab ridged form from other papers, and was exceedingly cheap. Like the Qunqiang Bao, the Shijie wanbao consisted of one large sheet of low-quality locally produced paper which was printed, cut and folded into four pages. The aim was to keep paper and printing costs low. Cheng and Gong Debo did lay out, type setting, and design themselves. He reprinted stories from the morning papers in condensed form. But Cheng also added his own reporting on the day’s events. Cheng published the Shijie wanbao on Sundays and holidays when other papers did not come out. He also advertised in major papers like the Jing Bao (edited by Shao Piaoping) and went out into the streets himself to sell the paper. The key to the paper’s initial success and survival, according to most accounts, was the popularity of the literary supplement (fukan). It was the popular serialized novels by Cheng’s close friend from the Yishi Bao, Zhang Henshui, which were key to the publications success.

Within nine months, the Shijie wanbao’s circulation, which was an afternoon paper, reached a respectable 5,000 papers a day. Success emboldened Cheng to launch a morning paper that would compete with the major dailies, like the Yi Shibao (Catholic missionary financed) or Xuntian ribao (Japanese financed). Initial financing had to come out of the Wanbao, which was difficult because revenues were derived mostly from sales (at two cash or a penny a copy), with little from advertising. Still Cheng managed to hire a part-time Beijing University student, Huang Shaogu (later publisher of the Saodang Bao and Foreign Minister) to continue to run the Wanbao while Cheng and Gong worked on the new paper.

To raise money capital for additional machinery and leasing of new facilities, Cheng drew upon the political connections that he had carefully cultivated as a reporter for the Yishi Bao. Through Sun Baoqi (Cao Kun’s sometime premier), Cheng met and cultivated He Delin, the Minister of Finance in the new Beijing government of Duan Qirui that was established in November, 1924. For political reasons He Delin was looking for a newspaper over which he could exercise control from behind the scenes. Cheng and He struck a deal and He made an initial loan of 3,000 Yuan for equipment and then followed up with 1,500 Yuan for start up costs.

Perhaps it was over the politicking behind raising the start up funds, but more likely because of clashes with Cheng over his autocratic management style, Gong Debo left the new paper after a few months and started a competing paper, Da Tong Wanbao. Unphased, Cheng ploughed forward. Within four months the Shijie ribao went from four to eight pages (on expensive paper, imported from Europe – Sweden). Two pages were devoted to advertisements; two pages for domestic and foreign news; a page was devoted to satirical cartoons and artistic drawings; a page for news from the provinces and social news; a seventh page on topics such as “Economic World”, “Educational World”, and “Women’s World;” with the final, eighth page reserved for the literary supplement. It was the latter, the literary supplement, which distinguished Shijie ribao from the competition. The literary editor was Liu Bannong, a fellow student from Beida, who recruited important writers for the fukan like Lu Xun and Zhang Henshui, whose novels continued to be serialized in both papers.

Within a year, circulation for the Shijie ribao reached 35,000 a day, putting it on a par with the other big dailies like the Jingbao, Chenbao, Shehui ribao, and Xuntian Ribao. Cheng Shewo’s publications shook up the newspaper world in part because he was notably aggressive about news coverage. Each of his offices had a short-wave radio to help in the search for news and fresh angles. Cheng remained very focused on his readership, many of whom were students at the dozens of higher education institutions in the Beijing vicinity. Cheng used dramatic headlines to attract attention, even if the news event itself was rather unimportant. For instance, when an administrator of a particular women’s college resorted to climbing a fence to avoid a student demonstration, the headlines the next day read: LIU BAIZHAO LEAPS FENCE TO GET IN.

A key ingredient of Cheng’s success was his deft handling of the politics and patronage that was necessary to the building and maintenance of media enterprises in Republican China. Cheng was arrested over ten times in the mid-1920s, so often that he hired a person who resembled him to sit near the front door of his office and act as decoy managing editor, thus giving Cheng time, when the police came, to escape out the back door. Generally, when arrested, Cheng was able to use connections and publicity to win a quick release.

The game became much more hazardous with the arrival in late 1925 of General Zhang Zongchang, the man whom Zhang Zuolin put in charge of Beijing and who was deeply suspicious and resentful of the press (hence his terrible reputation to this day as the “dogmeat general”). Upon arrival General Zhang summoned the managing editors from the major papers and told them: “Today I asked that you come here so that I might speak only about the news that you print in your papers; you are only allowed to speak well of me, you are not allowed to speak badly of me. If you speak badly of me, I will deal with it according to military law.”

His first target was Shao Piaoping, the publisher of the Jing Bao and a fine journalist. In April, 1926, Shao was arrested and executed on the trumped up charge of trying to blackmail General Zhang. In August the editor of Shehui ribao, Lin Baishui, was arrested and executed. The next day, August 7, Cheng Shewo was arrested. The charge was suspicion of being in the pay of the Guomindang and publishing stories that were too favorable to the Russian Communists. As usual, Cheng’s family went into action and enlisted the aid of the former premier, Sun Baoqi, who visited General Zhang a number of times on Cheng’s behalf. In the end a deal of sorts was struck. Cheng was released in return for permitting an audit of his bank account (for evidence of alleged bribes) and for pledging to avoid controversy in news stories in the future. Cheng kept a low profile and soon departed for Shanghai, where he would make a fresh start. His papers continued to publish, however, but not without political repercussions. Huang Shaogu, Cheng’s managing editor for the Wanbao, was forced to flee to Xi’an where he joined Feng Yuxiang and the Northern Expeditionary forces (eventually becoming one of the commanders who expelled Zhang Zongchang from Beijing). Finally, with the arrest and execution of his former mentor, Professor Li Dazhao, in April, 1927, Cheng Shewo decided to close the papers and make a fresh start in Nanjing.

Under the protection of friends in the new nationalist government, in April, 1927, Cheng launched the Minsheng Bao, and began experimenting with the “tabloid” (xiaoxing bao) format. As Cheng recalled in the 1950s: “In the south during the Republican years there were no small (xiaobao) newspapers as there were in Beiping, such as the Jinghua Ribao or Qunqiang bao; of those which tried [to publish], they died an early death as soon as dark clouds appeared….I started the Minsheng Bao in Nanjing; this was not only the first tabloid paper of the time, it was also the first non-party paper in the Republican government controlled capital….In the beginning, the Minsheng Bao had only one sheet of paper [folded into] four pages, but later it gradually expanded and consisted of four small sheets [for a total of eight pages]”. The paper was a success and within months outstripped in circulation the Guomindang party paper, Zhongyang Ribao.

But just as important as format were Cheng’s ties to the GMD leadership or the paper would not have been permitted to publish in Nanjing. Cheng’s chief political connection or patron was Li Shizeng, a professor at Beida and close associate of Chiang Kaishek who was instrumental in drafting the resolutions which expelled the Communists from the party in April, 1927 (Li is also alleged to have played a role in the arrest and execution of party founder, Li Dazhao, Cheng’s former patron). Cheng Shewo and Li Shizeng had become well acquainted earlier, in Beijing in 1925 at Beida and through Sun Baoqi whom Li had once served as an aide. Although the details seem murky, Li Shizeng provided political cover and capital as a partner in the founding of the Minsheng Bao in Nanjing. By that time Li held a high position in the Legislative Yuan of the new government.

In June, 1928, with Zhang Zuolin driven out, the old capital was renamed Beiping and occupied by Northern Expeditionary forces allied with Nanjing. This enabled Cheng to restart his three publications (Wanbao, Shijie ribao, and Huabao). At the same time, Li Shizeng, now President of Beida gave Cheng a nominal appointment as chief secretary for the new “university district” that was intended to replace the authority of the old Ministry of Education. Thus by the end of 1929, Cheng had thriving operations in both cities (Nanjing and Beiping) and was receiving a stable revenue stream for the first time. He also began receiving national recognition as a new breed of press mogul because of the reach and innovative quality of his publications.

There is much more to Cheng Shewo’s career, of course. His biggest financial and publishing success was the Li Bao in Shanghai in the 1930s. Today’s Guangming ribao began in 1950 by taking over the offices and equipment of Cheng’s Shijie ribao complex in Beijing just south of Tiantan. Cheng died in Taiwan in the 1990s (where he was also not allowed to publish a paper). Starting a journalism university Xinshijie daxue was one of his last ventures.

The point of this article is to point out the importance of political patronage to successful publishing, especially of daily newspapers, in Republican China. Without political patronage, not only the publication but the publisher’s life was in peril. When political patronage waned, there could be dire consequences. Most famously, there was the assassination in 1932 of Shi Liangcai, the long time publisher of Shen Bao in Shanghai who suddenly lost support of the patron he had so assiduously cultivated since the 1920s – Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek. The flip side of the relationship was the fact that political support from the local militarist or warlord could have the effect of permitting a freer press coverage of issues that were national and not local. This was the case for the press in Jinan, capital of Shandong province which was freely critical of Chiang Kaishek and the Guomindang under the militarist Han Fuju in the early 1930s.

Finally, I would suggest that a lot of these same factors, vis a vis political patronage as vital to survival and success of publications, still hold true in the newspaper publishing world of the PRC. A good example is the World Economic Herald (Shijie Jingji Dabao) under the progressive editor Qin Benli. It was a Shanghai daily that examined political and economic reform issues from a liberal point of view and was widely read throughout China from 1980 until its sudden closing at time of the demotion and house arrest of its high level patron, Premier Zhao Ziyang, in June, 1989. Besides Zhao, the paper had been initially supported by the relatively liberal mayor of Shanghai, Wang Daohan and financed through the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, both of whom the editor and publisher, Qin Benli, carefully cultivated.

Stephen MacKinnon is a professor of History and former Director of Center for Asian Studies at Arizona State University. His most recent book is “Wuhan, 1938: War, Refugees and the Making of Modern China” published in 2008. Image Credit: CC by National Museum of China.