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The Role of the Foreign Community in the Chinese Public Sphere*

  • Rudolf G. Wagner


The last years have seen lively international sinological and domestic Chinese debates oDn the structure and development of the Chinese public sphere. The international discussion has been largely analytical in orientation, prompted by developments in late Qing social history research and the new availability in English and French of Habermas's seminal study. The Chinese discussion has been more strategic, suggesting or legitimizing paths for China's further development: PRC government-directed research in the context of the Seventh Five-Year Plan focused on those aspects in the development experiences of cities like Shanghai which might be of use for the city's further development, especially regarding its relationship with the developed world. Independent critics writing outside the PRC felt prompted to join the discussion about the Chinese public sphere by the growing conflict between a society in the process of rapid diversification and development on the one hand and a political leadership rigidly maintaining the ideal of the people's uniformity in thought and attitude on the other. These differences notwithstanding, the international and domestic branches of the discussion share, for different reasons, an endogenous perspective explaining modern developments from the internal dynamics of Chinese society rather than from the impact from or the response to the West.

The international sinological discussion has searched for elements of a self-assertive Chinese public sphere in traditional areas such as guilds, associations or landsmannschaften, in the new private social welfare institutions set up by reconstruction activists after the Taiping rebellion, in the late Qing qingyi discussions within the bureaucracy, or in more modern areas such as labour unions or chambers of commerce.



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1. Rowe, William T., Hankow: Commerce and Society in a Chinese City, 1796–1889 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984), pp. 317 ff.

2. Rankin, M. B., Elite Acitivism and Political Transformation in China, Zhejiang Province 1865–1911 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986), ch. 3, “The post-Taiping reconstruction: the rise of the public sphere.” Rankin, M.B., “The origins of a Chinese public sphere. Local elites and community affairs in the late imperial period,” Etudes Chinoises, Vol. IX, No. 2 (Fall 1990).

3. Eastman, L., “Ch'ing-i and Chinese policy formation during the Sino-French controversy, 1880–1885,” Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 24, No. 4 (1965); Rankin, Mary B., “ ‘Public opinion’ and political power:qingyi in late nineteenth century China,” Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 51, No. 3 (May 1982).

4. Strand, D., Rikshaw Beijing. City People and Politics in the 1920s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), ch. 8, “Citizens in a new public sphere: widening circles of political participation.” D. Strand, “Civil Society ” and “Public Sphere ” in Modern China: A Perspective on Popular Movements in Beijing 1919–1989 (Durham: Asian/Pacific Studies Institute, n.d.).

5. Cohen, Paul, Discovering History in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).

6. Habermas, J., Strukturwandel der Oeffentlichkeit (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1962). Cf. the review article by Rowe, William, “The public sphere in modern China,” Modern China, Vol. 16, No. 3(1990).

7. Darnton, Roger, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982).

8. Chartier, Roger, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution (trans. Cochrane, L.) (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1991).

9. Wakeman, F.. “The civil society and public sphere debate: Western reflections on Chinese political culture,” Modern China, Vol. 19, No. 2 (April 1993), pp. 117128.

10. Cf. also Shuyun, Ma, “The Chinese discourse on civil society,” The China Quarterly, No. 137 (March 1994), pp. 180193.

11. Zhiguang, Liu and Suli, Wang, “Cong ‘qunzhong shehui’ zouxiang ‘gongmin shehui’” (“From ‘mass society’ to ‘civil society’”), Xinhua wenzhai (Extracts of Xinhua Texts, No. 119 (1988), pp. 9 ff.Jianning, Liu, Dangdai Zhongguo yulun xingtai (The Structure of Public Opinion in Present-Day China) (Beijing: Zhongguo renmin daxue chubanshe, 1989).

12. Zhang, Zhongli (ed.), Jindai Shanghai chengshi yanjiu (Urban Studies on Modern Shanghai) (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 1990).

13. Cf. Xiaoqing, Ye, “Shanghai before Nationalism,” East Asian History, No. 3 (1992), pp. 51 ff; also Robert Bickers and Jeffrey Wasserstrom's article in this issue.

14. Zhang Zhongli, Jindai Shanghai chengshi yanjiu, p. 32.

15. Murphey, Rhoads, Shanghai: Key to Modern China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953). Chinese translation: Mofei, Luosi, Shanghai - xiandai Zhongguo de yaoshi (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 1984).Murphey's, more recent work, The Outsiders: The Western Experience in India and China (Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 1977), which argues the exact opposite, namely that Shanghai and Calcutta have remained largely outside the economic development of China and India respectively, is not quoted by the authors of Jindai Shanghai chengshi xanjiu. On Murphey's surprising switch in perspective see Bèrgere, Marie-Claire, “L'autre Chine,” originally in Annales ESC, translated as “The other Shanghai: Shanghai from 1919–1949” in Christopher, Howe (ed.), Shanghai: Revolution and Development in an Asian Metropolis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 134.

16. “Asienkonzept der Bundesregierung” (“The Asia strategy of the Federal Government”), Asien, No. 50 (January 1994), pp. 152 ff.

17. On the concept of the enclave and its role in 19th-century China see R. Wagner, “Staatliches Machtmonopol und alternative Optionen. Zur Rolle der ‘Westlichen Barbaren’ im China des 19. Jahrhunderts” (“The state's monopoly of power and alternative options. On the role of the ‘western barbarians’ in 19th-century China”), in J.H. Grevemeyer (ed.), Traditionale Gesellschaften und Europaischer Kohmialismus (Frankfurt: Syndikat, 1981), pp. 131 ff.

18. Quoted from Zhang Zhongli, Jindai Shanghai chengshi yanjiu, p. 450.

19. For this term see among others Cornelius Castoriadis, L'Institution Imaginaire de la Societe (Paris: Seuil, 1975).

20. Wagner, R.. “Operating in the Chinese public sphere: theology and technique of Taiping propaganda,” in Ziircher, E. and Huang, Chun-Chieh (eds.). Norms and the State in China (Leiden: Brill, 1993), pp. 104140.

21. For the notion of the career circuit, cf. B. Anderson, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London & New York: Verso), pp. 47 ff.

22. Elvin, Mark, The Pattern of the Chinese Past (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1973).

23. Guantao, Jin, Zai lishi de beihou (Behind History's Back) (Chengdu: Sichuan renmin chubanshe, 1984).Longji, Sun, Zhongguo shehui shenceng jiegou (The Deep Structure of Chinese Society) (Hong Kong: Tiandi, 1987).

24. Feetham, Richard, Report of the Hon. Richard Feetham to the Shanghai Municipal Council (Shanghai: North China Daily News and Herald, 1931).

25. On Major's excellent command of Chinese as well as the early spread of the Shenbao cf. the statement by Ge Yuanxu in 1876 that Major was a real “Chinese scholar” (zhonghua wenshi) and that his Shenbao was already then “widely read in port cities.” Yuanxu, Ge, Huyou zaji (DistractedNotes on Journeys in Shanghai) (repub. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1989), p. 12.

26. Shenbao, 30 April 1872, p. 1.

27. Cf. Zhang Zhongli, Jindai Shanghai chengshi yanjiu, p. 535.

28. Some preliminary information on Major's book publishing efforts has been collected in Zaiping, Xu and Ruanfang, Xu, Qing mo sishinian Shenbao shiliao (Historical Materials Concerning the Shenbao from the Last 40 Years of the Qing Dynasty) (Beijing: Xinhua Press, 1988), pp. 324 ff.

29. Cf. Wagner, R., “The Shanghai illustrated newspapers Dianshizhai huabao and Feiyingge huabao - an introductory survey,” paper given at the AAS Conference, March 1992, New Orleans; Henningsmeier, J., “How the Dianshizhai huabao wrote its foreign reports,” unpub. paper, Heidelberg, November 1994; Kim, Nanny, “How to read about monsters and miracles in an illustrated magazine from late 19th century Shanghai,” unpub. paper, Heidelberg, November 1994.

* A previous version of this article was presented as a inaugural Huang Hsing Foundation Lecture at the Asian Studies Centre, St Antony's College, Oxford University, October 1994. I am indebted to the “The Chinese Public Sphere” research group at the University of Heidelberg for many stimulating discussions on the history of Chinese newspapers.

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The Role of the Foreign Community in the Chinese Public Sphere*

  • Rudolf G. Wagner


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