First Newspapers in China Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

What may be considered the world’s first newspapers appeared in China during the Tang Dynasty.

Summary of Event

Given the vast expanse of the ancient Chinese empire, government officials, both in the provinces and in the capitals, had a constant need to keep informed of events and to disseminate official information and decrees. Perhaps because of this need, China was the first nation in the world to develop what may be considered newspapers. [kw]First Newspapers in China (713-741) [kw]Newspapers in China, First (713-741) [kw]China, First Newspapers in (713-741) Newspapers, first China;newspapers in China;713-741: First Newspapers in China[0560] Communications;713-741: First Newspapers in China[0560] Cultural and intellectual history;713-741: First Newspapers in China[0560]

By the end of the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.), the Chinese empire had almost everything in place to establish a system of newspapers: a well-developed system of communication, paper, and printing. Pre-Han Dynasty emperors had created a communications system for reasons of military necessity. They had built a system of roads and post relays, with stations at regular intervals, which were also used by imperial couriers. Messages could also be carried on rivers or canals. The invention of paper traditionally is attributed to the eunuch Cai Lun Cai Lun (Ts’ai Lun) in 105, but crude paper fragments from several centuries earlier, probably not suited for writing, have been discovered. Paper Paper;invention of was probably not used for writing until the first century, and the earliest samples of writing on paper date from the second century. By the Han Dynasty, seals, small wooden stamps, and rubbings were used to reproduce religious charms or textile patterns. By the seventh century, the Chinese had probably begun printing Printing;China on paper from wooden blocks, and the first surviving examples date from between 704 and 751.

To get news from the Chinese capital, almost all important local rulers of large frontier territories established official residences in the capitals, staffed by their own representatives, who sent back handwritten news accounts and reports of events over the empire’s system of roads and couriers. These official residences or mansions in the capitals were called di. The distances were so great that imperial officials had to rely on these private, handwritten reports instead of word of mouth to convey information to the local rulers. The imperial court created an office to convey its orders to these representatives, and it used the system of roads and couriers to collect information about events that transpired in the empire.

In the Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907), these private newsletters developed into official handwritten newspapers, known as dibao Dibao , from di plus bao, or “report.” The first dibao is known to appeared between 713 and 741. Titled Kaiyuan zabao Kaiyuan zabao , after the Kaiyuan Dynasty, it was sent from the capital at Chang’an (now Xi’an). The oldest surviving court newspaper, and the oldest in world, was issued in 876 and is now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. In it, a correspondent in the capital describes to a general the activities celebrating the New Year.

The dibao were published at regular intervals and were filled with official and court news: promotions, demotions, dismissals, edicts, government memoranda, and reports of other activities. Some of the memoranda were learned essays giving the opinion of scholars on political or social reforms, so the dibao contained some official opinions about issues of the day, in addition to just news. By 777, a number of dibao were being issued by different publishing offices in the capital, including the chao bao (“court newspaper”) and the gongmenchao (“imperial court newspaper”). Therefore, the central government created a bureau of official reports responsible for all the news going in and out of the capital. It combined all the dibao going out of the capital into the provinces into a single, official newspaper.

The dibao were distributed to enough local rulers that at some time during the Tang Dynasty, some of the newsletters began to be printed. Printing had begun in China in the seventh century, and the printing of the dibao was probably done at first from a clay block and then from wooden blocks.

After the Five Dynasties Period (907-960), another period of instability and warfare, China was again united under the Song Dynasty Song Dynasty;newspapers and (Sung; 960-1279), and again dibao—both government-sponsored and private—flourished.

News publishing had become an important institution, and the dibao reached a wide circulation that consisted of officials, scholars, and intellectuals throughout the country. Reading the dibao for entertainment and to hear the latest rumors and gossip seems to have been popular, leading to the development of unofficial xiaobao (“small newspapers”), a type of tabloid newspaper containing sensational news. The news in the xiaobao was considered so inaccurate, misleading, and injurious to the government that one official asked the emperor to prohibit publishing such “sensational news” because it was “misleading the public.” In effect, he called for censorship of the news.

The Song emperors took heed, retaining government control of the dibao and censoring and suppressing the xiaobao. In 1090, a law was promulgated giving a two-year punishment to anyone printing a xiaobao and a reward for whoever reported the printer. The central government also suppressed unfavorable military news, a development that brought an objection from one official. Later, in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), news of murders, appointments, and dismissals that would suggest corruption in the government was also suppressed.

The early handwritten or printed dibao are a far cry from the modern concept of a newspaper. In the modern sense, a newspaper is published regularly, is available to a significant part of the public, includes a variety of stories or articles, serves as an organ of public opinion, and helps shape a sense of community among readers, printers, and editors. However, the first dibao were primarily a means of distributing official government information. These newsletters circulated only among a closed circle of government officials and bureaucrats, who were among the small literate elite. They were not intended for the masses, though they might learn of news from the capital by word of mouth from those officials who had read the dibao. Unlike the Roman acta, the dibao do not seem to have been posted in public places.

Significance

China had an early and important role in the history of journalism and newspapers. Papermaking and the process of printing—on which Western Europe’s own newspapers depended—were invented in China. Although the dibao were the first “newspapers,” they should not be considered journalism or public newspapers in the modern sense. They were not objective publications that served the people and acted as a check on government. They were closer to a government press service developed for the use of bureaucrats. In their content, there is little or no sense of gathering, selecting, and editing news for the broad general public. Nor was there any means—by editorials or news stories—of offering expression to the voice of the people to shape public opinion and social or political events. In this sense, the dibao are closest to modern newspapers in countries in which the press is rigidly controlled and heavily censored by the government.

Whatever their relation to modern newspapers, the dibao, part of a system of collecting news from the provinces and disseminating information throughout the empire, enabled the Chinese to administer a large empire. The government’s involvement in their publication and its later censorship of the xiaobao illustrates the government’s major purpose in developing these “newspapers,” which was to convey the official story throughout the empire.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lin Yutang. A History of the Press and Public Opinion in China. Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, 1936. Classic and most thorough account of the origin of newspapers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Anthony. The Newspaper: An Introductory History. London: Thames and Hudson, 1979. Brief mention of the Chinese press in its world context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stephens, Mitchell. A History of News. Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace, 1997. Textbook with a good account of the history of Chinese journalism and newspapers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin. “Paper and Printing.” Part 1 in Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Vol. 5 in Science and Civilisation in China, translated and edited by Joseph Needham. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Thorough and up-to-date account of the history of paper and printing in China.

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