Theses Doctoral

Small Words, Weighty Matters: Gossip, Knowledge and Libel in Early Republican China, 1916-1928

Zhang, Jing

In the years following the death of the autocratic ruler Yuan Shikai (1859-1916), the flow of gossip surrounding political leaders in China’s urban spheres revealed an open, disorderly yet robust arena full of competing voices, agendas, and manipulations. My dissertation examines gossip as both a new body of public political knowledge and a means of popular participation in this politically-fragmented and transitional era. On the one hand, this body of political knowledge engaged a wide spectrum of Chinese society engaged with this body of political knowledge, and which fostered an uncontrolled playful citizenship in China’s urban spaces. On the other hand, this new civic participation prompted the fledging Republican state to curb the dissemination of information through censorship, legal avenues and political propaganda. I argue that political gossip played a constructive role in forming a participatory political culture, in developing state mechanisms to discipline popular knowledge, and in transforming shaping legal categories of defamation. Different fromAs opposed to other studies that analyze the formation of Chinese citizenship in the process of nation-building, my project contextualizes the popular political participation in the Republican era within a broader shift in political culture that was increasingly shaped by the entertainment media. Lower- class information traders and a commoner audience dominated in the gossip economy by actively producing and consuming narratives and opinions, without being restricted by state education and elite activism. My research thus offers a brand new bottom-up perspective in the studyies of Republican Chinese political culture.
Chapter 1 examines the commercialization of “trivial information” by focusing on the rise of a commercially driven and professionalized group of gossipmongers across varying social-economic strata in the late 1910s and the early 1920s. The expansion of the community affected both the practice and mindset of gossipmongers in the industry. Chapter 2 shows how the entertainment interplayed with political significance in the early Republican gossip publications to involve more commoner readers in both knowledge production and consumption in this gossip economy. This unique mode challenged conventional top-down knowledge transmission and the sense of exclusivity in the field of knowledge production. Chapter 3 illuminates the state’s efforts at developing a new censorship system and tactics of moral persuasion for re-building knowledge and establishing moral authority in the late 1910s. I show that the central government was a functional authority in the cultural realm during the period of chaotic and fragmentation. Chapter 4 turns to the relationship between the mass media and the defamation law. It focuses on a 1919 case in which the Beijing government sued the Republican Daily for insulting the President. Although the state attempted to use the legal instrument to fix a boundary between playful and serious political discussion, the Press’ commercial pursuit and insistence on autonomy gradually transformed this means of taming into a mechanism of publicity. The last chapter analyzes the politics of visibility from the aspect perspective of political leaders who also drew on the discursive power of gossip by examining Jiang Jieshi’s coordinated effort to take control publicity surrounding his romantic life and wedding ceremony in 1927. In this new form of official political communication, a striking tension persisted between the attempts of to use the form and dissemination power of gossip as an effective technique of social influence and the unruly commercial adaptation of media narratives.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Lean, Eugenia Y.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 24, 2018