Wherein the Chinese know the best news is independent news.
Growing up I dreamed of being a journalist, even going so far as to create a family and neighborhood “newspaper” (hand written and illustrated by moi) and distributing it in a “vending machine” (a cardboard box, colored red with crayon and with a window cut into the front). I courageously spoke truth to power, printing such powerhouse stories as “MOM MAKES GROSS DINNER; KIDS REBEL” (as best as I can remember, I mostly copied things from The Bremerton Sun, but it’s fun to think of myself as creating something like Calvin’s newspaper). I later started college as a journalism major before answering the siren’s call of television and then the Internet, leaving behind my dreams of being an ink-stained wretch uncovering the skullduggery of the powers-that-be…or at least the culinary skullduggery of my mother.
Newspaper history goes back even farther than my 1970s one-sheet tabloid. While what we now think of as newspapers are generally seen as beginning in the 17th century, bulletins were created hundreds of years earlier in China.
Headlines, Screamin’ Everywhere I Go
In looking for the origins of Chinese news we immediately step into controversy (my doing so demonstrates—as I’ve done so many times before—that dilettantes faffing about with history rush in where angels fear to tread). Some scholars trace these origins to the Han dynasty, which ruled for a little under 400 years—with a brief break in the middle—from the second century BCE to the third century CE. According to this theory, local governments created an information organization called the Di which collected and transmitted information called the bao from the central government; the information transmitted by the Di was therefore called dibao. Other scholars reject this theory, saying the earliest verified dibao was published during the Tang dynasty in the ninth century CE.
Yangming He argues the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279) gave birth to two forms of newspapers: chaobao, or official bulletins; and xiaobao, independent (and often illegal) publications. Chaobao, which were a continuation of bulletins from the preceding Northern Song Dynasty, covered both governmental announcements and wider community news such as social events. This enabled readers to know not only about governmental decrees and appointments, as well as general political and military news, but also more general news such as fires and natural disasters.
The problem with official news, of course, is that it is oriented toward flattering portrayals of the ruling powers. This led to the rise of xiaobao, independently written and distributed news bulletins covering topics the government preferred to conceal (and, Yangming notes, doing so more colorfully than the dull official news). These soon became so popular that they were published daily to satisfy readers’ desire for the latest news.
Unsurprisingly, the government was displeased with the popularity of xiaobao. Yangming quotes a Song emperor criticizing and threatening the free press (and its readers) in 1188:
I hear that recently some persons are fabricating some papers without grounds. These papers, so-called xiaobao, circulating both in China and abroad, are very appalling and sensational. From now on, excepting the information and activities sent by the information department, anyone who dares to publish xiaobao will be seriously punished. Those officials who read xiaobao will also be punished if reported to the emperor.
Chaobao and xiaobao remained popular until the Mongols conquered the Southern Song in 1270, and even then they didn’t completely disappear. Li Man notes that chumu, or central governmental bulletins, continued after the Mongol conquest during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368).
Another Crazy Day, Headlines
The hostility of the Southern Song emperors to the independent press can be seen in many governments today. The United Nations recently pointed out that 2022 was a particularly deadly year for journalists, with Audrey Azoulay stating that 86 journalists were killed; “Oftentimes, they were at home with their family.” 363 journalists were also imprisoned because of their work by the end of 2022. Here in the United States, the governor of Florida attempted to push through laws greatly restricting press coverage, ironically failing in part because of opposition from politically conservative news media.
A newspaper closes every two weeks in the United States, creating growing “news deserts” across the country. The tradition of a free, independent press—started over 1000 years ago in China—is more threatened, and even more important, than ever.
By the way, the “joke” in the caption was told by Jimmy Kimmel—in 2012. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…