Both in its form and its genesis, the Dianshizhai Pictorial and its parent daily newspaper, Shenbao, encapsulated the cultural hybridity and social change that epitomized Shanghai during the late nineteenth century. In 1872 Ernest Major, a young British entrepreneur who had resided in Shanghai for a decade, made the leap from textiles to the newspaper business (along with three other investors from his home country.) The paper he managed and edited, however, differed entirely from the foreign-language publications that catered to the business and missionary populations that had entered China’s coastal treaty ports and inland routes since the Opium War: the Shenbao’s contents were written in Chinese for a Chinese readership. Yet it also consciously departed from (even as it also copied) the much older local model of the “court gazette” (jingbao), which printed government news of import to central and local officials. The educated Chinese writers and editors that Major hired to produce the paper proudly announced that the paper’s purpose was not only to transmit news, but to allow for the expression of “public opinion” or even, by the eve of the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, to be “the mouth of the citizenry.”
Ironically, this was physically and legally possible in part due to the inequities of the treaty port system. Extraterritoriality meant that the Qing government had no legal recourse in the Shanghai International Settlement in which Shenbao was published. Although Major made it an explicit editorial policy not to favor European interests over Chinese (nor in fact was Shenbao an especially overt critic of the Qing dynasty from within, as were other papers started two or three decades later), this freedom nonetheless offered the paper an editorial latitude that allowed it to flourish and scramble for commercial advantage. Imported technology also helped: in 1884 Major introduced the Dianshizhai Pictorial, a lithographed supplement that Shenbao subscribers received every ten days, and which was also available as a standalone publication and in bound volumes of twelve issues. Though illustrated woodblock publications of a wide variety had a long history in China, lithography (brought to the country in 1876) allowed for a speed and bulk of production -- as well as a clarity of printed word and image – that transformed Chinese press and advertising. The wildly popular Dianshizhai huabao stood at the forefront of this technological change.
Yet Dianshizhai was by no means a product of wholesale “Westernization”, as even a cursory glance at any of its pages will hint. Usually the illustrations were rendered by professional artists with a background in traditional Chinese painting techniques but who also frequently copied pen and ink sketches from foreign magazines such as Harper’s. The written commentary, meanwhile, was provided by Shenbao writers and editorialists. These men tended to have classical literati educations, but by virtue of their place of residence (Shanghai) and their occupation (newspapermen), they were somewhat set apart from the world of late imperial officialdom. Thus on the one hand Dianshizhai items show a love for Shanghai in all its hybrid splendor – the nouveau riche, the foreign, the slightly risqué, the odd – combined with an occasional disdain for the backwardness of other locales. But on the other hand, one can easily find in its pages a reliable dose of what might be called conventional morality: respect for order and authority, reinforcing of standard gender roles, and so on. Moreover, although new vocabulary such as the very term “citizen” (gongmin公民) made its way into Shenbao along with new styles of writing, the Dianshizhai commentaries in particular drew on forms that would have been familiar to readers educated under the old system centered on the Confucian classics and the civil service examination. The editors wrote in classical Chinese, employed literary and historical allusions, and even in their choice of content drew on literary genres such as tales of the strange and uncanny, martial-arts stories and other popular fiction, and morality books.
It was the combination of the written text and the striking visuals, however, that made the Dianshizhai Pictorial so appealing to a broader audience than even its parent Shenbao. Ideally, in the conception of the editors, reaching into the lower classes as well, and from the evidence of personal accounts, certainly imprinting itself on the minds of children. It ceased publication in 1898, but not before spurring numerous imitators in the illustrated magazine genre. Shenbao passed to complete Chinese ownership a few years before the fall of the Qing, and continued as one of the most influential Chinese newspapers until the 1949 revolution.