Crow’s Newspaper Directories (S1-E1): The Birth and Expansion of the Press in modern China

An enriched version of this essay is available on the ENP-China Community on Peers (Digital Pamphlet Series No.3).

This is the second instalment of our series devoted to Carl Crow’s Newspaper Directory of China. In the introductory essay, we presented the context of publication, the general content of the directories and the method used for processing the successive editions. In this essay, we propose a preliminary statistical analysis of the periodicals listed in the 1931 and 1935 editions of the directory, their time of founding and their spatial distribution in China1. The datasets on which these analyses are based are available on the ENP-China Data Repository.

General Statistics

The 1931 edition contains a total of 367 titles2. This figure had more than doubled (744) by 19353. Yet it was not a linear growth. A total of 105 titles listed in the 1931 directory had disappeared by 1935, whereas 482 new publications that did not exist in 1931 were established between 1931 and 1935. The two directories share 262 titles, which corresponds to the most stable publications (established prior to 1931 and still active in 1935). The following table recapitulates these numerical shifts. The attached file (File n°1) compiles all the publications mentioned in the two directories (either in 1931 or in 1935) (848 unique titles), whereas File n°2 contains the list of the most enduring publications mentioned in both directories (262 titles).

Label Description Number of titles
1931 Titles listed in the 1931 edition 367
1935 Titles listed in the 1935 744
1931_Only Titles listed in the 1931 edition only (periodicals established prior to 1931, no longer active in 1935) 105
1935_Only Titles listed in the 1935 edition only (periodicals established between 1931 and 1935: the most recent 482
1931_&_1935 Titles listed in both directories (the most enduring publications)  262
1931_OR_1935 Full list of titles compiled from the two directories (mentioned in either one or the other edition 848

These figures, however, should be taken with caution because many newspapers suppressed by the state authorities used to reappear under a different name shortly after their closure, which complicates the task of identification. Our findings nonetheless reflect the high rate of mortality and the high degree of turnover in the Chinese press, especially in the Chinese press, especially in the 1930s.


How old are the periodicals listed in the directories? When were they established? Before we start our analysis their founding period, it is useful to recall that each directory retained only periodicals that were still active when it came off the press (in 1931 or 1935), therefore omitting many ephemeral publications that had ceased to exist by 1931 or 1935.  


As the graph shows, the pace of periodical creation remained low in the 19th century. More accurately, very few periodicals established prior to 1900 had survived by the 1930s. Only six were founded before the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895. The press really took off after the treaty of Shimonoseki (1895), which according to mainstream scholarship, marked the birth of the political press in China, and even for some scholars, its « golden age »4. Crow’s directories record 27 new publications by the founding of the Republic in 1912, and another 27 during Yuan Shikai’s regime (1912-1916). The press industry experienced an exponential growth afterwards. He Qiliang argues that 1917 was a significant year in the history of journalism in modern China5. The figures drawn from Crow’s directories tend to support his thesis. Indeed, an average of 127 new periodicals were established before the Nationalist takeover in 1927. The 1931 directory lists 135 new titles in the early years of the Nanjing decade, while the 1935 edition records 368 new publications from 1928 onwards.

Year of establishment (1931, 1935)


Therefore, the majority of titles were of recent creation. Most were young periodicals established in the early 1930s. 75% of the titles listed in the two directories were less than 10 years of age (including 45% under 5). From 20% to 25% had lived for 10 to 25 years. The remaining 5% claimed more than 25 years of existence. Ten periodicals in 1931 and 8 in 1935 had been active for half a century. The 1931 directory even includes a centennial publication, the 102-year-old North-China Sunday News (founded in Shanghai in 1829), though it had ceased to exist by 1935. The North-China Herald and Daily News (est. 1850) now held the record, with 85 years of age.

Age of Periodicals listed in Crow’s Newspaper Directories of China.

Distribution by province

As shown on the maps below, the production of periodicals in 1930s China was not evenly distributed across the country. Two provinces (Jiangsu, Hebei) concentrated 50% of all the periodicals issued in early 1930s China (46% in 1931, 54% in 1935). Jiangsu took the lion’s share with 35% in 1931 (121 titles) and 42.6% in 1935 (258 titles). Guangdong ranked third with 11.6% in 1931. Although the number of publications in this province remained rather stable (from 40 to 36), its share was halved in 1935 (6%) due to the increasing weight of Jiangsu and the rise of new, heretofore peripheral provinces. Zhejiang, Shandong and Jiangxi doubled their contribution, from 17 to 35 publications (5%-6%), from 13 to 31 (3.8% to 5%), from 10 to 19 (3%), respectively). Hunan and Shanxi tripled their production (from 3 to 14, from 2 to 10, respectively), while Henan, Shaanxi and Hubei, almost inexistent in the press landscape in 1931, contributed seven and four periodicals, respectively. Even remote regions like Hainan and Inner Mongolian appeared on the map with at least one publication each in 1935. Other provinces representing less than 5% remained stable between 1931 and 1935, even though their production increased in number: Sichuan (from 17 to 29, 5%), Fujian (16 to 22, 4%), Yunnan (7 to 11, 2%), Guanxi (5 to 6, 1%), Gansu and Guizhou (1 to 2, 0.3%). Three provinces experienced a serious decline after the Japanese invasion in Manchuria: Liaoning (5 to 2%), Heilongjiang (4% to 1%), and Jilin (0.6 to 0.3%, although it maintained the volume of its production). This, however, probably may have reflected Crow’s difficulties to collect information in Japanese-controlled territories.

While the two maps above help to better visualize the provincial distribution of periodicals at the time the directories were published, the series of maps below attempts to reconstruct how this geography changed over time. Four major periods have been delineated, which follow the specific tempo of the press as it developed in modern China. Before we start to examine the maps in greater detail, a few preliminary remarks are in order. Except for the general map dated 1931, all the maps are based on the data extracted from the 1935 edition. We use the administrative map of China in the 1931-1945 period, although it does not match the state of Chinese administration in the various periods we examine. Yet we ned to have a single standard for comparative purposes. Thus, in addition to Hong Kong (a British colony), the three Manchurian provinces of Jilin, Liaoning, and Heilongjiang are not represented on the maps because they were not included in the source map (based on atlases dated 1932-1945). The figures given below correspond to the number of creations during the period under consideration, not the total number of newspapers circulated in the province. Furthermore, the maps show the place of production, not the spatial coverage of the periodicals. Many publications in fact circulated far beyond their original place of production. In the preface of the 1935 directory, Crow observed that 64% of the circulation of the larger Shanghai papers went to Jiangsu and the remaining 36% was divided between the other provinces. Indeed, the largest publications in metropolitan centers like Shanghai (Shenbao, Xinwenbao, North China Herald and Daily News) and Tianjin (Dagongbao) were widely distributed outside of these cities and even reached a national audience.

During the early years (1829-1903) that preceded the takeoff, the production of periodicals was monopolized by two provinces: Jiangsu (9 publications) and Hebei (2).

Provincial distribution of periodicals established between 1829 and 1903


The second period (1904-1916), which corresponds to the late years of the Qing dynasty and the beginning of the Republic, opened with the reorganization of the Subao in 1903, which according to many historians, marked the birth of the revolutionary press6. While Jiangsu still led the movement (12 publications), the press was now burgeoning in all coastal provinces. Guangdong and Liaoning (not represented on the map) came second with six publications each, followed by Hebei and Yunnan (4 and 3, respectively). Five provinces hosted one publication each : Fujian, Zhejiang and Shandong on the coast, Jiangxi and Shanxi further in the interior, though still in the immediate neighborhood of coastal leading provinces. Except for Yunnan, all these provinces are geographically close to each other, which suggests a gradual process of diffusion from the two pioneering provinces of Jiangsu and Hebei towards provinces of the interior to the west. 

Provincial distribution of periodicals established between 1912 and 1916

The third phase (1917-1927) opened with the « significant » year of 1917 and ended with the Nationalist takeover in 1927. While the distribution did not change much, four new provinces emerged on the map: Henan in the north, Hunan and Guangxi in the south, and Sichuan in the west. The fact that all these provinces are contiguous to their predecessors supports the hypothesis of a gradual expansion from the coast. 

Provincial distribution of periodicals established between 1917 and 1927

The last phase (1928-1935) covers the early years of the Nationalist (Nanjing) regime. During this period, the press expanded further in the interior, incorporating four new provinces : Shaanxi (3 periodicals), Inner Mongolia (3), Gansu (2) and Guizhou (2). Meanwhile, Jiangsu maintained its leading position with 200 new publications, followed by Hebei (44). Except for Hubei (33) and Sichuan (25), which stood out among interior provinces, we observe a clear gradient from the eastern coast to the west. While coastal provinces continued to give birth to new publications in the early 1930s, the movement seemed to slow down as we move westwards.  

Provincial distribution of periodicals established between 1928 and 1935

To sum up, four major provincial profiles emerge from the maps:

  1. A handful of pioneering, prominent and enduring provinces, such as Jiangsu, Hebei (and Hongkong);
  2. Later (post 1904) but stable or even growing provinces, such as Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Anhui or Sichuan;
  3. Early (prior to 1917) but unstable or declining provinces, such as Shanxi or Yunnan;
  4. Late and peripheral provinces, such as Shaanxi, Gansu, Guizhou or Mongolia.

The gallery of graphs below visualizes the provincial distribution by period and year of establishment, as well as the age distribution of the periodicals listed in the two directories.

Beneath provincial boundaries, a more-finely grained analysis at the level of cities is needed in order to better understand the complex dynamics within each province.

Distribution by city

In 1931, five cities concentrated over 50% of the total production of periodicals in China. Shanghai ranked first with 101 publications (26%), followed by Guangzhou 32, 8%), Hongkong (28, 7%) and Tianjin (22, 6%). The former imperial capital Beijing ranked fifth with 18 titles (5%), while Nanjing, the new capital of the Nationalist regime, stood lower in the hierarchy, with 11 publications representing only 3% of the national production.

Distribution of periodicals by city (1931)

Four years later, the distribution had been profoundly reshaped. The press industry was still polarized by a handful of metropolises, but the ranking was different and the gap between Shanghai and other cities had broadened. Shanghai now represented 29% of the press market (190 publications), followed by Tianjin (49, 7%) and Hongkong (33, 5%). Nanjing and Beijing now stood on equal terms with 26 and 25 publications, respectively (4%). Guangzhou experienced a serious decline, having lost a dozen titles (from 32 to 21, 8% to 3%).  36 new locations appear on the map in 1935, mostly in Jiangsu (10, such as Haimen, Jiangyin, Xuzhou, Yancheng, etc), Guangdong (5), Hunan (Changde), and Zhejiang (4 each), Fujian (3) (Nanping), Henan and Hubei (Yichang) (2 each) (Hubei). The remaining locations are scattered across six distinct provinces : Baotou (Inner Mongolia), Datong (Shanxi), Ganzhou (Jiangxi), Haikou (Hainan), Hefei (Anhui) and Suining (Sichuan). Although they were relegated to a marginal position (less than 1%, five publications at most), their emergence testified that even smaller towns saw the rise of an embryonary press, despite their relative isolation in interior China (Baotou) or on the opposite, despite their proximity to leading publishing centers like Shanghai in Jiangsu or Guangzhou in Guangdong. Conversely, Yingkou (Liaoning) had disappeared from the map and two major centers in Japanese occupied-territories (Harbin, Heilongjiang and Shenyang, Liaoning) experienced a dramatic decline (from 12 to 5 titles and from 12 to 7, respectively). Aside from new locations, most localities (44%) showed a sustained growth between 1931 and 1935, whereas 19% (10) declined and 37% (19) remained stable. The smallest publishing centers, however, were not able to maintain their position in this rapidly changing landscape. While their production grew in numerical terms, 28 locations barely maintained their rank and seven declined in proportion.

Distribution of Periodicals by City (1935)

Among the factual information that Crow provided on each city, he emphasized their strategic situation along transportation networks, especially railway (Changchun, Changde, Changsha, Dalian, Guangzhou, Hankou/Wuhan, Harbin) and highway (Hangzhou) or motor roads (Fenghua, Fengxian, Funing). Treaty ports (Fuzhou, Shanghai, Shantou, Tianjin, Xiamen, Zhifu), sea ports (Qinghai, Dairen, Haikou, Haimen) and fluvial ports (Chongqing, at the confluence of the Jialing and Yangzi rivers, Hankou/Wuhan at the junction of the Han and Yangzi rivers) were most likely to develop a modern press. Other localities benefited from their proximity or privileged connection to other important centers (Foshan in the suburb of Guangzhou, Harbin connected to Vladivostock, Peiping and Moscow through railway). A few locations relied on their bordering situation (Heihe on the Sino-Russian border). In other cases, trade (Guangzhou, Zhangzhou), industrial (silk in Huzhou, coal extraction in Hengyang, steel and iron in Hankou/Wuhan) or agricultural production (rice in Changshu and Heifei) served as the stimulus.

In most provinces, the local production of periodicals was polarized by a single city, usually the provincial capital, such as Guangzhou in Guangdong or Chongqing in Sichuan. In the case of Jiangsu, however, Shanghai superseded Nanjing and rose as the center of the press industry not only at the provincial, but also the national level. While the weight of Shanghai increased on the national scene, it did not constitute an obstacle to the emergence of competing centres in Jiangsu province, such as Zhenjiang, whose production (from 5 to 15 titles) between 1931 and 1935, or Nanjing, which doubled its output (from 12 to 26) during the same period. In fact, it is in Jiangsu that was we find the largest number of publishing centers (9 in 1931, 19 in 1935). This suggests that locations of varying size and function did not compete but rather complemented each other in order to meet the needs of diversified readerships. In other provinces, the production of periodicals was less centralized and more evenly distributed between two (or more) centers, such as Tianjin and Beijing in Hebei, or Xiamen and Fuzhou in Fujian. In Hebei, the two cities grew in parallel, whereas in Fujian, Fuzhou seemed to have benefited from the stagnation of Xiamen.

During the first period (1829-1903), three major cities dominated the press industry:  Shanghai (9) as early as 1829, Hongkong (6) starting from 1857, and Tianjin (2), emerging during the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895. What those three cities had in common was their particular status as treaty ports (Shanghai, Tianjin) or colonial territories (Hong Kong). While the foreign presence may have been a determining factor in the early development of a modern press in these three cities, more important, however, was the fact that many editors sought protection in their foreign settlements, in order to escape Chinese government censorship in the late years of the Qing dynasty, especially after the trial of the Subao in 19037.

Distribution by city (1829-1903)

The second phase (1904-1916) saw the expansion and indigenization of the press, as publishing centers multiplied outside treaty ports and foreign colonies. These new centers first appeared in North China – Beijing (1904), Dalian (Liaoning) (1905), Zhifu (Shandong) (1907) – and later in southern and central cities – Guangzhou (1907), Wuhan (1908), etc. The map now comprised 27 localities. Most of them refered to provincial or prefectural capitals. 

Distribution by city (1904-1916)

During the third period (1917-1927), smaller towns joined the movement. The press industry now reached lower levels in the urban network and the production of news was more disseminated than in the previous years. By 1928, more than 50 locations published at least one periodical.

Distribution by city (1917-1927)

The press continued to expand in the early years of the Nanjing regime (1928-35), with a total of 105 centers covering almost all parts of China, including such remote places as Baotou (Inner Mongolia). Entire regions (about half of the national territory), however, failed to catch the attention of the editor of the directories.

Distribution by city (1928-1935)

To sum up, as for provinces, four profiles of cities emerge from the maps:

  1. A handful of pioneering, prominent and enduring centers, such as Shanghai, Tianjin, Hongkong;
  2. Later (post 1904) but stable or even growing centers, such as Beijing;
  3. Early (prior to 1917) but ephemeral, unstable or declining localities, such as Guangzhou.
  4. A myriad of late and peripheral locations.

Yearly distribution by city (1931)

Yearly distribution by city (1935)

Concluding remarks

What can we draw from this preliminary analysis of the 1931 and 1935 directories?

  1. The periodical press in modern China was characterized by a high mortality rate. The directories contain a minority of pioneering and enduring pre-Republican publications that contrast with the overwhelming, ever-growing number of short-lived periodicals established in the early 1930s.
  2. The growth of the press was far from being a linear process. Several uneven waves emerge from the directories, which challenge the conventional political chronology. They point to 1904, 1917 and 1928 as « significant years” in the history of journalism in modern China.
  3. The Sino-Japanese war impacted the development of the press at two major turning points. The years 1894-95 stimulated the rise of the political press, whereas the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and Shanghai in the early 1930s deeply hurt the newspaper industry. Although it did to affect the general trend, a closer look, however, shows that a significant number of periodicals ceased to exist in Japanese-occupied Manchuria and in Shanghai after the destruction of the premises of the Commercial Press (a major publisher, as we shall see in a later essay).

From a geographical perspective :

  1. The early concentration in coastal, urban provinces was partially rectified by the gradual expansion towards the interior after 1904 and more significantly, 1917. Coastal provinces, especially Jiangsu, however, maintained and even strengthened their position, whereas western provinces generally demonstrated a lower and less sustained growth.
  2. At the level of cities, we observed the early polarization of news production by treaty ports, especially Shanghai, which emerged as the pioneering center of the press industry as early as 1829. Although new, smaller centers developed outside treaty ports and provincial capitals, Shanghai maintained its leading position until 1935.

The next essay will examine in greater detail the nature of the periodicals in terms of language, periodicity and format.


  1. In this essay, we use alternatively the terms « title », « publication » or « periodical » regardless of the frequency of publication. The next essay will examine more specifically the nature of publications. []
  2. Cécile Armand. (2020). Crow’s Directories Data (1931) (Version 1.0.0) [Data set]. Zenodo. []
  3. Cécile Armand. (2020). Crow’s Directories Data (1935) (Version 1.0.0) [Data set]. Zenodo. []
  4. Christian Henriot, “Le nouveau journalisme politique chinois, 1895-1911,” in Cahiers d’EtudesChinoises, 1980, 5–80; Yutang Lin, A History of the Press and Public Opinion in China (Chicago: University Press, 1936). []
  5. According to He, 1917 was a year of high significance in the history of the press because of three major events: Hu Zhengzhi’s efforts to transform the Dagongbao from a partisan into an commercial, politically independent newspaper; J.B. Powell’s arrival in Shanghai and the introduction of Missouri-style journalism in China; the New World (Xin Shijie)’s courtesan election, which contributed to the resurrection of xiaobao (small papers) and the emergence of a public sphere. Qiliang He, Newspapers and the Journalistic Public in Republican China: 1917 as a Significant Year of Journalism (London; New York: Routledge, 2019), 3–4. []
  6. Christian Henriot, “Le nouveau journalisme politique chinois, 1895-1911,” in Cahiers d’Etudes Chinoises, 1980, 28–44. []
  7. Christian Henriot, “Le nouveau journalisme politique chinois, 1895-1911,” in Cahiers d’Etudes Chinoises, 1980, 40. []

Cécile Armand

Ancienne élève de l'Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) de Lyon (2006), agrégée d'histoire (2009), docteure en histoire (2017), postdoctorante à Stanford University (2017-8) puis Aix-Marseille Université dans le cadre du projet ERC “Elites, Networks and Power in modern China” (2018-). Ma thèse soutenue à l’ENS Lyon en juin 2017 proposait une histoire spatiale de la publicité à Shanghai (1905-1949). Mes recherches actuelles portent sur l’émergence des experts, “l’influence” américaine, la naissance de la presse et d’une “opinion publique” en Chine moderne. Dans une démarche d’histoire sociale, mes centres d'intérêt englobent aussi l'histoire spatiale, les outils et méthodes numériques et l'épistémologie des sciences sociales en général.

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Cécile Armand

Ancienne élève de l'Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) de Lyon (2006), agrégée d'histoire (2009), docteure en histoire (2017), postdoctorante à Stanford University (2017-8) puis Aix-Marseille Université dans le cadre du projet ERC “Elites, Networks and Power in modern China” (2018-). Ma thèse soutenue à l’ENS Lyon en juin 2017 proposait une histoire spatiale de la publicité à Shanghai (1905-1949). Mes recherches actuelles portent sur l’émergence des experts, “l’influence” américaine, la naissance de la presse et d’une “opinion publique” en Chine moderne. Dans une démarche d’histoire sociale, mes centres d'intérêt englobent aussi l'histoire spatiale, les outils et méthodes numériques et l'épistémologie des sciences sociales en général.

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