Naming periodicals in early 1930s China

This is the last instalment in our series devoted to Carl Crow’s Newspaper Directory of China. The purpose of this essay is twofold:

  1. Substantially, to reveal patterns in the naming of periodicals and to explore the potential factors explaining these patterns (period of founding, location, language, periodicity);
  2. Methodologically, to experiment with various analysis and visualization techniques (word frequency, wordclouds, pairwise correlation, bigrams, collocation, biterm topic modeling) and to assess their relative merits/limitations.

This first experiment is based on the English title (or Wade-Giles transliteration) of periodicals. The next one will conduct similar analyses on the Chinese titles. We focus on the 1935 directory because it included a larger number of periodicals and covered a broader timescope, yielding too more interesting results. The original dataset is available on Zenodo and the code for producing the visualizations can be replicated from the following R Markdown documents (basic text analysis, topic modeling) on Gitlab.

Word frequency (general)

The algorithm used for tokenizing the titles (i.e. for atomizing into single word units) extracted 1900 distinct tokens from the original list of 702 periodicals. This means that the names of periodicals for the year 1935 consisted of 1900 distinct words. A basic count of their relative frequency gives the following results:

As expected, the three most frequent words referred to the daily press and daily news (news, daily, press). This reflects the heavy weight of daily newspapers, as we showed in a previous essay. The next most frequent words describe the geographical situation (China) and the increasingly commercial nature of the press in Republican China (commercial). Other recurring words point to the multiple rhythms of the press (evening, weekly), the centrality of Shanghai as the major publishing center at the time, and the emergence of political values associated with the Republican regime (Republican, people).


What words were most frequently associated with each category of periodical?

We rely on the term frequency–inverse document frequency measure (tf-idf) to identify the words that most contribute to each category1.

Let’s focus first on the three most important categories – daily, tabloid, weekly:


The terms news, daily and press were commonly used for naming both dailies and tabloids, in the same order of importance. Evening editions were specific to daily newspapers, whereas tabloids were more likely to appear in the morning. The high tf-idf of the word republican suggests that dailies tended to privilege “serious” political news, whereas tabloids focused on entertainments (star, radio, movie). Weekly featured totally different words indicating their specific rhythmic pattern (weekly, Sunday), their emphasis on illustrations (pictorial) and their critical distance (review).

Let’s compare less frequent periodicals:

The high tf-idf for the words directory and list indicated that annuals were closely related to directories as a specific genre, generally published on a yearly basis. The word including reflect the fact that directories often bore long, descriptive titles that provided additional information on their content and coverage. Other terms referred to their publisher. The words related to monthlies reflected their periodicity (monthly, quarterly), their professional or popular content (medical, magazine) and their critical distance (review). Quarterlies were more strongly associated with technical terms that emphasized their highly specialized nature (physiology, nursing, naturalist medica, economics, caduceus, agricultural).

Finally, irregular publications (semi/bi-) displayed different sets of words:

Bimonthlies stressed their technical content (electrical, engineering), whereas biweeklies emphasized political and philosophical concepts (steel, people, truth). Note that steel in this context did not refer to the metallic material but was used in a metaphorical sense to connote political strength. Semi-monthlies appealed to their readers’ social or political sensibility (children, national defense, forum, companion). Semi-weeklies highlighted their locality and focused on popular entertainments (diamond, robin, player).

From these observations, we suspect that certain terms belonged to different categories whereas others were more specific to one or two categories. For instance, we noticed that dailies and tabloids shared the words daily and news, or that weeklies and monthlies had the word review in common. What periodicals were the most similar from a lexical point of view? What words were most common/specific in the press lexicon?

To answer the question, we computed the pairwise correlation between periodicals based on the words they had in common. The network graph below helps visualize the resulting correlations. For the sake of legibility, we retain the strongest correlations (>0.15):

The network confirms the strong correlation between dailies and tabloid. It also reveals their lexical proximity with semi-weeklies and biweeklies. The second main cluster groups monthlies with semi-monthlies, quarterlies and to a lesser extent, bimonthlies. Weeklies held a bridging position between the two groups. The outlying position of annuals reflects their statistical minority. Overall, the lexical similarity of periodicals reproduced their gradual proximity based on their frequency. The two clusters opposed two major types of periodicity – daily-based (most frequent) and monthly-based (less frequent) – with intermediate frequency in-between (weeklies).


Did the naming of periodicals depend on their language?

As we did previously for periodicity, we computed the frequency and inverse frequency for each language category, and we visualize their correlation as a network graph.

The words news, press and daily were much more commonly used for Chinese periodicals than they were for English periodicals. This ranking reflects differences in the nature of periodicals across language. As we showed in previous essays, dailies dominated the Chinese press, whereas English periodicals consisted mainly of weeklies and less frequent publications. English editors highlighted the locality (China, Chinese, Shanghai, Hongkong), whereas Chinese editors emphasized political values (people, republican):

Japanese and Russian periodicals displayed words in their native language. The place of publication (Shanghai, Manchuria) was also commonly used to differentiate between local editions or communities. Other foreign languages (French, German) were not statistically significant:

The strongest correlation (0.4) links English and bilingual (Chinese-English) periodicals. The next pairs associate English and Chinese, English and French, and to a lesser extent, French-bilingual and French-Japanese (0.3). English served as a bridge between Chinese and other foreign languages. German and Russian periodicals were outliers and diametrically opposed to Chinese periodicals. Japanese bridged English with minority languages (German, Russian, French):

We shall beware of over-interpreting these results, however, given the statistical insignificance of foreign languages other than English. In fact, Shanghai was the only word they had in common.


Do we observe geographical patterns in the naming of periodicals? Were some words more frequently used in certain cities than others? One may hypothesize, for instance, that the differentiation between morning/evening/Sunday editions were specific to large urban centers such as Shanghai, Tianjin, Hongkong, Nanjing or Beijing:

City Word Count
Chongqing 重慶 evening 5
Tianjin 天津 evening 5
Shanghai 上海 evening 4
Changzhou 常州 evening 2
Jinan 濟南 evening 2
Nanjing 南京 evening 2
Taiyuan 太原 evening 2
Zhenjiang 鎮江 evening 2
Beijing 北京 evening 1
Chengdu 成都 evening 1
Fuzhou 福州 evening 1
Guangzhou 廣州 evening 1
Shenyang 瀋陽 evening 1
Xianggang 香港 evening 1

Interestingly, evening editions were more developed in Chongqing (Sichuan) and Tianjin than in Shanghai and Nanjing. Smaller cities like Changzhou, Jinan, Taiyuan and Zhenjiang also offered at least two evening editions each. By contrast, Beijing and southern cities such as Fuzhou, Guangzhou or Hongkong offered just one edition.

City Word Count
Tianjin 天津 morning 4
Shanghai 上海 morning 2
Beijing 北京 morning 1
Changzhou 常州 morning 1
Chongqing 重慶 morning 1
Harbin 哈爾濱 morning 1
Jinan 濟南 morning 1
Jiujiang 九江 morning 1
Nanjing 南京 morning 1
Qingdao 青島 morning 1
Xianggang 香港 morning 1
Xinghua 興化 morning 1
Zhenjiang 鎮江 morning 1

Morning editions appeared less popular. There were more widely developed in Tianjin (4), before Shanghai (2). The remaining localities scattered across China offered one morning edition each. Noon editions were restricted to four cities – Chonqging, Harbin, Tianjin, Hongkong – also dispersed throughout China. Sunday editions were exclusive to three large metropolitan centers – Shanghai, Tianjin, Hongkong.

City Word Count
Chongqing 重慶 noon 1
Harbin 哈爾濱 noon 1
Tianjin 天津 noon 1
Xianggang 香港 noon 1
Shanghai 上海 sunday 1
Tianjin 天津 sunday 1
Xianggang 香港 sunday 1

Further research is needed to demonstrate potential spatial patterns in the naming of periodicals across provinces and cities.

Words over time

Did the titles of periodicals reflect their founding period, the time during which they were established? Can we detect temporal patterns or time effects in the naming of periodicals in Republican China?

One way to proceed is to pick up the most important words for each category of periodicals or each lexical category, and examine how they occurred over time. We can select several words simultaneously and examine how they evolve in parallel over time.

Let’s examine for instance the words related to the nature and frequency of periodicals (the plot focuses on the period posterior to 1900. There were too few periodicals before):

The words news and daily were consistently employed during the entire period. Review appeared quite early and persisted over time, even though it was less commonly used than other terms. Journal emerged in the early years of the Republic and was used intermittently. It was not until the 1930s that the words weekly and monthly gained currency, concurrently with pictorial and magazine. This reflects the later emergence of popular magazines, as we saw in previous essays.

Morning and evening newspapers appeared simultaneously in the late imperial years and peaked in the 1930s. The two terms were infrequently used in between. No morning daily was established in the early 1920s – or more accurately, no editor chose the term morning to name his publication – in contrast with two occurrences for evening during the same period.

The series of wordclouds below visualizes the most frequent words for each period (according to the periodization defined in the first essay):


The major limitation of simple tokenization is that they it does not take into account compound expression such as “daily news” or “commercial press”.  Bigrams provide a basic solution for handling these multiword units. The algorithm extracted 1126 disctinct bigrams from the 702 titles.

As expected, the most frequent bigrams are daily/news (168 occurrences) and to a lesser extent, republican/daily (27). These three words were to be found in the common trigram “republican daily news”. Less expected was the pair people/press (29), pointing to the emerging notion of public opinion in the Republican press. Three other important bigrams emphasized the development of the press as an industry in itself (commercial press, commercial daily) or as a medium for informing the public about industrial and commercial issues (industrial commercial). Finally, the bigrams evening news and morning press reflect the rhythmic diversification of the Republican press, especially the differentiation between morning and evening editions.

When did these expressions appeared? Did the Republican-inspired titles coincide with the founding of the Republic? When did the press began to emphasize its commercial nature and to diversify its edition? We can select the bigrams we are interested in and plot their distribution over time, as we did previously for unigrams:

Note: Since we found only one occurrence of daily news prior to 1900 (North-China Daily News), the timeframe was reduced to the 20th century.

We observe that the first Republican daily did appear during the first year of the Republic (1912). The terms did not decline and even gained in popularity during the following decade. Two more were established in 1922 and 1925. They experienced an exponential growth under the Nationalist regime. The bigram People press appeared later (1917). Its trajectory was less continuous, with two peaks in 1927 and 1932. The bigram daily news appeared in the late imperial years and was less reliant upon the political chronology. As we observed earlier, the first occurrence referred to the North-China Daily News established in 1850. The twin terms enjoyed a continuous yet limited presence until 1927 and finally peaked in the early 1930s.

Editors began to emphasize the commercial nature of their publications in the late imperial years (1907). We observe an alternation between the two recurring expressions. Commercial daily appeared earlier and was more resilient than commercial press, except for a short eclipse between 1915 and 1924. The latter emerged precisely during this eclipse and enjoyed a discontinuous popularity until the early 1930s. The third compound industrial commercial referred to the content of professional journals rather than the commercial turn of the press in general. This accounts for their irregular occurrence over time, with two major peak in 1915 and 1931.

Bigrams are useful to handle compound expressions such as *daily news*, but there are restricted to adjacent words. Collocations or co-occurrences provide a more sophisticated approach for analyzing the relations between more distant words. It is of limited interest in our case since we are dealing with very short strings of text that rarely contained more than three words. But it is still instructive to experiment with an alternative method and compare the results we obtained using bigrams.


For this experiment we focus on the two most frequent words (press, news) and we compare their collocates:

The network places the collocates that the two terms have in common at the center of the graph. Most of them refer to place names (China, Szechuen, Tsingtao, Tientsin), North). Some indicate the periodicity (daily, morning) or the editorial line (people, industrial, commercial) of periodicals. Outlying collocates are specific to one of the two target terms. For instead, adjectives such as true and strong only co-occurred with press, whereas impartial, current, social and public appeared only in connection with news. Evening was also exclusively associated with news. Political concepts such as citizen, republican or national were also exclusive to news. There was no clear geographical pattern, though news was more often associated with broader geopolitical entities (North China, world, overseas, east, eastern) than press, which related more precisely to cities (Beijing, Harbin, Nantung, Shanghai, Yangzhou).

Biterm topic model

Finally, we use biterm topic modeling (btm) – an algorithm developed specifically for modeling topics in short texts based on word-word co-occurrences patterns (e.g. biterms). We built a model with ten topics – which yields the best scores for likelihood and consistency. The plot below visualizes the ten topics derived from the 702 titles of periodicals listed in the 1935 directory:

Three topics are related to daily newspapers. Two of them revolve around the two core collocates / bigrams that we analyzed earlier (news/daily in blue and press/people in pink). The third one consists of transliterated titles (wade-giles).

Two topics revolve around Hongkong – one refers to dailies (south/evening/morning/post in purple, the other to economic journals (chamber/commerce/economic/magazine in pink). Another topic (green) relates to industrial/commercial publications in mainland China (mostly Jiangsu) and intersects with a smaller, Canton-centered topic.

The turquoise topic refers to professional journals (medical, trade, engineering). The central topic includes popular – weekly or monthly – magazines devoted to education or entertainments (sports, movie, radio). The remaining topic (yellow) is centered on Shanghai but also includes periodicals in Beijing and Tianjin with overlapping names (Times, Herald). Japanese titles and commercial guides appeared specific to Shanghai.

Concluding remarks

To conclude, periodicity was the strongest determinant in the naming of periodicals, along with their editorial contents and their readers’ profile. Given the uneven spatial and language distribution, it remains difficult to assess the influence of langage and place of publication. Smaller towns with just one or few publications often emphasized their local anchorage. Place name, by contrast, was of little use in large publishing centers with numerous publications. By the same token, minor languages (German, French, Russian, Japanese) often displayed native words as identity markers. The language effect was less obvious for English and Chinese periodicals, especially because many Chinese titles were unofficially, liberally transliterated by the editor of the directories.

In order to balance this language bias, the next essay will apply text analysis to the Chinese titles of periodicals.

  1. The major advantage of tf-idf compared to simple frequency is to emphasize the words that are specific to a given document (or a set of documents or texts), instead of the most common words in general. The idea is, the more a term occurs in a document, the more contributing it is. At the same time, in the more documents a term occurs, the less informative it is for a single document. The product of both measures is the resulting weight. []

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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