CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
Nos. 30/31, June/September 2012


Re-introducing The China Critic | China Heritage Quarterly

Re-introducing The China Critic

William Sima
Guest Editor

Periodicals are the best indication of a country's cultural progress. After all, the function of a periodical, as distinct from that of books, is to serve as a medium for educating the public, surveying the most important tendencies and domestic and foreign situation, introducing or advocating new movements of art and literature and thought, and constantly guiding the current of thought and rectifying its errors.

—Lin Yutang[1]

The inaugural issue of The China Critic 中國評論周報 appeared in Shanghai on the last day of May, 1928. It continued publishing in that city until a hiatus resulting from war in 1940, and experienced a short-lived revival in 1945. The Critic was, and took great pride in being the first and only Chinese owned and edited English-language weekly newspaper in Republican China.[2] This made it a unique forum for authors to present a 'Chinese perspective'to a foreign world that generally did not, or did not care to, read the ebullient Chinese press. It also acted as an important conduit of Western ideas for urbane Chinese students and other readers who were proficient in English.

The life of The Critic spans the 'Nanjing Decade' (南京十年, 1927-1937), a period when the Nationalist government ruled over a relatively stable nation from Nanjing following an end to the internecine strife of the warlord era. Major urban centres, particularly Shanghai, enjoyed a period of engaged cosmopolitanism and openness unprecedented in modern Chinese history. Nonetheless, in the countryside and hinterland this was also an era in which the political ruction resulting from the split between the Nationalist and Communist parties in 1927 would evolve in ways that continue to frame aspects of Chinese political life to this day.

China's periodical press flourished since the late-Qing period, and many of the numerous newspapers and journals that appeared subsequently attracted a broad readership not only by reporting of current affairs, but also by providing commentary, debate and an eloquent but raucous marketplace of ideas. Periodical publishing reached its zenith during the Nanjing Decade—indeed, 1934 was declared to be the 'year of the magazine' (zazhi nian 雜誌年)—and the importance of newspapers and periodicals to intellectual life was widely celebrated.

In this environment in which publishing, relative material prosperity and readership flourished, The China Critic reached a wide audience. Carl Crow, a noted American journalist and 'old China hand' par excellence, commented in his Newspaper Directory of China that among English-language weekly newspapers published in 1931, The China Critic, with a weekly circulation of 6,500, was second only to the British-run North China Sunday News—a paper established in 1829 that enjoyed a circulation of 7,950.The third edition of Crow's Directory shows that in 1935 The China Critic, now with 7,700 copies in circulation each week, was second only to Shanghai Woman, with 12,000.[3]Evidently popular with both Chinese and foreign readers, The China Critic advertised extensively in both languages, and included contributions from some of China's most notable foreign writers of the time, including Pearl Buck, Emily Hahn and Randall Gould. An editorial in 1931 noted that: 'although our publication is in a foreign language … we have a large circulation among our intellectual class, including a large number of college undergraduates.'[4]

The editors of The China Critic were conscious of their role as middlemen in a two-way process of cultural translation; they saw themselves as presenting a humanistic, cosmopolitan demeanour at a time when China needed conscientious and independent critics. This awareness is manifest in editorial manifestos and mission statements, in the endorsementsof politically liberal and ideologically diverseclubs and societies based in Shanghai, as well as in the writing of the editors of and contributors to The China Critic itself.

Political reality often challenged, and at times stymied, their aspirations to tolerance and openness. In her recent study of English-language periodicals in Republican Shanghai Shuang Shen 沈雙 writes that: 'whereas politically, The China Critic had a clearly articulated anti-imperialist agenda, this political position was complicated by the cultural and linguistic borders manifested in this publication.'[5] Shen goes on to describe the cosmopolitan stance of its editors as being one which 'combined "nationalism" with "internationalism"'; indeed, it is precisely this attitude that is reflected in one of the most important editorial statements of The Critic: 'What We Believe'. It was a reaffirmation and defense of the underlying beliefs of the editors of the journal published on 1 January 1931:

We have tried to represent China as she really is, neither what our ultra-patriotic people would like to make out of her, nor what the anti-Chinese foreign propagandists would have the outside world believe… . This is the direction in which we should develop our nationalism, and this is the key to our efforts in harmonizing it with internationalism. The Critic may therefore be regarded as either nationalistic of internationalistic, because we strive to be both.[6]

Opposition to imperialism was certainly a defining feature of The China Critic. On the one hand, the festering problem of extraterritoriality, especially in the early years of the newspaper, resulted in heated exchanges between its editorsand vociferous and parochial foreign journalists—'die-hards', as they were known—active in Shanghai at the time. (See, in particular, the issues from June to October 1929, at which time The China Critic ran a competition for the best essay on the 'Abolition of Extraterritoriality'). On the other hand, the newspaper sought to mitigate against China's own 'die-hards', taking a firm line against the 'militarism' of the more wayward Guomindang-aligned warlords, Communist 'banditry' and the 'chauvinist' faux patriotism among Chinese intellectuals. So far as censorship allowed, some writers offered criticism of the loquacious rhetoric and cruel policies of the Nationalist party. On the whole, however, The China Critic often fell short of its promise to stand for freedom of speech and distance from government (a theme that is explored in more detail in 'From the Editor's Desk', in the 'Features' section of the present issue).

Then there was the even more pressing threat from Japan: first in Shandong in 1928, then more brazenly following the 'Mukden Incident' 九一八事變 of 1931, the 1932 'January 28 Incident' 一二八松滬 in Shanghai, then the full-scale invasion of China by the Japanese Imperial Army in 1937. This conflict-riven environment resulted in the disruption of publication and the suspension of a number of The Critic's feature columns. Eventually, in November 1940, war caused the journal to cease operations entirely. In the 'Features' section of this issue we include an extract from Eugene Lubot's Liberalism in an Illiberal Age,in which he argues that, during the 1930s, it was primarily the threat posed to China by Japan that brought The China Critic into closer alignment with Nationalist policies—ultimately compromising its liberal enterprise. Indeed, after August 1937 the journal ceased publishing the very columns which had previously given it a particular character; thereafter, its editorials and articles predominately offered commentary on developments in international diplomacy as Europe slid toward war. Coverage of China's resistance against Japan, and its now unquestioning support for the Nationalist Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek 蔣介石 and the Party, was frequently couched in the shrill language of propaganda in pieces often by writers not formally connected with The China Critic group.

Aside from the political realities that circumscribed and defined the life of this newspaper, The China Critic was a forum for the discussion of social, cultural, scientificand educational ideas and trends. Special columns included: a weekly book review edited by the eugenicist Quentin Pan 潘光旦; and Lin Yutang's 林語堂 'Little Critic' column (which first appeared in July 1930), which was tremendously popular with The Critic's readers. That column would contribute to the creation of Lin's popular humour magazine Analects Fortnightly (論語半月刊, published 1932-1949). Lin's brother, Lin Yu 林幽, edited an 'Overseas Chinese' column beginning in May 1932; and 'Cassandra', a Western contributor, edited the 'Women's Perspective' and 'Foreigner's Viewpoint' columns in 1932 and 1933.

Between 1932 and 1937, The China Critic published 'Special Numbers' or issues devoted to single themes. These ranged from opium suppression to women's affairs, from educationto the virtues of dictatorship and democracy. That The Critic's editors placed such importance on these topics has led us to reprint many of these articles arranged by topic in the Features section of this issue of China Heritage Quarterly.

Of course, an exhaustive representation of The China Critic, its multiple and interwovendiscourses, is impossible, event in the virtual pages of the present journal. In assembling this 're-publication' of The China Critic we have endeavored to highlight the more prominent themes of the weekly by featuring topics that its editors most frequently and enthusiastically discussed. Apart from the articles included in the Features section of China Heritage Quarterly, we offer a detailed Chronology of The China Critic, one which contains links to all articles cited, along with relevant illustrative material. We hope that this will give readers today a sense of how this important publication evolved over time.


[1] Lin Yutang, A History of the Press and Public Opinion in China, Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, 1936, p.150.

[2] Shuang Shen has noted that 'When it was first published, in most of its advertisements The China Critic proudly claimed to be the first Chinese-edited English-language newspaper. In the mid-1930s, the publication tried to attract readers by claiming to be the oldest Chinese-edited English-language newspaper.' See Cosmopolitan Publics: Anglophone Print Culture in Semi-Colonial Shanghai, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2009, p.38. Indeed, The Critic's claim to being 'The only Chinese owned and edited English weekly', which adorned index supplements to the newspaper and also appeared in advertisements, was replaced beginning in 1937 with 'The oldest Chinese owned and edited English weekly.' Whatever the validity of this claim, Carl Crow's Newspaper Directory (see footnote below) attests that in the mid-1930s The Critic was still the 'only' English weekly with Chinese editors; among all English weeklies in 1935 it was second only to the popular women's magazine Shanghai Women in terms readership.

[3] Carl Crow, Newspaper Directory of China, Shanghai: Carl Crow Inc., 1st ed. 1931, pp.30-31; 3rd ed., 1935, pp.118-122.

[4] 'What We Believe', The China Critic (1 January 1931): 4.

[5] Shuang Shen, op. cit., p.42.

[6] 'What We Believe', op. cit., p.4.