Small Words, Weighty Matters: Gossip, Knowledge and Libel in Early Republican China, 1916-1928


In the years following the death of the autocratic ruler Yuan Shikai (1859-1916), the flow of gossip surrounding political leaders in China’s urban spheres revealed an open, disorderly yet robust arena full of competing voices, agendas, and manipulations . My dissertation examines gossip as both a new body of public political knowledge and a means of popular participation in this politically-fragmented and transitional era. On the one hand, this body of political knowledge engaged a wide spectrum of Chinese society engaged with this body of political knowledge, and which fostered an uncontrolled playful citizenship in China’s urban spaces. On the other hand, this new civic participation prompted the fledgling Republican state to curb the dissemination of information through censorship, legal avenues and political prapaganda. I argue that political gossip played a constructive role in forming a participatory political culture, in developing state mechanisms to discipline popular knowledge, and in shaping legal categories of defamation. As opposed to other studies that analyze the formation of Chinese citizenship in the process of nation-building, my project contextualizes the popular political participation in the Republican era within a broader shift in political culture that was increasingly shaped by the entertainment media. Lower- class information traders and a commoner audience dominated in the gossip economy by actively producing and consuming narratives and opinions, without being too much restricted by state education and elite activism.


About the speaker

Jing Zhang recently joined the CNRS as a postdoctoral researcher for the project “Alternative Public Spheres in 20th century China”. From 2010 to 2017, she studied Modern Chinese History in the Ph.D Program at the Department of East Asian Languages and Culture, Columbia University. Previously, she received an M.A degree in Chinese History from the Department of Chinese Studies in National University of Singapore and B.A in Chinese Literature from Peking University, China. Her research interest lies in Chinese urban society, communication history, legal history, popular culture of East Asian countries, etc. She is working on the early Republican, in particular the warlord period (1916-1928), popular political engagement through the channels of gossip and rumor about political leaders and various state coping strategies in a highly commercialized urban context.


More informations

  • Monday 5 February 2018 - 17:00 to 19:00
  • EHESS (room 7.37) - 54 bd Raspail 75006 Paris
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