MIT Visualizing Cultures
MIT Visualizing Cultures
MIT Visualizing CulturesMIT Visualizing Cultures


This unit presents the full set of images, Chinese texts, and translations for the first six issues, or two months, of the Illustrated Supplement to the Shenbao newspaper.

Ernest Major (1841-1908), an English publisher, founded the Shenbao newspaper in Shanghai in 1872, using newly imported lithographic technology. It became the most successful Chinese-language newspaper in China, and its print run continued until 1949, spanning the Qing and Republican periods. In 1884, he created the Illustrated Supplement—literally ‘Touchstone Studio Illustrated Journal” (Dianshizhai Huabao, or DSZHB)—to provide illustrated versions of many of the news stories in the Shenbao.

Major modeled his supplement on Western publications like the Illustrated London News, except that his supplement was published in book form separately from the newspaper. The DSZHB appeared three times a month, with eight double leaf images per booklet, at a price of 5 cents per booklet. It lasted from 1884 to 1898, and published a total of over 4500 images. The supplement clearly aimed at a broader audience than the Shenbao itself, making available news stories, entertainment and pictures to those who could not read the classical Chinese text. We do not know its exact circulation, but estimates of the print run range from 10,000 to 15,000 per issue. These issues were passed from hand to hand, and held in street-corner reading libraries, so their actual circulation was much larger. Although the publisher was centered in Shanghai, the newspaper and the Illustrated Supplement contained stories about many other regions of China, especially the major cities of Beijing, Tianjin, Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Guangzhou, so it had a genuinely national readership.

These images have been scanned from a reprint edition held in the Sterling Memorial Library of Yale University. This edition, published in the late-19th or early-20th century, contains about one-quarter of the total number of DSZHB images, selected from the complete run. The visual quality of this reprint is much higher than any of the recent reprint editions of the series. It allows us to appreciate the fine skill of the illustrators, and makes it possible to zoom in to see the details close up. The entire set of over 1000 images is available on the Yale Visual Resources Collection site.

We are grateful to Ellen Hammond, of the Yale East Asian library, and the Yale Visual Resources collection for making these images openly available.

Historians looking for the emergence of a “civil society” or “public sphere” in imperial China have focused on the 19th-century newspaper industry, as it expressed political and social issues that concerned a large population, and its financial and editorial backing lay beyond the direct reach of the Qing state. [1] The newspaper and its supplement did provide opinions on major political events, especially the outcomes of wars and diplomatic negotiations, and they featured stories about technological developments and the curious customs of Westerners both in China and in their home countries. As a foreign-owned newspaper, the Shenbao could act independently of the imperial state, but since it covered Chinese subjects and depended on Chinese writers and artists, it had to respond to the interests of its readers.

Many scholars have used the DSZHB and Shenbao as a valuable source for everyday life in Shanghai. They have generally extracted only a few pictures from this very large corpus, and they seldom translate the captions in full. [2] But since, in Nanny Kim’s words, “the pictures are substantially illustrations of the texts, and the texts are certainly not subordinate to the pictures," [3] it is important to read the captions in full alongside the illustrations. Otherwise, we will miss the interplay of text and image that was the central attraction of the pictorial. The artists wrote the text, in a calligraphic style, in the same manner as the illustrations. Chinese printed texts, ever since the invention of woodblock printing, had always freely mixed text and image. The DSZHB used modern mass production technology but kept the traditional form of the artist’s booklet, suitable for browsing by the fashionable young gentleman or the shop assistant in his spare time. 

This unit gives a sense of how the Chinese readers themselves experienced the paper, by presenting the images in their original groupings by issues, and by providing complete Chinese texts and English translations. A typical reader who purchased an issue would find a very mixed set of images, covering all sorts of unrelated topics:  military campaigns, ghost stories, crime stories, marvelous tales of technology, strange stories of animals, and tales of beauteous courtesans, all in a small, cheap package. The price of 5 fen (cents) per issue put it beyond the reach of working class people, but it was easily affordable by the growing middle-class population of the city. The language of the captions was a fairly simple form of classical Chinese, packed with erudite allusions, but generally comprehensible to those with only a limited classical education. As Major noted in the first issue, the paper could help readers to educate themselves on serious issues, if they studied them in more detail in the written text of Shenbao, or it could simply serve the purpose of entertainment and relaxation: “Those who enjoy the written news can refer to it. But when browsing it for relaxation after drinking tea or wine, [this illustrated paper] will also light up your faces with joy.” (DSZHB, Preface.) Like any modern tabloid paper, the DSZHB ranged from high politics to low society in a short space.

The artists, who probably wrote most of the captions as well, were literate members of the middle level artisan class. They were deeply steeped in the classical tradition of painting, but they had not succeeded in gaining degrees or official posts. [4] They represented the Grub Street literati of their time, unable to gain access to the orthodox circles of artists, poets, and officials, but cultured enough to appreciate the highest aesthetic pleasures, such as flower viewing. Wu Youru (d. ca. 1893), the chief illustrator, first excelled in drawing beautiful women, flowers, plants, and fish. But once he accepted Major’s invitation to draw for the newspaper, he expanded his reach to include buildings, locomotives, steamships, and other modern structures. Their wide-ranging curiosity lent them an openness to Western arts and technologies, which they viewed as compatible with Chinese values. Even if Western countries were described as barbarians in conventional language, and Western soldiers were compared to wild beasts, they had little or no sense that Western culture itself was a threat to classical civilization. The early years of the paper did not reflect the alarmed nationalist consciousness of the period after 1895, when China’s loss to Japan seemed like the end of an entire civilization. The writers for the DSZHB, like the self-strengthening officials whom they supported, still had confidence that China could adapt enough of the West’s material technology to defend itself, while preserving its cultural core.

The famous modern writer Lu Xun, commenting in the 1930s on the early Shanghai literary scene, noted the wide attraction of this kind of newspaper in his youth. He described Wu Youru as "a brilliant man; he illustrated all the news, domestic and foreign, but he understood little of foreign affairs: he portrayed warships as merchant ships with cannon mounted on them, he drew battles with warriors wearing long swords and gowns, smashing flower vases. But his drawings of the world of brothels and hoodlums were very well done; that's because he had visited so many of them. We can often still see in Shanghai faces just like those that he drew. The influence of this pictorial was very great, and it spread to every province. It was the eyes and ears of people who wanted to know about current affairs.” [5]

Other modern writers and scholars, however, condemned these publications as dedicated only to trivial affairs. But Lu Xun and his radical colleagues, even in the 1920s, did not reflect the interests of the vast majority of urban Chinese, not to mention the peasantry. The DSZHB and its successors give us an independent insight into the social mentality, especially of educated Chinese of the major cities, but indirectly into the common people of many parts of the empire, at a time before the nationalist drive had gained momentum. We cannot appreciate the achievements, and limitations, of Chinese nationalism of the 20th century, without knowing the social matrix of the 19th century from which it grew.

As the first genuine tabloid newspaper of its kind in China, the DSZHB appealed to a broad popular taste, and it included a vast miscellany of topics. The early issues featured contemporary political events, like wars and diplomatic negotiations, although these declined over time. [6] The readership clearly was fascinated with Western technologies, so there are images of submarines, balloons, railroads, and guns, with essays praising the military and scientific value of these new inventions. The paper supported the progressive officials of the time, who promoted strengthening of China by importing Western technologies, but it also advocated deeper knowledge of Western society and culture. The profile of the diplomat Zeng Jize, who successfully negotiated a treaty with Russia in 1881, praised his comprehensive understanding of world affairs: “His wisdom takes into account the entire situation, as to where the benefits and harm lie, he balances them for the benefit of tens and hundreds of generations.” [7] Although many articles attacked the corruption of lower level officials, the editor did not challenge Qing court politics or try to expose high level malfeasance.

On the other hand, the supplement also inherited the popular tradition of telling strange stories, including wondrous tales of the supernatural, ghost stories, and exotic accounts of foreign countries. After the first two years, the percentage of marvelous and curious stories rose substantially, comprising up to 30 percent of the total number of issues, while the space devoted to military affairs and Western technology nearly disappeared, recovering briefly during the Sino-Japanese war of 1894–95. Major and his writers responded to popular interest in entertainment, and they may well have avoided political commentary out of caution. But even the miraculous stories transmitted information about the wider world beyond China: strange beings, disasters, miracles and ghosts, in the Illustrated Supplement’s view, could be found everywhere. The Illustrated Supplement expanded the geographical and intellectual horizons of its readers, not so different from modern popular science shows, presenting educational material in the guise of dramatic entertainment. 

These issues, presented in their original order, show that no single principle guided the choice of subjects; their only criterion was to find “interesting” stories. Some were quite topical, tied to current events, but many had a timeless quality.

Reprints of the series removed the dates of publication, so later readers, and most scholars, have used the images torn out of their original time. The images certainly created memorable social types, whose characteristics reappeared in many scenes. The dandy or elegant hooligan (liumang), wearing sunglasses, and carrying an umbrella or cigarette epitomized the street-wise lower level flaneur of the Shanghai city scene. Idealized courtesans on display in carriages and street processions similarly typified the aspirations of many men for a life of leisure, wealth, and easy sexual companionship. [8] Other types were recognizable on any street of a major city: shifty-eyed criminals, Westerners in high hats and mustaches, local policemen, the Sikh police of the International settlement, shopkeepers, market women, etc. Yet despite the repeated occurrence of stereotypes, the focus on the “new(s)” meant that each issue responded to current events as they happened.

What would the typical reader see as he opened the first issue of the Illustrated Supplement? First, information about the battles with the French, featuring large warships, guns, smoke, and celebrations of victory (pp. 3, 4). Next, the marvels of new technology, celebrating its military applications: a submarine, gas balloons, and underwater mines (pp. 5-7). Two irresistibly pathetic disaster stories followed: the death of several people when a bridge collapsed under spectators at a fire, and the touching but edifying story of a young man who squandered his savings in a brothel and committed suicide (pp. 8, 9). The traditional value of filial piety was emphasized in what seems to us a gruesome tale of a young man who cut out his liver to save his father (p. 10). Finally, a moralistic fable, always popular in tabloids, told how a wild mouse burnt down a shop after being tortured by the staff (p. 11).

Issue 2 continued in much the same vein. One story showed off the writer’s sophistication by describing a display of colorful orchids and beautiful women (p. 11). The description of the honors given to a 110-year old man in Yangzhou likewise supported classical values (p. 12). This issue’s animal story told with satisfaction how a loyal horse returned to its master after being stolen (p. 13). The autumn assizes demonstrated both the leniency of official pardons and the spectacle of punishment for large audiences (p. 14). Westerners had their own spectacle at the horse races, which also attracted Chinese spectators (p. 15). Two crime stories rounded out the issue. “Stealing Pleasure” combined the attractions of a crime and a brothel story. “Blemished Jade” not only condemned the decadence of youth but offered a view of the exotic Shanghai mixed court, where Western and Chinese judges delivered justice together (pp. 16, 17).

Subsequent issues carried on similar themes, adding some new violent twists: bodily torture by quack doctors and ghosts, natural disasters in England and China, drownings, despicable criminals, and decadent youth, alongside political celebrations, corrupt officials, and windfall fortune. One of the few sketches to discuss rural people gives a moving account of village elders lamenting the impact of a local famine (p. 45).

Major and his contributors had hit on a profitable formula, giving their readers titillation, moral rectitude, appeals to sophistication, and information about the exotic worlds beyond them in bite-sized convenient parables, accompanied by vivid, elegantly drawn images. During its fifteen years, the DSZHB shaped its readers as it seduced them; it portrayed a world they knew well and it stimulated their imaginations of places they would never see; it employed a new form of educated writer and created a new mass audience. It has left us an invaluable portrait of Chinese society in a time of bewildering transformation.

Peter C. Perdue,
Professor of History,
Yale University



Judge, J. Print and Politics “Shibao” and the Culture of Reform in Late Qing China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).

Kim, Nanny, ”New Wine in Old Bottles? Making and Reading an Illustrated Magazine from Late Nineteenth-Century Shanghai,“ in Wagner, ed., (2007, pp. 175-200).

Mittler, B. A Newspaper for China? Power, Identity, and Change in Shanghai's News Media, 1872-1912 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).

Wagner, R. G. Joining the Global Public: Word, Image, and City in Early Chinese Newspapers, 1870-1910. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007).

Ye, X. The Dianshizhai Pictorial: Shanghai Urban Life, 1884-1898 (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, 2003).

Yeh, C. V. Shanghai Love: Courtesans, Intellectuals, and Entertainment Culture, 1850-1910 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006).


1. see Wagner, ed.; Judge; Mittler
2. Ye Xiaoqing; Yeh, Katharine
3. Kim in Wagner, ed., p. 182
4. Ye, p. 12
5. Lu Xun Quanji, vol. 4, pp. 292-3
6. Kim, in Wagner, ed., p.185
7. DSZHB, p. 20
8. Yeh


Images: Yale University Library, East Asia Library

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
© 2015 Visualizing Cultures

Creative Commons - some rights reserved

MIT Visualizing Cultures
MIT Visualizing CulturesMIT Visualizing Cultures

MIT Visualizing Cultures
MIT Visualizing Cultures
MIT Visualizing CulturesMenu
MIT Visualizing Cultures
Shanghai's Lens on the New(s) ll
MIT Visualizing Cultures VC Units MIT Visualizing Cultures About VC VC Scholars Partner Institutions Outreach Conferences & Events Contact Join Us Follow Us Visual Narratives Introduction Issue 1 Issue 2 Issue 3 Issue 4 Issue 5 Issue 6 Units Icon View Text View Curriculae Shanghai's Lens on the New(s) lll Introduction Shanghai's Lens on the New(s) lll Shanghai's Lens on the New(s) l Introduction Issue 1 Issue 2 Issue 3 Issue 4 Issue 5 Issue 6