Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2017

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

Comparative Literature

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



Through the study of Shenbao Free Talk, this dissertation showcases an urban underground left-wing propaganda during party politics of 1927-1937 that flowed between literature and journalism and between intellectual literary debates and writing experimentation on mass media. This study purposefully challenges the view of a static top-down propaganda mechanism that attached full agency to the CCP. As my project will show, the CCP had since its early phase in the 1920s and 1930s actively sought commercial media as a means to strengthen its appeal to the urban audiences. Such propaganda work in cities featured a gradual and indirect infiltration into the literate urban readers and was decidedly different from the straight-forward strategies of propagating didactic messages that were employed towards the rural peasants.

My study of Free Talk 自由谈, literary column/supplement of the most long-lasting Chinese commercial newspaper Shenbao 申报, has demonstrated how an anti-GMD (Guomindang 国民党, or the Nationalist Party) public discourse developed and disseminated on mass media as an outcome of left-wing literary debates within and outside of China. The product of literary sarcasm based on news materials constituted a collective resistant discourse against the GMD as the newspaper readers entertained themselves by reading the sharp witty literary scoffing at the government-controlled news, which they encountered on daily basis. The resistant discourse emerged and matured through theoretical discussions and literary practice from the most talented Chinese left-wing writers, who certainly found their talent more fully employed in left-wing propaganda among urban readers than in the Party-directed propaganda to the rural peasants. To paraphrase in the words of Xi Jinping, what Free Talk had achieved was to conjure a “spiritual nourishment” to “organically integrate ideology, artistry and enjoyability” to the media for urban readers, who, like those in the contemporary age, were not to be easily won over with outright didacticism. In the 1930s Shanghai, it was first of all the witty metropolitan satires with renewed literary forms tinted with Western vanguardism, instead of political messages, that sailed into the hearts of the urban readers.

In analyzing how the low-key left-wing propaganda had channeled through urban mass media much to the favor of the CCP, the dissertation examines three key elements of the process: Shenbao Free Talk, Chinese and international left-wing community, and the new rhetorical of the left-wing propaganda – zawen. Part I of the dissertation traces the institutional history of Free Talk – instead of seeing the newspaper as developing a Habermasian public sphere or cultivating the collective imagination of national modernity, as demonstrated in many secondary studies of early modern newspapers, I see Shenbao’s role as deepening the public involvement in political and social affairs through analysis of the paper’s editorial development. Part II studies the important bond of mass media and the CCP, a.k.a., the left-wing writers. By tracing literary theories/debates on the relation between journalism and literature and between politics and writing that travelled from Europe via Japan to China, I depict a cultural movement that aims to bridge Communist political act and literature featuring involvement of the entire international left-wing community at the same period – from mid 1920s to the 1930s. Part III examines zawen, the Chinese mass media counterpart of the international literary reportage and the signature Shenbao Free Talk rhetoric. I follow the seminal line of Lu Xun – the initiator of the genre – to demonstrate left-wing intellectuals’ creative efforts in packaging the political discourse to not only avoid censorship but also appeal to the urban public into political participation.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Robert Paul E. Hegel Lutzeler

Committee Members

Zhao Ma, Lingchei L. Chen, Marvin Marcus,


Permanent URL: