Propaganda is central to the operation of the Chinese system of government. Aspects of propaganda—in particular the formalization of imagery and language—can be traced back to the earliest period of Chinese history, but propaganda has been most effective in the twentieth century thanks to the mass media and a powerful authoritarian government.
The earliest surviving texts on governance in China pay great attention to the need for rulers to control and formalize language to secure their authority. Confucius (c. 551– 479 B.C.E.), the most influential philosopher of early China, noted that the “rectification of names” was crucial to the establishment of stable government. The most important source for Confucius’s thoughts are The Analects, a series of dialogues that he is claimed to have held with various disciples, in which he argued for the importance of virtue and moral authority as a means of creating a stable state. Other works believed to have been edited by Confucius, along with the writings of his student, Mencius (c. 371–289 B.C.E.), form part of a canon formalized in the twelfth century. Confucian thought was supplemented by vast numbers of commentaries, which gave rise to various schools of Confucianism. Over the centuries Confucian thought hardened into a doctrine of state governance that stressed the importance of hierarchy; it was made the basis of the examinations qualifying candidates for the state bureaucracy. Confucianism has remained a powerful resource for Chinese rulers even into the present era.
Before the age of mass media, the sharing of religious rituals was one of the most important ways in which state propaganda could be transmitted among the population at large. The state could promote cults of gods based on dead heroes who had served the state, which would then be filtered down to temples at the nonelite level. Even at the elite level, the late imperial period, under the ethnically Manchu Qing dynasty (1644– 1911), saw an increasing use of state propaganda to legitimate the rule of the Manchus in the face of loyalism to the overthrown Ming dynasty. The Kangxi emperor, who ruled from 1661 to 1722, issued a sixteen point “Sacred Edict” in 1670 that justified his reign in terms of Confucian orthodoxy, thereby successfully challenging Chinese officials to follow that same orthodoxy and serve him. His successor, the Yongzheng emperor, who ruled from 1723 to 1735, expanded on the edict, training scholars in its precepts so that they could go to towns and villages to educate ordinary Chinese citizens about its requirements, thereby ensuring that success in the civil service examinations was based not only on a knowledge of the edicts but also the emperor’s comments on them.
The late nineteenth century saw the Qing dynasty become unstable due to a combination of economic crisis, internal rebellion, and the impact of Western imperialism. During this period Western social and cultural ideas—often transmitted through Japan— were influential among Chinese elites. Among those ideas was that of the public sphere separate from the state, and of associated institutions, such as newspapers. The most politically influential newspaper of the period was Shibao (Times), written by a group of Chinese intellectuals, of whom the most notable was the reformer Liang Qichao (1873–1929). Shibao, published from 1904 to 1939, served as a forum for debates on constitutional reform in China, which influenced the newly emerging urban middle class, particularly in major cities such as Shanghai. Much of the vocabulary of modernity was also popularized through Shibao and other publications by Liang, paving the way for the introduction of ideological thought (nationalism, communism, anarchism, etc.) in the following century.
The 1911 revolution ended China’s imperial system, and a republic was established. The Republican period (1911–1949) was marked by great instability, with no central government and a China divided up among warring militaristic leaders. This was followed by a decade of uneasy unity, under Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek (1887– 1975), which was swiftly undermined by the war with Japan (1937–1945). Some of the militaristic leaders—such as the northeasterner Zhang Zuolin (1875–1928), who controlled much of northern China in the early 1920s—had little interest in legitimating their rule by any means other than force. However, when Chiang Kai-shek established a Nationalist government at Nanjing in 1928, he used propaganda to characterize his authority (which in reality was fairly fragile) as firm and part of a wider project of nation-building, which had been started by his predecessor Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925). The most notable of his propaganda exercises was the New Life Movement of the 1930s, which took ideas from Confucianism and European fascism. Its goal was to control the daily behavior of ordinary Chinese citizens (for instance, encouraging them not to spit in public) as a means of instilling wider respect for the Nationalist nation-building project. The other major propaganda exercise under Chiang was the anti-Communist campaign. After Chiang turned against the Chinese Communists, who had been part of a united front with the Nationalists until 1927, the official press and media were encouraged to portray the small areas under Communist control in the 1930s as hotbeds of lawlessness and even sexual degeneracy (“property in common, wives in common” was a common gloss on the Communists at the time) in order to instill fear in the population at large. Communists were almost always referred to in official sources as “bandits.” This language was swiftly toned down after 1937, when a second united front was established against the Japanese.
The Japanese invasion of Chinese territory, starting with the occupation of the northeast (Manchuria) in 1931, created a new language and imagery of resistance, which became increasingly powerful throughout the 1930s and the war years. Manchurian exiles from the Japanese occupation used their positions on well-known periodicals such as Shenghuo zhoukan (Life Weekly)—which may have reached 1.5 million readers—to write about atrocities in occupied Manchuria, helping to stimulate an urban protest movement against Chiang Kaishek’s policy of appeasement of the Japanese. The imagery of resistance permeated popular fiction of the period as well; in one 1933 best-seller all the characters joined the anti- Japanese resistance. In Manchuria itself, meanwhile, Japanese-sponsored propaganda exercises—such as new schoolbooks and the Concordia Association, a pressure group created to stimulate Sino-Japanese cooperation in the occupied zone—countered the arguments of anti-Japanese nationalism.