The Creation of Identity and Community in Print

In his chapter ‘Piety in Print’, DuBois uses the Shengjing Times as a case study to trace the development of religion in print, as controlled by the Japanese, in Manchuria/Manchukuo. He argues that the images of religion presented related to both social trends and political needs, and the images tended to mirror the larger aims of Japan in the region. In his analysis, he refers to the theories of nationalism and community building of Anderson and Weber, which both include the role of print journalism/language in developing identities, ideas, and community. DuBois notes there is a key difference between their two theories however, turning on the question of whether mass media reflects existing identities or creates new ones:

‘In other words, the former [Anderson] shows publications expanding to fit the contours of an existing community, the latter [Weber] shows them creating a new one’.[1]

DuBois concludes that even at its most propagandistic, the paper was never able to simply impose its ideas onto its readership and that its later propagandistic messages probably ‘changed fewer minds than Weber’s example would suggest’.[2] Rather, the paper reflected existing identities, adhering closer to Anderson’s theory, due to newspapers being a product to be consumed and discarded at will and its readership holding the ability to simply disagree with its contents. This is illustrated best in the Shengjing Times’s attitude towards religious practices which promoted superstition; its theme of anti-superstition in its early publications (1906-1924) appealed to an intellectual readership and the iconoclastic May Fourth generation. DuBois argues that it was this image of religion the paper provided that was most successful, because it was a message its readership was keen to hear. Here we see the paper appealing to the pre-established intellectual community of ideas which subscribed to ideas of anti-superstition and anti-religious vision of social progress.

Perhaps Weber’s theory of community and identity building is instead demonstrated in the ‘revolution plus romance’ literary genre of China which appeared in the first half of the twentieth century. In his chapter ‘Revolution of the Heart’, Haiyan Lee provides a critical genealogy of sentiment and highlights the transformations of love as a concept of social and cultural life in twentieth century China. Through this literary genre, we see love used as a discursive technology for constructing individual and collective identities by the KMT and CCP, and literature participating ‘in (re)defining the social order and (re)producing forms of self and sociality’.[3] Love was supplemented to the revolutionary agenda, argued to threaten revolution and diminish revolutionary zeal. The genre therefore was able to use the concept of ‘love’, popular as a symbol of freedom, autonomy, and equality among the May Fourth generation, in order to promote the collective over the individual and further the revolutionary agenda.

Both the Shengjing Times and the Chinese literary genre of ‘revolution plus romance’ serve to illustrate the potential language has in the creation of identities and communities. While the Shengjing Times reflected existing identities and formed a community of readership based upon them, the Chinese literature aimed to form new identities aligned to the revolutionary movements. Overall, both demonstrate the use of language to further political agendas, and as case studies indicate both Anderson and Weber’s theories as feasible.

[1] Thomas David DuBois, Empire and the Meaning of Religion in Northeast Asia: Manchuria 1900-1945 (Cambridge, 2017), p. 87.

[2] Ibid., p. 107.

[3] Haiyan Lee, Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2010), p. 7.