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Gutenberg Revisited from the East

From: Late Imperial China
Volume 17, Number 1, June 1996
pp. 1-9 | 10.1353/late.1996.0004

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Late Imperial China 17.1 (1996) 1-9

For an historian such as myself, who works on the history of books, publishing, and reading in Occidental societies, the studies collected in this issue of Late Imperial China offer a great opportunity. The five articles consider a long period, stretching almost a millennium, from the Song to the Qing. They approach, archives in hand, different aspects of the print culture, from the production of books and the forms of their distribution, to the strategies of publishing, to the practices of reading. They apply to Chinese realities the same questions which historians of Western culture have asked in the past few years regarding the circulation of texts and the construction of their meaning.

The first effect of this group of essays, read from a Western perspective, is to necessitate a more careful evaluation of the importance of Gutenberg's invention. As we know, moveable type was invented in Asian civilization well before its discovery in the West. Moveable type in terra cotta was used in China since the eleventh century. Beginning in the thirteenth century Korean texts were printed using metal characters, while in China wooden characters were used in the same century. However, this temporal priority is not the most important reason to challenge the spontaneous ethnocentrism of Western historians. Indeed, in China as in Japan (where moveable type was introduced in the last decade of the sixteenth century, simultaneously by the Jesuits and by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, after his military campaigns in Korea), use of type remained limited, sporadic, and reserved for certain genres of works. In China, it was essentially restricted to official texts, the Classics, and, beginning in 1638, the Beijing Gazette; in Japan, it was limited to the "old editions in moveable type" (kokatsujiban), that is to say, the three hundred or so typographic works, classical and religious, published between 1593 and 1643, and, beginning at the end of the eighteenth century, to the scholarly and private works which constituted the "modern editions in moveable wooden type" (kinsei mokukatsujiban).

Having invented moveable type, for the most part the East did not use it. However, as is superbly demonstrated in the articles gathered here, not only in China, but also in Korea as well as Japan, there has existed for at least a thousand years a print culture which both had a broad foundation and was widely diffused. It depended on an original technique, used in the West beginning only in the second half of the fourteenth century: the production of block-printed books. Between the first dated edition from Jianyang discussed by Lucille Chia (a commentary on the Shiji of 1057), and the earliest editions made in the mid-nineteenth century with "Western mechanized printing techniques" in Guangzhou and Shanghai (which, according to Cynthia J. Brokaw, came seriously to rival the activities of the publishers in Sibao), the printing which is discussed in the five essays collected here is that which utilized the technique of printing texts from engraved wooden blocks.

For too long, Western historians have judged this manner of reproduction of texts and book publication against the standard of Gutenberg's invention, as if the latter was necessarily superior. A better knowledge of books and publishing in China and Japan will make us wary of such ethnocentrism. Wood engraving has, indeed, its own advantages. For one thing, it is better adapted than typography to languages such as Chinese which are made up of a large number of written characters, or, as is the case with Japanese, of several scripts. For another, wood engraving maintains a strong link between manuscript writing and publishing, since the engraved blocks derive from calligraphic models. Finally, due to the durability of the woodblocks, which allow several thousand copies of the same title to be printed, restrikes are convenient and the run of the edition can easily be adjusted to market demand. All of this seems to require of us a more accurate appreciation of Gutenberg's invention. While certainly of fundamental importance, it was not the only technique capable of assuring the widescale dissemination of printed texts.

The two forms of printing -- based upon engraved woodblocks or typesetting -- have certain traits...

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