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  • Writing for Success: Printing, Examinations, and Intellectual Change in Late Ming China*
  • Kai-wing Chow (bio)

The cultural history of printing and the history of reading are now on the agenda of China historians. 1 These new approaches make it ripe for a revisit to the intellectual history of the late Ming. Nothing is more relevant than a close examination of the impact of the publishing boom on gentry culture in the late Ming. This paper is a preliminary study of some of the ways in which the expansion of commercial printing affected a major sub-culture of the gentry—the examination culture.

Ku Yen-wu (1613–1682) and Huang Tsung-hsi (1610–1695) had long concurred that the perennial problem of duplicity encouraged by the civil service examinations and the danger of recruiting officials from candidates who only excelled in memorization had become more acute as commercial printing expanded in the late Ming. 2 Are we to believe the assessment of Ku and Huang that commercial printing only encouraged intellectual inertia and educational deficiency in the late Ming? Or were they oblivious to other effects of printing on the educated elite?

Ku’s and Huang’s negative assessment of the effects of printing on education oversimplifies the complex relationship between printing and the education process, in particular the civil service examination. The relationship between printing and intellectual change is a very complex one. Printed books and materials are important bearers of values, ideas, and practices. But to assume a direct relationship between diffusion of texts and dissemination of ideas is to neglect the important issues of the reader’s reception of ideas, and [End Page 120] the numerous ways the use of printed books were shaped by cultural values and social practices. Chartier, for example, has pointed out that ownership of books cannot be used as the sole means for a reliable study of dissemination of ideas. Such an approach will either exaggerate the transforming power of the texts on the owners who might disagree with the books, or underestimate the influence of certain texts because ideas and values could be transmitted through collective uses of books, borrowing from public and private libraries. 3 According to Chartier, in early modern France, “it is clear that all the books people read were not books they owned.” 4 As scholars studying the history of books in early modern Europe have demonstrated, studying intellectual change by examining ideas and values in printed texts needs to take into consideration the question of who read what, how, and where. 5 European historians have cautioned against attributing too much to printing in explaining intellectual change since the Renaissance. 6

Historians of China are beginning to investigate the complex relationship of printing to late imperial culture. 7 As Robert Darnton has said of eighteenth-century France, “[p]ublishing was an activity where social, economic, and cultural forces naturally converged,” and political factors need to be taken into consideration in the study of printing. 8 This observation applies equally well to the study of printing in late Ming China.

Both printing and education are enormous subjects of research. 9 My study will focus on only one particular site where education and publishing intersected—examination aids published in the late Ming. 10 What I plan to achieve in this article is to suggest a few new ways in which printing [End Page 121] was used by examinees to further their chances of success. Their uses of printed books, however, were shaped by commercial publishers who sought to “package” their books in order to attract the widest reading public. We need to know not only how the examinees used printing to achieve their goals, but also how printed books as commodities were packaged for a targeted reading public.The publisher’s strategic packaging of books reflects his perception of the interests of his readers—candidates taking the civil service examination. Such an exploration of printed texts would shed light on the intellectual world that examinees were exposed to through printed texts, and on how those books might have affected the flow of information within the context of the civil service examination.

Benjamin Elman has argued cogently that the civil...