- Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China
Readers of journals such as Late Imperial China have long been aware of a rising tide of interest in the history of the book in China. The appearance of this new collection of essays, coinciding as it does with published or imminent monographs on the subject by at least four of its contributors, testifies eloquently to the levels of sophistication already achieved as well as to the energy of the scholarly community pursuing research in this area. A bibliographically appropriate place to begin this review is the title of this book It is a revealing one, neatly avoiding as it does several potential pitfalls, for the history of the book in late imperial China is not only the study of printed books and it is not only the study of books in Chinese. It is just as well, therefore, that several of the contributions sternly remind us of the survival of manuscripts as a form of book production even during the age of print, and of the production of books in languages other than Chinese.
The book opens with a masterly introductory chapter by Cynthia Brokaw that tackles the methodological difficulties inherent in applying the concepts generated by the rise of "the history of the book" in the West to the very different technological, social, and historical conditions of China. These particularities have indubitably determined the salient features of the book in China, and, as she rightly says and as others have demonstrated in the cases of Russia, Japan, and Korea, the study of non-European book cultures ultimately encourages a reexamination of the particularities of the European experience rather than the acceptance of them as somehow normative. However, in one important respect historians of the book in East Asian societies have no choice but to turn to different methods from those practiced by historians of the book in the West, for the business records that might document the economics of book production have simply not survived in any usable quantity in China, Korea, Vietnam, or Japan. On the other hand, the books themselves survive in abundance and can be persuaded to give up their secrets. It is, therefore, an admirable characteristic of this volume that most of the contributions employ careful bibliographic analysis of extant copies located not only in mainland China and Taiwan but also in the diaspora of Chinese books in Japan, the United States, and Europe.
The other half of the introductory section of this book is Joseph McDermott's study of "The Ascendance of the Imprint in China," which explores the prehistory of Ming printing. He draws attention to the fact, which runs counter to the European experience, that it took some eight centuries, after the invention of printing in the Tang, for the imprint finally to gain ascendance over the manuscript in [End Page 377] the sixteenth century, and he unravels some of the reasons for this, among them the low cost of making manuscript copies and the perceived pedagogic value of making a copy of a text under study. He attributes the ascendance of imprints in the late Ming to the lower cost of book production, to the competitive examination system, to the commercialized economy, and to other factors that facilitated the rise of the book as a commodity. He also shows that the new milieu in which the imprint found itself generated new types of book such as "how-to" books and extended the prestige of authorship beyond the scholar-official class even to commoners without the lowest examination degree. Finally, he reminds us that in the late Ming and the Qing, manuscripts still had a role to play and in some cases neatly complemented the production of printed books. This last point, which mirrors the continued production of manuscripts in other print cultures around the world, is an important one; clearly more research is needed on Ming and Qing manuscript production to identify the...