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  • Book History in Premodern China:The State of the Discipline I
  • Cynthia Brokaw (bio)

Few cultures have enjoyed such a long tradition of literary production and scholarship as China. Writing, in the form of characters scratched on "oracle bones," tortoise plastrons and oxen shoulder bones used to record communications with the ancestors of the ruling family, appeared in ancient China by the middle of the second millennium B.C. "Books," in the form of writing on bamboo slats bound together into rolls, had become both a routine means of making bureaucratic records and a vehicle for the lively intellectual and political debates of the Warring States period (481–256 B.C.) and the voluminous works of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220). The rulers of this dynasty initiated the creation of a canon of sacred texts, eventually known as the Confucian Classics, to be revered as the carriers of the fundamental ethical and political values of Chinese culture. The invention of paper by the first century B.C. and the gradual spread of its use made writing much more accessible to the literate elite and encouraged the production of a broad range of texts. Manuscript book culture flourished.

By the eighth century (at the latest),1 the Chinese had invented xylography, the method of reproducing text from characters cut in relief on wooden blocks. Developed first for the production of Buddhist works (the earliest extant book is a beautifully illustrated sutra), the technology was embraced quickly by commercial publishers, who turned out dictionaries, medical texts, almanacs, divination and geomancy manuals, and works on astrology; and later by the government, which used print to establish standard editions of the Confucian Classics in the tenth century. By the end of that century, with the establishment of a text-centered civil-service examination system as the primary means of official recruitment, literacy and mastery of [End Page 253] the classical canon became the gateways to political authority, social status, and economic security. Throughout the rest of the imperial period—that is, until 1911—possession of, or at least access to, books was essential to respectability in Chinese society. A household perfumed with "the scent of books" (shuxiang) had accumulated considerable cultural capital.

Books were also highly valued as aesthetic objects and emblems of culture. Book collecting was a common hobby not only for scholars and the imperial family but also, by the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), for wealthy merchants and landowners aspiring to improve their standing in society. Literati vied to purchase the rare, often beautifully cut works of the Song (960–1279), considered by aesthetes the "golden age" of Chinese printing. At this time the art of woodcut illustration reached its height in the hands of the artisan block-cutters of Huizhou, famous for producing the beautifully designed and finely cut pictures that embellish high-end editions of Ming novels and art albums. Even for those unable to read (or too poor to purchase a finely illustrated text), the written and printed word had a certain sacred quality or power: popular religious texts commonly listed the ritual burning of scraps of writing as a means of accumulating merit and earning supernatural reward. By the later imperial period, special "Sparing the Written Word Associations" had developed to organize the collection and ritual disposal of such scraps.

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Table 1.

Chronology of Chinese Dynasties (Tang–Qing)

The expanding demand for books and the high cultural status of books in Chinese society from the Song on encouraged the development of new printing technologies: movable-type printing and color printing. As early as the eleventh century, Bi Sheng (990–1051) created movable earthenware type (fixed into a paste-lined iron frame for printing), and in the fourteenth century Wang Zhen (fl. 1290–1333) recorded the use of wooden movable type (fitted into a form with wooden plugs). By the late fifteenth century, movable type of bronze and other metals had also come into use. Primarily because of the large fonts needed to print Chinese (with more than fifty thousand characters), movable type was a practical option only for publishers able to make a significant capital investment. It...


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