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  • Gutenberg and Modern Chinese Print Culture:The State of the Discipline II
  • Christopher A. Reed (bio)

A preoccupation with Johann Gutenberg and the extended technological, social, and cultural implications of the worldwide Gutenberg revolution has influenced Western and Chinese perspectives on China's print and publishing culture for two centuries (from approximately 1800 onwards). East Asia was still a major center of the world economy when the impact of the Gutenberg revolution began to be felt there in the early 1800s. As the century progressed, however, the region came to seem peripheral to Western historical observers, who felt that the technologies then changing the world, including movable type, were exclusively European in origin.1 Thus, the same Christian missionaries who brought the Gutenberg revolution to China were also its first historians, and they often found themselves having to account to their readers back home for the range of apparently "outdated" or "backward" printing techniques then still in use in China. Naturally, they focused on Christian printing and publishing by Westerners (who did sometimes employ Chinese workers),2 emphasizing the role of missionaries in developing printing technology suitable for Chinese-language Bibles (itself part of the "cheap Bible movement"3), periodicals, and ephemera. They shared their fellow nineteenth-century Westerners' faith in technology and its place in the secular gospel of progress.4

W. H. Medhurst (1796–1857) was affiliated with the London Missionary Society, which sought to spread the gospel via the printing press, an illegal activity under Qing (1644–1911) law. His China: Its State and Prospects (1838) listed statistics for books published in Chinese in Southeast Asia as well as at Canton for distribution in China. Whether using xylography (woodblocks), lithography, or typography, Medhurst acknowledged that [End Page 291] "the printing of native books, by foreigners, is strictly forbidden . . . this . . . refer[s] . . . to all books in the native language."5 Still, he managed to print some thirty Chinese-language Christian titles in more than 160,000 copies between 1823 and 1834, most of them using woodblocks. Seeking to contextualize Chinese printing by linking it to the Chinese invention of the compass and gunpowder, Medhurst imprecisely told his readers that China had invented printing "upwards of nine hundred years ago" (although movable type had been developed in the tenth century, xylography predated that by two centuries at least), and he reminded them that these "three most important discoveries . . . have given an extraordinary impulse to the progress of civilization in Europe."6 He thereby initiated a theme that gradually became widespread among early Western and then Chinese students of China's print culture. Praising the Chinese for their ability to use blocks "to throw off clear impressions of their books in an expeditious manner," Medhurst then went on to speculate about the impact of this technology, offering a surprisingly reductionistic conclusion unlikely to be accepted by students of Chinese print culture today. In his view, "this stereotyping of their books has caused the stereotyping of their ideas."7 By inference, Western typography would produce superior books and liberate the Chinese from their slavish imitation of antiquity.8

Sixty years later, W. A. P. Martin's A Cycle of Cathay (1900) recorded the partially successful dissemination of Western typographic techniques introduced by Medhurst and other missionaries. A graduate of Indiana University and himself a former missionary, by the end of the century Martin (1827–1916) had been engaged by the Qing court to direct its new Beijing translation bureau (Tongwenguan). Echoing Medhurst, Martin acknowledged that "in the art of printing, which has effected such a revolution in the social condition of mankind by cheapening books and diffusing knowledge, China led the way by her system of block-cutting, or stereotyping on wood." In the same paragraph, however, invoking the specter of Gutenberg, Martin then observed that in China "an effort to produce metal types, not by casting, but engraving . . . was made in the [seventeenth century], long after Gutenberg."9 That attempt having been short-lived, real progress in Chinese printing had to wait for Western intervention: "At present metallic types are in extensive use but all the fonts came from matrices made by foreigners, mostly missionaries."10

In 1928 Edward Thomas...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1499
Print ISSN
1098-7371
Pages
pp. 291-315
Launched on MUSE
2007-10-23
Open Access
No
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