- Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China
This striking volume does much to open late imperial China to the history of the book. It might come as a surprise to Western scholars that, in spite of the undeniable importance of books in Chinese society and culture, its book history has remained largely unexplored. The eleven essays in this volume aim to correct that oversight and to set a course for future studies of the late Ming and Qing. This period, roughly from the mid-sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, has long proved to be fertile ground for Western fields of inquiry into book production and readership, and, indeed, the insights gleaned from these Western approaches to book history make this volume even more accessible to scholars of both cultures. There is also an undeniable feeling of collegiality to the volume, which is perhaps unsurprising, given its origins in a 1998 conference. However, what sets it apart from other such collections is the extent to which each essay references the other. Not only is the resulting dialogue most helpful in gaining fresh insights into current scholarly debate, but the cross-referencing also neatly parallels the often overlapping paratextual commentaries found in many of the texts under discussion. Readers could ask for no better way of initiating themselves in Chinese book culture.
The first of the two introductory essays offers a concise and, frankly, indispensable introduction to the Chinese book. Cynthia J. Brokaw begins by addressing the need for a more holistic, Annales school approach, and, while acknowledging her debt to Western scholarship, she also recognizes the fundamental differences between Chinese and European book cultures (7). The most obvious of these distinctions concerns the technology of printing. The nature of the Chinese language required the ability to reproduce several thousand characters, and the resulting unwieldiness—and expense—of the operation meant that Chinese printing was dominated by wooden block printing until the twentieth century. The complicated transition from manuscript to print is the subject of Joseph McDermott's study of the "ascendance of the imprint," which suggests that the presumed conquest of printing during the Song was "not as quick and as comprehensive as it might [End Page 120] appear" and that print would not come to dominate manuscript culture until some eight centuries after its invention (56). The subsequent printing boom and growth of private libraries did little to alleviate the book shortage for many. Even the famous scholar-official Yang Shiqi was able to acquire only a two-volume edition of the Tang work Shilüe when his mother exchanged a chicken for it (70).
Trade of a different sort is the theme of the next three essays, which concern themselves with commercial publishing and the expanding Chinese market for books. Lucille Chia offers an account of the commercial book trade on Nanjing's Three Mountain Street during the Ming. A real sense of place is evoked in this essay, and the reader can well understand how the city became one of the most prolific urban publishing centers of the late Ming (126). Although best known for high-end textual offerings, Chia intriguingly suggests a hitherto "hidden" part to the city's trade that is well worth further study. Anne E. McLaren draws on prefaces and commentaries as she establishes an emerging awareness of a potential readership no longer restricted to the learned classes. The resulting texts were designed for a range of reading practices, and different versions of the same text were often produced for each distinct readership. In this way, the common late Ming reader was "rhetorically upgraded" to pseudoliterati status (176). The third essay, also by Brokaw, focuses on the expansion of publishing to the hinterland areas during the Qing—in this case, the comparatively isolated Sibao township. The often utilitarian approach taken by these outlying readers, clearly hopeful of examination success, was well met by at least one preface writer, who marveled "that only one month of work...