- Gutenberg in Shanghai: Chinese Print Capitalism, 1876–1937
This is a generous, learned book. Its five lavishly illustrated chapters outline the transfer of modern print technologies from Europe and Japan to China’s treaty port sector and chart the history of the Gutenberg revolution’s sinicization and institutionalization in late Qing and Republican cities. Generically, the book is a social and cultural history of industrial book production. Reed’s objective was seemingly to highlight the importance in twentieth-century history of China’s explicitly modern, unquestionably capitalist sectors. The innovations capitalist industry wrought were institutional and intellectual, in his understanding. They included the knowledge-based microeconomy of textbook and commercial book production, the business innovation of the joint-stock limited liability corporation, the central role of cultural entrepreneurs in the capitalist-style book culture, the role of industrial production in shaping competitive markets, and, finally, the newly struck relation of Nationalist Party state control over the print industry. As Reed puts it, his work focuses on “the reciprocal influences of material and mental culture that were a central part of the social history of Shanghai life between 1876 and 1937” (p. 4) and, importantly, Shanghai’s rise to power in the nation as the center of modernist, commercial cultural life.
Print capitalism is this book’s central theoretical preoccupation. Reed defines print capitalism as “an offshoot of the process of mechanization in the printing and publishing sector . . . when commercialized, secularized, nongovernmental, and nonphilanthropic printing came to be done, not as a handicraft, but as a form of ‘industry carried on by machines’”(p. 9). In homage to Marie-Claire Bergere, Reed argues that although she had stretched the term “technology” too far, she got the basics right. Taking her point about Chinese capitalism being born in the treaty port sector as modern technology crashed into an already commercialized society, Reeds tightens Bergere’s analysis. He focuses exclusively on technologies of mass communications: the machines and technicians engaged in producing newspapers, journals, books, and textbooks. Accordingly, his work seeks to show that the machines, ideas, management, and organizational technologies that put missionary-educated entrepreneurs in charge of the powerful mass media for this instant best illustrate what Chinese capitalism was and what it did.
An important subtheme in the book is that industrially produced book culture must be understood before anything further can be said about the history of modern intellectuals. Reed’s histories of the Commercial Press, Zhonghua Books, [End Page 196] and World Books are institutional studies. They trace out the development of the book business as an industrial cultural corporation. In the midst of these organizations the editors, printers, translators, technicians, writers, copiers, proofers, jobbers, and other skilled new intellectuals primarily worked to make a living. Historical personages, men like Cai Yuanpai, Mao Dun, and Hu Shi make their appearance here, but they are not tapped either for biographic or intellectual profiles. Instead, they illustrate how the exigencies of a transforming political economy swept together the enormously talented and the merely skilled, the greats along with the new worker. This subtheme lends a sense of balance to histories of the new culture movement; for certainly the making of the modern intellectual bourgeoisie was at least as complex as the making of the industrial proletariat. Each, in Reed’s story, originated in the complexities of print capital, the defining capitalist configuration of its era. In the end, the study hints that print capitalism—explored in such detail in this book—is a certain kind of capitalism, one that in some senses defines the Chinese capitalist moment best.
The book is also an exuberant, helpful guide to the problems that confront cultural historians. Among these is a question Reed himself argues from various positions: what to do about colonialism? Reed offers the following illustrative story. When Commercial Press editor Xia Ruifang decided to publish Tan Sitong’s Renxue, Xia got into a row with Bao Tianxiao. Bao was a xiucai, a...