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  • The Power of Print in Modern China: Intellectuals and Industrial Publishing from the End of Empire to Maoist State Socialism by Robert Culp
  • Paolo Magagnin (bio)
Robert Culp. The Power of Print in Modern China: Intellectuals and Industrial Publishing from the End of Empire to Maoist State Socialism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019. xv, 371 pp. Hardcover $65.00, isbn 978-02-31-18416-8. E-book $64.99, isbn 978-02-31-54535-8.

The Power of Print in Modern China is a valuable and extremely well-documented contribution to the research on the intellectual history of China, spanning from the late imperial era to the "seventeen-year" period between the founding of the People's Republic and the inception of the Cultural Revolution. What distinguishes it from most other studies, however, is the author's peculiar [End Page 115] perspective. Culp argues that "the emergence of industrial capitalism played a huge role in shaping scholarship and culture" (p. 259) in twentieth-century China, even after 1949. Indeed, the author's scrutiny of the profound economic transformations which occurred in the time span that he examines, as well as of their close connection to a rapidly changing cultural landscape, is a cutting-edge addition to the narratives of progressive and revolutionary intellectual politics that generally shape research on Republican and early Maoist China.

In order to highlight these transformations, the author focuses on the development of three major publishing houses that were established shortly after the fall of the empire: the Commercial Press (Shangwu yinshuguan, est. 1897), Zhonghua Book Company (Zhonghua shuju, est. 1912), and World Book Company (Shijie shuju, est. 1921). These are selected as representative centers of intellectual life that considerably influenced the formation of the modern Chinese cultural landscape. The book is divided into three parts. The first part (chapters 1 and 2) focuses on the intellectual background and profile of the literati who played a key role in the transition from premodern scholarly culture to industrialized intellectual labor. It includes an analysis of the methods of staff recruitment in the editing departments of each publisher. The second part (chapters 3–5) offers a detailed account of the changing dynamics of knowledge production, by focusing on the three types of works that were at the core of the Republican publishing endeavor, namely, textbooks and dictionaries, classical texts, and series publications. Finally, the third part (chapters 6 and 7) shows how the preexistent forms and modes of cultural production were reshaped in the post-1949 political scenario, emphasizing the dynamics of public-private negotiation, and adjustments in the division of labor.

One of the chief merits of this book lies in the fact that it describes how the intellectual history of China, from the late empire to the Republic and well into the early People's Republic of China (PRC) period, is made up not only of disruptions but also of moments of continuity. The author's compelling analysis of the modes of book production and labor organization used by the three publishers selected as case studies—especially those of the Commercial Press—makes this particularly manifest. Indeed, as the author argues in chapter 7, practices based on collaborative work and adherence to the "study society model" developed in the early Republican era (when the mission and operations of publishing companies still overlapped, to some degree, with those of educational organizations, typically universities) generally survived until the early 1960s. On another plane, where cultural and commercial concerns intersect, a similar consistency can be observed in the portfolio of publishing houses, which continued to focus on series publications in specific fields, reprinted classics, and reference works during the first two decades of the PRC (p. 216). Similar considerations can be made with regard to the systematic reorganization of the Chinese classical heritage carried out by the Commercial [End Page 116] Press and Zhonghua from the 1910s through the 1930s. When these publishers made wide access to classical texts as one of their top priorities, emphasizing the importance of transmission and popularization, the fundamental steps toward this objective were taken not by reformist, modern-educated young intellectuals, but by literati who had received a classical training...


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