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Publishing, Culture, and Power in Early Modern China

Author(s):Chow, Kai-wing
Reviewer(s):Sivin, Nathan

Published by EH.NET (October 2004)

Kai-wing Chow, Publishing, Culture, and Power in Early Modern China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004. xv + 397 pp. $49.50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8047-3367-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Nathan Sivin, Department of the History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania.

Over the past decade or so, one fresh, incisive monograph after another on publishing during the past millennium in China has come from Lucille Chia, Kai-wing Chow, Ellen Widmer, and a flock of authors in the PRC. Illuminating studies in Chinese and Japanese have appeared on many related topics such as the history of printing and paper. It was natural to wonder when we would have a synthesis, and who would deliver it.

This book is as close as we are likely to come for some time. Its basis is research on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it summarizes earlier developments, and says a little about later ones. It is bold in its interpretations, balanced in its attention to publishers, authors, and readers, flawed in ways that are not negligible, but indispensable to anyone interested in Chinese culture and politics. It is also quite informative about the economics of publishing and reading in its period.

In China the circumstances of printing made its impact very different from that in Europe. China was an enormous land mass ruled by a single central power, without autonomous provincial and city governments. The one profession that its small educated elite esteemed was civil service; in 1500 no other employment was quite respectable. Well before 1500, many families, particularly those of the lower Yangzi valley, had united merchant wealth with office-holding traditions, blurring the old distinction between literatus and commoner. A family without a representative in officialdom lacked protection for its wealth and privileges.

The children of the highest officials were eligible for direct appointment, but others had to pass a series of examinations. The governments of the last two imperial dynasties reduced the quotas for the highest examinations; only 7 per cent of those who had succeeded in the intermediate testing passed in 1549, and only 6 per cent in 1601. Only a few even of these could contemplate a steady climb up the career ladder. Most of the literati in 1550 were doomed to spend a large part of their lives preparing for, and failing, one test after another, or languishing in dead-end jobs. The “examination life,” this book argues, determined more than anything else the character of commercial printing and the social changes it brought about.

The government, beginning in the tenth century, pioneered secular printing for wide-scale distribution. Private enterprises soon took it up. From 1450 on, large numbers of books, published for profit or printed by individuals, families, and religious groups, came onto the market. Printers did not, however, become distinct from booksellers.

Despite the low cost of labor for carving wood blocks, printers increasingly used movable type from about 1500 on. Wooden movable type was fairly popular for small editions, and a few large firms used cast-copper fonts for large works. But the flexible cost of block printing kept it predominant. As the cost of production, especially the price of paper, went down, almost any author could hire a few craftsmen and publish his own work. One could publish quickly by employing more block carvers; if capital ran low, doing without most of them merely slowed down production. Since there were more peddlers than bookstores, individuals who produced their own books did not have to depend on shops for distribution.

Chow’s data indicate that around 1600 both block carving and printing were appreciably cheaper than in European centers. Since records of prices are scanty, and almost exclusively about collectors’ items, it is almost impossible to be sure what ordinary books cost. He estimates that books such as anthologies of examination essays would cost less than 1 tael (about 37 grams of pure silver, worth roughly $9.50 today), many popular genres a tenth of that, and small, cheaply produced booklets such as lyrics of musical plays perhaps a hundredth of a tael or so. He suggests that a book in the middle range (in an unspecified city) cost about the same as 3 kg of pork, 1.5 kg of peaches or plums, six porcelain soup bowls, or the “cheapest, decent folding fan”; “an average prostitute” would cost more than twice as much. Chow makes a fairly strong case that not only the wealthy but a large part of the urban population could afford books. He believes that even craftsmen and laborers above the lowest level, who generally made 1.5 tael or so a month plus payments in kind, could afford books, but this assumes that they could save a tael a month. Such figures explain the rapid growth in the Ming of publications that did not cater to elite preferences, everything from novels in which officials were villains to collections of jokes.

Publishers (many themselves authors and aspiring officials) issued endless collections of model examination essays, for examinees were “the largest reading public.” Most of those in the examination life took on large debts; passing made them huge. Writing or compiling books became a choice means to pay these debts. Many who were less talented at writing entered the world of publishing as editors, calligraphers, copyists, or proofreaders. They were not only its market but its pool of educated labor.

This was not at first respectable work; authors hid the fact that they wrote for money. They cast their values in conventional terms of “literary excellence, political office, and moral cultivation” even when they lived well by hack writing. Their conventional peers regarded those who abandoned the examination life not as litterateurs but as money-grubbers.

From about 1590 on, work in publishing became an attractive alternative to the examination life. There was enough authorship, compilation, and other work to occupy large numbers of people. Many flourished as “men of letters.” Others, unable to relinquish the dream of officialdom, did well enough by moving back and forth between the two styles of life.

“Preface writing was an economic, marketing, communal, and professional activity.” Prefaces made books credible; they were a source of income, social connections, and publicity; they were the only form of book reviewing; and, through the circulation of manuscripts, they facilitated networking. Even famous authors sought prefaces from those well known in their field. As the Ming government stagnated from the late fifteenth century until its end in 1644, and official careers became steadily less attractive, employment in publishing came to be more so. Books came to have as many as a dozen prefaces, and listed large numbers of people as proofreaders — usually purely nominal — partly as endorsements by reputable writers and partly as publicity for the author’s striving friends.

From the early fifteenth century on, the government had required potential examinees to study the classical commentaries by Zhu Xi (1130-1200), the basis of the state-sponsored ideology. Examinees were ensconced on the horns of a dilemma: to excel even at reproducing stale ideology mandated novelty. After about 1590, fresh approaches were exactly what commercially published commentaries offered. The result was a boom in the market, shrinking sales for the government-mandated commentaries, and of course complaints about heterodoxy from the ministry that conducted the examinations. But the perpetually distracted government, which neither registered printers nor approved private writings, did nothing about these complaints.

Chow shows that the most eminent literary figures before the late sixteenth century were well-situated officials, but from that time on the stars were those involved in publishing. Many had never even passed the intermediate examination, but their renown prepared them challenge the official literary standards, and to criticize — quietly and indirectly — the inflexibility and corruption of government from the emperor down. By the 1620’s, given the enormous demand for model examination essays as well as the effect on examiners of one’s reputation as a man of letters, publishing one’s writings even before taking the highest examination became unavoidable.

Literary societies began organizing on a large scale as what today we would call pressure groups. In one of many strokes of original interpretation, Chow looks closely at the activities of the celebrated Restoration Society (or Return to Antiquity Society, Fu She, 1629), conventionally described as “devoted to the clarification of philosophical principles and the reformation of both literary standards and ethical standards in officialdom” (Columbia History of Chinese Literature, p. 413). It was primarily a lobby of people with literary reputations gained in commercial publication. Its leaders were consistently chosen not for official status, seniority, or birth — the traditional criteria — but for experience at editing anthologies. In 1631 its members took 62 of the whole empire’s 347 passes in the highest examination, giving it unprecedented clout. Its 1632 anthology of members’ essays included the work of 700 scholars. Examiners who failed candidates chosen for inclusion were liable to public suspicion of “corruption or fraud.” The government could not ignore this new source of authority, but it fell before such societies could force effective reform. This remarkable story of commercial publication as a new political force would be worth following into the new Manchu dynasty.

This book adds up to a fresh and significant look at the publishing business as a key component in change of a very different sort than those we find in various European countries. The author’s familiarity with publications of the period, diligence in reading many anthologies of examination essays and commentaries, and familiarity with a large secondary literature make his argument generally credible.

At the same time, the book is disappointing in a number of small ways. I will give one or two examples to clarify each.

* It patronizes some first-rate predecessors. For instance, Chow scolds Benjamin Elman, author of the important Cultural History of Civil Service Examinations in Late Imperial China (Berkeley, 2000), for a view that “fails to recognize the various ways the literati could resist and even subvert the official ideology” (pp. 149-50). Actually, Elman’s book includes twenty-five pages of detail on such topics as “Forms of Resistance to the Examination Regime,” “Civil Examinations, Political Groups, and Organized Dissent,” and “Late Ming Critiques of Examinations and Calls for Reform” (pp. 195-220). Chow also berates Robert Darnton for failing to use a metaphor that Chow develops at great length.
* It is sometimes inattentive to time and place. A scholar, we are told, hyperbolically remarked “if the printing blocks were to be put on the fuel market, the price of firewood and charcoal would drop precipitously” (p. 23). Chow does not say what “the printing blocks” referred to; the bibliography reveals that the book cited was published in 1925. Surely when it was written is pertinent. A comparison of the importance of printing in China and Europe depends on studies of only France, Germany, and England, and in parts, only of the latter (p. 251).
* Its logic is frequently unconvincing. It says “the impact of commercialization accelerated the process of commodification of knowledge and literary production, resulting in a significant reconfiguration of the relationship between the economic field and the political field” (p. 143, typical of the book’s verbosity). One naturally wonders whether the growth of commercial publishing didn’t amount to more buying and selling of what people knew and wrote. The author gives no evidence that the former accelerated the latter without itself having accelerated. For a different sort of example, why estimate the annual rate of book production between 1368 and 1521 by counting only books extant today (p. 22), ignoring early catalogues?
* The author sometimes contradicts himself. He claims on p. 145 that dependence on writing to support the examination life “did result in the spread of hostility toward, and complete alienation from, the imperial government.” But three pages later he asserts that the expansion of publishing “did not produce a growing group of discontented, antagonistically critical, and increasingly secular producers of print.”
* Some claims are not supported by the evidence. The book asserts that “the literati and the publishers” engaged in “resistance and subversion of imperial control over literary production” (p. 157). The Ministry of Rites complained ineffectually and stonewalled under popular pressure, but it was only one agency of the government, and did not unilaterally make imperial laws or policy. The book shows that, in the period studied, the government did not control either the activities of publishers or the content of writings they published; what domination was being subverted?
* References are chaotic. The book sometimes gives the dates of primary sources in the text, sometimes in the bibliography, sometimes in an appendix, and sometimes not at all (e.g., p. 303, note 12, and p. 305, note 44). Errors in the romanization of Chinese sometimes make bibliographic information useless.
* The author is given to adopting the jargon of others (by jargon I mean terminology that, despite its demands on the reader, makes ideas less clear rather than — as real technical terminology does — clearer). He has a number of valuable things to say about how publishers learned to capitalize on such elements as prefaces, lists of proofreaders, and the titles and physical forms of books. He could have been said it all without depending on Gerald Gennette’s ponderous apparatus of paratext, peritext, and epitext.
* The writing is seriously substandard. Here, for instance, is a key characterization: “The paratext in all its forms is a discourse that is fundamentally heteronomous, auxiliary, and dedicated to the service of something other than itself that constitute the raison d’?tre” (p. 153). On the preceding page the author defines “materialized text” as “a text inscribed on a material medium, be it paper, film, microfilm, or the latest cyberspace” (p. 152). Even post-modernists may well wonder whether “materialized text” is anything more than just plain text, and may doubt that “the latest cyberspace” is material.
* Some of the writing problems are systematic. For instance, the author systematically misuses the past perfect tense and passive voice in a way that makes it impossible to understand temporal relations. For instance, “Since the late Qing, the civil service examination had been universally condemned for its stress on conformity to formalists and ideological standards set by the imperial government” (p. 149). When did who condemn it? And what does “conformity to formalists” mean?

The last two items raise a question that reviewers seldom face. A generation ago, writing like this would indicate that the press’s editors were incompetent. It was their job to clean up incomprehensible writing. Authors who were not native speakers of writing English counted on them. Today most scholarly publishers rely on freelancers hired by the hour to mark up copy for the printer, and are no longer willing to pay for anything beyond that. Since indignation and exhortation are not going to change their policies, does that mean that readers can no longer expect books to be understandable?

What it means, I think, is that authors will have to submit clear and concise manuscripts themselves if they want people to read them. No one prepares a fair proportion of our graduate students to do that kind of writing. Many advisors are willing to accept academese of the most repellingly turgid sort, or do not flag elementary writing errors. A dissertation is supposed to be guided preparation for writing a book. Being cheated of that experience does not exempt a scholar from communicating effectively. Under present circumstances, I see no alternatives for authors, even those with doctorates, but learning to write clearly, or paying a skilled professional editor to turn one’s writing into adequate English. This book is a valuable contribution to understanding, but the author’s careless thinking and willingness to attach his name to inadequate writing detract noticeably from the high esteem it otherwise merits.

Nathan Sivin, Professor of Chinese Culture and of the History of Science in the Department of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, most recently published The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early Greece and China (with Sir Geoffrey Lloyd), Yale University Press, 2002.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):Medieval