Published by EH.NET (December 2005)

Christopher A. Reed, Gutenberg in Shanghai: Chinese Print Capitalism, 1876-1937. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2004. xvii + 391 pp. $85 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7748-1040-8; $30 (paperback), ISBN: 0-7748-1041-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Elisabeth K?ll, Department of History, Case Western Reserve University.

Any scholar visiting Shanghai these days will still make a trip to Fuzhou Road in the district formerly known as Wenhuajie (Culture-and-Education Streets) which houses the largest concentration of bookshops in the city and gives testimony to the extremely vibrant publishing industry in contemporary China. In Gutenberg in Shanghai, the historian Christopher A. Reed (Ohio State University) explores the origins and development of Chinese print capitalism in this district from the late nineteenth century to the beginning of the Japanese occupation in 1937. His monograph is a fine example of a successful interdisciplinary study that applies approaches from the social history of technology, business history, and the history of book and print culture to the analysis of print capitalism in the context of print culture and print commerce in modern China.

The research for this book is based on an impressive scope of Chinese and Western primary sources including numerous archival materials, newspapers and magazines as well as interviews with former employees in the print industry. Reed shows how the transition from traditional Chinese woodblock printing (xylography) to Western-style mechanized printing became part of the modern transformation of Chinese society in various ways, creating a new intellectual culture of printing and publishing and introducing new business forms of commercial organization. Scholarly interest in the development of the Chinese nation-state has led to many studies on the emergence of print culture and print commerce in China up to the early nineteenth century. Reed’s study is the first one to concentrate on print capitalism and on Shanghai which by the early twentieth century had become the hub of China’s publishing industry and culture and the trendsetter in technological development and intellectual debates.

The story of Gutenberg in Shanghai unfolds in five chapters which are chronologically organized but address different issues and problems in the development of Chinese print capitalism. Chapter 1 gives a detailed and informative analysis of the introduction of industrialized printing technology in China between 1807 and 1930. Here Reed focuses on the issues of technology transfer through the import of printing media, printing presses and printing machines, mainly from Britain and America, to China. The new technology began to find a foothold first in Macao, Hong Kong, Canton, Shanghai and other treaty ports where Christian missionaries imported or developed printing machines for their religious and educational projects. However, missionaries were not crucial to the long-term development of printing technology as by the 1870s the Chinese began to show serious interest in Western technology, first in industrialized lithographic and later letterpress printing and publishing which began to replace China’s traditional xylographic printing craft. With great detail and technological expertise Reed analyses the technology transfer and argues that “the development of relief and lithographic media and presses for printing Chinese was possibly the most important and lasting conversion ever effected by nineteenth-century Protestant and Catholic missionaries in China” (p. 84). Eventually, the Commercial Press in Shanghai emerged as the most dominant firm in China’s new printing and publishing business.

The technological aspirations of lithographic printer-publishers in Shanghai and their impact on the city’s cultural life until 1905, when the traditional civil service examination and educational curriculum were abolished, are explored in Chapter 2. As Reed argues, Chinese publishers made an informed choice and preferred lithography due to relatively low initial capital requirements and the aesthetic appeal of the printed text. In what he terms Shanghai’s “Golden Age” of lithographic printing and publishing, the author offers fascinating insights into the development of Shanghai’s three most important lithographic publishers, Dianshizhai, Tongwen Press and Feiying Hall, and their business and technological choices. By the late 1880s they already had mechanized print shops with a sizable workforce. However, from 1895 on the mechanized letterpress industry increasingly competed with lithographic printing and quickly began to replace it, especially in the newspaper and journal business, as well as in general book publishing.

The publication of hundreds of new newspapers and journals, testimony to the new political culture after 1895, was made possible by the mechanization of China’s publishing industry. Chapter 3 explores the development of the printing machinery industry in Shanghai which first grew out of the repair business. As Reed argues, Chinese printing machine technicians eventually were able to duplicate imported machines, and by the 1920s Shanghai became the center of China’s printing machine industry. Apart from offering an excellent analysis of the machine shops, complex work hierarchies and apprentice systems, Reed’s argument is important as the success of the Chinese printing machine industry is an exception within the industrial development of China during the Republican period. For example, in large industry sectors like textiles, China never managed to replace the foreign machine imports with products from the local machine industry.

In Chapter 4 Reed discusses the central theme of the book, i.e. the transformation of Chinese print culture and print commerce into modern Chinese print capitalism. The higher cost of Western-style printing technology required Chinese publishers to look for additional capital sources. As one important mechanism, the establishment of a booksellers’ guild in 1905 and trade association in 1905-06/1911 was designed to protect the publishers’ investments in technology and their market shares. Incorporation became another method for capital infusion. Similar to China’s emerging corporate enterprises in other industry sectors, Chinese publishing firms took on the formal organization as Western-style corporations while maintaining and combining them with traditional, well-established business practices from China’s pre-industrial print commerce and culture. Here Reed’s story confirms the findings of Chinese business historians who in recent studies have argued for a combination of Western-style corporate structure and traditional Chinese business practices and structures in the making of the modern business enterprise in early twentieth-century China.

The last chapter introduces the three most important cases of “new-style book-publishing print capitalists” (p. 204) which dominated the modern textbook market and the publishing business in Shanghai between 1912 and 1937. The successful corporate enterprises of Commercial Press, Zhonghua Books, and World Books were commonly referred to as ‘the three legs of the tripod’ and took a prominent place in the Wenhuajie district which began to flourish by about 1916. By analyzing the companies’ differing business portfolios and publishers in charge, their competition and market strategies, Reed provides an intriguing narrative about the day-to-day business of publishing firms during the stormy political climate of the Republican period. As Reed points out, during the weak government environment between 1912 and 1927, the three companies were engaged in a ruthless textbook war which was only ended by the settlement with the Nationalist state under Chiang Kai-shek in 1928. However, political issues continued to find their way into the companies’ offices as the government’s educational policies regulated textbook publishing.

Gutenberg in Shanghai offers a complex, thoughtful and engaging study of China’s print capitalism which pays as much attention to the social history of technology as to the business history of the printing and publishing enterprises emerging in modern China. Filling an important gap among existing studies, Reed focuses on print capitalism rather than print culture and print commerce with the argument that “mechanization laid the material foundation that made Chinese print capitalism possible” (p. 9). However, apart from the technological foundations of print capitalism, the author also gives appropriate consideration to the economic conditions of print capitalism such as new capital available from modern banks and joint-stock limited liability firms, new forms of business and managerial organization in the print business, and the new networks and changing political patronage during the Republican period. Reed confirms the great intellectual impact of periodicals, especially textbooks and reference books published in Shanghai in the early twentieth century; at the same time he also demonstrates that despite all the technological innovations a traditionalistic print-culture mentality not only continued to exist but also guided the business decisions in corporate publishing firms well through the first half of the twentieth century. Last but not least, since this is a book about books and publishing, it should be noted that Gutenberg in Shanghai is a thoughtfully produced volume reflecting editorial sophistication. One can only wish that in the constant flood of publications more books would reach this high standard of intellectual content and visual presentation.

Elisabeth K?ll is associate professor of modern Chinese history at Case Western Reserve University and author of From Cotton Mill to Business Empire: The Emergence of Regional Enterprises in Modern China (Harvard University Asia Center, 2003). She is about to finish a year of field research in China for her current book project involving the study of the social history of the railroad in China between 1895 and the 1950s.