Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China

Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China

Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China

Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China


Despite the importance of books and the written word in Chinese society, the history of the book in China is a topic that has been little explored. This pioneering volume of essays, written by historians, art historians, and literary scholars, introduces the major issues in the social and cultural history of the book in late imperial China. Informed by many insights from the rich literature on the history of the Western book, these essays investigate the relationship between the manuscript and print culture; the emergence of urban and rural publishing centers; the expanding audience for books; the development of niche markets and specialized publishing of fiction, drama, non-Han texts, and genealogies; and more.


Cynthia J. Brokaw

No one would dispute the special importance of books and the written word in China. Few cultures have enjoyed such a long tradition of literary production and scholarship; few peoples have more consistently expressed their sense of the value of learning and the mastery of the written word. By the Song period (960–1279) at the latest, literacy and education, measured by a civil service examination system, were the gateways to social status, wealth, and political authority. In short, possession of—or at least access to—books was essential to respectable success in Chinese society.

Books were also highly valued as aesthetic objects and emblems of culture. Book collecting was a common hobby not only for scholars but also for wealthy merchants and landowners aspiring to higher social status: “the perfume of books” (shuxiang) lent a household a degree of respectability. Indeed, the written and printed word was believed by many to have a certain sacred quality or power. Popular religious texts commonly listed the ritual burning of even scraps of writing as a means of earning merit. By the later imperial period special societies, Sparing the Written Word Associations (xizi hui), whose purpose was to organize the collection and ritual disposal of such scraps, had developed.

Given the important role that books have played in Chinese history, it is not surprising that there is a long tradition of book study in China. The modern scholar Cao Zhi, in his introductory text on the study of Chinese books, traces the origins of this tradition back to the Han (206 B.C.E.–220 c.e.), to the cataloguing efforts of Liu Xiang (ca. 79–6 B.C.E.). This early passion for books (and records about books) is reaffirmed throughout the course of Chinese history in the rich store of catalogues and bibliographies produced not only by government command, such as the Yiwen zhi (Literary annals) sections of the dynastic histories and the famous Qinding Siku quanshu zongmu . . .

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