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Author, A Social History of the Chinese Book

2007-05-01, That's Shanghai May 2007 Print Edition w

By Mina Choi


Joseph McDermott is a Professor of Chinese at Cambridge University and author of A Social History of the Chinese Book, which traces the evolution of the book in China from 1,000 to 1,800 AD. Over Skype, we discussed literacy, printing and the flow of information in Imperial China.

that’s: What exactly is a “social” history of the Chinese book?

Joseph McDermott (JM): By social history, I mean the social dimensions of the history of the Chinese book: Whose book? Who reads it? Who writes it? Who sells it? I’ve restricted my discussion in the book to the literati wenren. In China, literati books were made available to degree holders through government libraries, but private collectors did not generally allow people to borrow their books, or even read them – they were regarded as family property, right up until the late 19th-century.
In Europe, you had institutions, churches or universities which kept books for long periods of time, but restricted access. [Scholars in Europe] shared their books and kept in touch with one another; and they publicized and shared their learning on a private basis or through publications. So there was much more of a republic of letters in the West than there was in China. This difference in China can probably be traced back to the importance of these books for families and the prestige of their ownership, as well as distrust of outside readers. A common saying went, “It is stupid to loan books, and it is also stupid to return them,” as books were regarded as valuable family property, right up until the 20th-century.

that’s: Are there still other differences between the social histories of Chinese and European books?

JM: In the West, movable type printing, as introduced by Gutenberg, quickly became the preferred standard. But in China, that didn’t happen, primarily because printing books would have required multiple copies of approximately 52,000 Chinese characters; the expense and inconvenience was too great.
That said, movable type was, at times, employed by wealthy persons or government offices, but used only briefly. Then, in the latter half of the18th-century, the Chinese government famously used this kind of printing to stock a few libraries with books that would become accessible to all scholars. But movable type printing was never widely used, even after Westerners “introduced” it in the mid-19th-century; woodblock printing remained cheaper. In fact, woodblock printing was replaced first by lithography and only in the first three decades of the past century by movable type.

that’s: Yet in your book, you mention that scribal work and woodblock printing continues to be used in China.

JM: That’s right, even right up until the 1980s. I saw certain libraries in China where people were still being paid to make manuscript copies of books by hand. The libraries didn’t have the money for the technology – a photocopy machine or a microfilm camera – but they did have paper, brush, ink, and labor. Such cheap scribal labor impeded the technical upgrading to more modern kinds of printing.

that’s: Often when people think of literature, they also think of literacy. Is this analogy relevant in the Chinese context?

JM: Yes, but in a different way from the West. One can recognize a Chinese character, but not know its meaning in a new context and especially in a different field of knowledge, such as religion. So official literacy rates in China indicate less than in the modern West. Also, literacy in China has been more divorced from the spoken word than in post-1600 Europe. Until less than a century ago, Chinese tended to prize the literate language over the vernacular. A highly literate elite, scattered over a vast empire, could communicate with written characters that, when read aloud, they could not understand. While some of this written language entered into the vernacular, much of the vernacular never entered the written language. Even today in southern regions many oral expressions still cannot be expressed in character form. So no one answer is possible.

A Social History of the Chinese Book is available at


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