In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Chinese Buddhist Publishing and Print Culture, 1900-1950

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Printing in Chinese History
  • Publishing in Chinese Buddhist History
  • Reprints of Major Publications
  • Buddhist Publishers and Publishing Houses
  • Print Culture History and Theory

Buddhism Chinese Buddhist Publishing and Print Culture, 1900-1950
Gregory Adam Scott
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0134


Buddhism in early-20th-century China was in a state of rapid transition, as pressures from a climate of political and intellectual revolution helped give rise to new religious ideas, organizations, practices, and texts. Printing had long been an important aspect of Buddhist religiosity but rapidly expanded in the late Qing (1644–1912) and early Republican (1912–1949) periods thanks to two types of publishers: the scriptural press (kejing chu 刻經處), which used xylographic (muban 木版; woodblock) technology, and the commercial or specialist press, which used movable type (qianzi 鉛字 or huozi 活字) and lithography (shiyin 石印 or yingyin 影印). For the most part, scriptural and exegetical texts that had been composed prior to the modern era were printed by the scriptural presses, although there were a few exceptions: most notably the Kalaviṇka Canon (Pinjia da zangjing 頻迦大藏經) published between 1909 and 1913 in Shanghai, which due to its size was printed with movable type. Commercial publishing companies, by contrast, such as Zhonghua Books (Zhonghua shuju 中華書局) and the Commercial Press (Shangwu yinshu guan 商務印書館), as well as specialist publishers of religious works, such as Shanghai Buddhological Press (Shanghai Foxue shuju 上海佛學書局), almost exclusively used modern printing technologies to publish their works. Print culture helped to connect Buddhists across China through an imagined community as expressed in print publications, and the new ways of producing and consuming printed material helped to foster a new focus on scholarship that continues into the 21st century. Publishing became a widespread way of engaging with Buddhism, from the elite publishers and editors to the readers who were able to purchase books at cost or cheaper, with publications being funded by pious donors and the profit from capital investment funds. The presses of the late Qing and early Republican era were very prolific; in the first half of the 20th century, there were more than twenty-two hundred publications related to Buddhism published in Chinese, including more than two hundred periodicals. This massive corpus of published material stands as a reminder of the creative fecundity of this turbulent but transformative period in Chinese Buddhist history.

General Overviews

There are several works that survey the development of publishing and print culture during this period in Chinese society as a whole. Buddhist works do not usually figure largely in these accounts, but many of the major commercial publishers of the day, including the Commercial Press (Shangwu yinshuguan 商務印書館), Zhonghua Books (Zhonghua shuju 中華書局), and Kaiming Books (Kaiming shuju 開明書店), did issue Buddhist publications and were contracted by Buddhist groups to print materials such as periodicals and monographs. Fan 1995 and Reed 2004 offer comprehensive accounts of the history of publishers and printers during this period, while works such as Brokaw and Reed 2010 and Li 2005 look at more specific topics, such as the histories of individual publishers and genres of printing. Pamphlets like The Story of the Commercial Press, Limited provide the publisher’s own account of their mission and history. Similar sources are quite numerous, because they were all written, edited, and printed in house. Welch 1968 touches on Buddhist publications as part of his comprehensive study of Buddhism in modern China, but his research does not reflect many of the publishers and publications listed elsewhere in this bibliography.

  • Brokaw, Cynthia, and Christopher A. Reed, eds. From Woodblocks to the Internet: Chinese Publishing and Print Culture in Transition, circa 1800 to 2008. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: E. J. Brill, 2010.

    This volume of papers from twelve contributors covers various topics in Chinese print and media culture from the end of the Qing dynasty to the present. Notable for this topic are the papers on “New Buddhist Print Cultures” by Jan Kiely and on the Jesuit Periodical Press by Joachim Kurtz.

  • Fan, Muhan 范慕韓, ed. Zhongguo yinshua jindai shi (chugao) (中國印刷近代史 [初稿]). Beijing, China: Yinshua gongye chubanshe, 1995.

    A comprehensive though very general history of publishers and printers in modern China, from the mission presses that first imported modern print technology, to the wartime and propaganda presses of the civil war. Invaluable are the numerous short, encyclopedia-style entries on many presses for which there is otherwise very little information available.

  • Li, Jiaju 李家駒. Shangwu yinshuguan yu jindai zhishi wenhua de chuanbo (商務印書館與近代知識文化的傳播). Beijing, China: Shangwu yinshuguan, 2005.

    Examines the influence of the Commercial Press in shaping culture in modern China, from the intellectuals who worked as editors and authors, to the marketplace of ideas created by its publications. Most relevant are the first chapter, which is a general overview of the press’s place in modern history and of print culture theory, and the second chapter, which looks at the development of the press in more detail.

  • Reed, Christopher A. Gutenberg in Shanghai: Chinese Print Capitalism, 1876–1937. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2004.

    Studies the transmission of modern print technology to Shanghai and the development of its publishing industry. Has a great deal of information on specific types of printing presses, as well as the organizational structure of major Shanghai-based publishers and the print pioneers that founded them.

  • The Story of the Commercial Press, Limited. Shanghai, China: Commercial Press, 1913.

    More public-relations pamphlet than scholarly work, this short booklet nevertheless provides an intriguing look into the workings of one of the largest and most influential presses in Republican-era China. Includes many photographs of staff, buildings, and departments of the Shanghai-based press.

  • Welch, Holmes. The Buddhist Revival in China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.

    Welch remains the most widely cited source for Buddhism in Republican China, and this influential work of his does include a short section on Buddhist publications. Note, however, that since the completion of Welch’s study many more publications have come to light, and thus his observations will have to be substantially revised. See pp. 99–102.

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