In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Printing and Book Culture

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Chinese Methods of Book History
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Manuscript Book Culture
  • Publishing by Genre
  • Copyright
  • Literacy
  • Reading Publics and Reading Practices
  • Censorship and the State
  • Comparisons and Historical Crossings: Book Cultures in China, East Asia, and the West

Chinese Studies Printing and Book Culture
Cynthia Brokaw
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0088


The study of printing and book culture in China has followed two distinct but overlapping paths. Most recently, scholars of China have embraced an interdisciplinary interest in what could be called interconnected book history—that is, a study of books that explores relationships between production technology and textual content; the social uses of books; the impact that books had on social relations, political culture, and religion; and reading practices, reading communities, and literacy. Inspired in large part by the field of the “history of the book” (or the “social history of the book”) founded by scholars of the Annales school in the late 1950s and 1960s to study European book culture, Chinese, Japanese, and Western scholars have begun to think more deeply about the social, religious, artistic, and political implications of the very long history of textual production—both manuscript and imprint—in China. To be sure, sharp differences exist between the book cultures of Europe and China—and in the sources available for their study—that make the simple transfer of a set of Western issues to the study of Chinese book culture unsuitable. (For example, official publishing and private publishing—also called “family” or “literati” publishing—played far larger roles in Chinese than they did in Western European book history, and therefore histories of the Chinese book must be more attentive to the role of governments and wealthy elites in the production of texts.) But practitioners of this “interconnected book history” must also be attentive to the contributions of the second path of book study, which focused on the classification, authentication, and collation of texts. As early as the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), long before the invention of printing—not to mention the rise of Annales-style book history—Chinese scholars had already devised systems of categorizing and cataloguing texts. As book collecting became a prestigious hobby for elites and an obsession with bibliophiles, scholars developed methods of assessing the authenticity (and the value) of texts, techniques of collation and textual criticism, and a large body of writings on textual filiation (that is, histories of individual texts). This article privileges works of the first path, as the scholarship within it represents most fully the current direction of study in Chinese book history. But a few of the basic works on traditional Chinese book history are also referenced. This bibliography focuses almost exclusively on the history of printed texts from the 8th through the 19th centuries; it touches only briefly on manuscript culture and the publication of single-sheet images; and it neglects entirely certain types of publishing, namely, rubbings, maps, the modern mechanized printing of the 19th and 20th centuries, and contemporary electronic “print.”

General Overviews

Tsien 1985 is the first—and, although now somewhat outdated, still the only—English-language survey of Chinese papermaking and printing; it remains an excellent basic introduction. The most comprehensive—and longest—history is Shi and Liu 2008; this nine-volume work, which addresses the history of pre-print textual transmission as well as that of printing, covers the period from c. 1500 BCE to the early 2000s. Zhang and Han 2006 is a landmark study that focuses on the age of Chinese woodblock and movable type printing from the 7th to the 19th centuries. Inoue 2002, the most analytically vigorous of these histories, emphasizes the intellectual impact of books, both manuscript and imprint; in this sense, it is the only one of these histories that successfully demonstrates the importance of book history for the study of Chinese intellectual life and social attitudes. For a review of the (largely Western) scholarship in the field of Chinese book history, see Meyer-Fong 2007.

  • Inoue Susumu 井上進. Chûgoku shuppan bunka shi: Shomotsu sekai to chi no fûkei (中国出版文化史:書物世界と知の風景). Nagoya, Japan: Nagoya Daigaku Shuppankai, 2002.

    An excellent survey, marred only by the author’s neglect of much of Qing book culture; the work ends with the Ming. Inoue here introduces the controversial thesis that it was only in the late Ming that imprints came to dominate the Chinese book world.

  • Meyer-Fong, Tobie. “The Printed World: Books, Publishing Culture, and Society in Late Imperial China.” Journal of Asian Studies 66.3 (August 2007): 759–786.

    State-of-the-field review of major English-language works on Chinese book history.

  • Shi Zongyuan 石宗源, and Liu Binjie 柳斌杰, eds. Zhongguo chuban tongshi (中国出版通史). 9 vols. Beijing: Zhongguo Shuji Chubanshe, 2008.

    The most recent of the comprehensive surveys of Chinese publishing, this work organizes Chinese publishing history (including the publication of manuscripts) into the following stages: (1) pre-Qin and Han; (2) Wei-Jin and Northern and Southern dynasties; (3) Sui and Tang dynasties; (4) Liao, Song, Xixia, Jin, and Yuan dynasties; (5) Ming dynasty (6) Qing dynasty to 1840; (7) late Qing; (8) Republican period; (9) People’s Republic of China.

  • Tsien, Tsuen-hsuin. Paper and Printing. Vol. 5:1 of Science and Civilisation in China. Edited by Joseph Needham. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

    Excellent overview of Chinese printing and paper-making to the Qing by a former curator of Chinese texts at the University of Chicago Library.

  • Zhang Xiumin 张秀民, and Han Qi 韩琦. Zhongguo yinshua shi (中国印刷史). 2 vols. Hangzhou, China: Zhejiang Guji Chubanshe, 2006.

    Zhang (b. 1908–d. 2006) was one of the first modern Chinese scholars of the book; this work is a revised and illustrated edition of his most important writings. These include: (1) a survey history of woodblock publishing, Tang through Qing (including a chapter on the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom), particularly valuable for information on publishing sites and publishing houses; (2) a survey of the invention and development of Chinese movable type printing; (3) a description of the lives of scribes, block-cutters, and printers; and (4) a consideration of the influence of Chinese print technology on Asia, Africa, and Europe.

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