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date: 22 June 2017

Printing and Popular Literature in Imperial China

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Please check back later for the full article.

Although popular literature circulated in manuscripts from very early in Chinese history, the invention of woodblock printing or xylography in the 7th century greatly facilitated the dissemination of popular texts. The lively urban culture of the 11th through 14th centuries stimulated the production of performance literature, prose narratives in simple classical and vernacular Chinese. Commercial publishers in the cities and Jianyang, Fujian, took advantage of the growing demand for texts among readers of modest literacy and produced ballads, “plain tales,” and some practical how-to manuals for a popular audience. The publishing boom of the 16th century greatly accelerated this trend, as publishers in the cities of the lower Yangzi delta, and most particularly Jianyang, began crafting texts explicitly designed to meet the needs of non-elite readers of limited education: literacy primers, vernacular explanations of the Classics, historical fictions and adventure tales, and popular encyclopedias for daily use. At the same time, literati authors mined the popular literature of earlier centuries for stories that they transformed into literary masterpieces. In the process, however, they often distorted the subversive messages and smoothed out the vigorous “vulgar” language of the originals. By the 18th century, the population increase and growing demand for texts—as well as the spread of woodblock printing to the interior and hinterland—ensured the dissemination of a common core of universally popular works throughout China Proper. However, only in the early 20th century with the widespread adoption of mechanized printing did a true mass readership develop. By that time, the introduction of new genres of print, such as newspapers, modern novels, etc., had also transformed the nature of popular literature.