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date: 21 November 2017

Publishing and Popular Literature in Imperial China

Abstract and Keywords

Although popular literature circulated in manuscript 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 the 14th centuries stimulated the production of performance literature, prose or prosimetric 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 and “plain tales” for this audience.

The publishing boom of the 16th century greatly accelerated this trend, as publishers in the cities of the lower Yangzi delta (Jiangnan), and most particularly Jianyang (in northern Fujian), began crafting texts explicitly designed to meet the needs of non-elite readers: literacy primers, vernacular explanations of the Classics, historical fictions and adventure tales, and popular encyclopedias for daily use, all in a language accessible to readers of limited education.

At the same time literati authors mined the popular literature of earlier centuries for stories that they transformed into literary masterpieces—although in the process they often reversed the subversive messages and smoothed out the vigorous “vulgar” language of the originals. But their greatest achievements, dramas like The Lute Song and the novels Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and Journey to the West, remain among the most universally admired works of Chinese fiction. These latter texts presage, too, the development of the vernacular novel as one of the literary glories of the late imperial period.

By the 18th century, the population increase and growing demand for texts—and the spread of woodblock printing to the interior and hinterland—ensured the dissemination of a common core of universally popular fictional works throughout China Proper. It was not, however, until the early 20th century and the widespread adoption of mechanized printing, that a true mass readership developed. By that time, the introduction of new genres of literature—the modern short story and novel—had transformed the nature of popular literature.

Keywords: woodblock printing, commercial publishing, literacy, the oral and the written, performance texts, popular literature, vernacular fiction

What is “popular literature”? At its broadest, the term refers to the ever expanding body of texts—literacy primers, textbooks, simple guides to the Classics, examination aids, short stories, novels, plays, poetry and essay collections, medical manuals, ritual handbooks, household encyclopedias, religious scriptures and tracts, morality books, etc.—designed for the readership and use of as large a general literate audience, encompassing both highly educated elites and more modestly literate readers, as existed in any period of Chinese history. Here, however, constraints of space force a definition limited to widely read works of fiction (what the Chinese would call trivial sayings, or xiaoshuo 小說‎, to indicate that what it narrated was not true) and drama produced for the entertainment and/or edification of readers. Usually written in either vernacular or simple classical Chinese (or some combination thereof), these works circulated most widely as products of commercial publisher/booksellers, businessmen who hoped to profit from their sale to as large and varied an audience as possible.

Since the focus here is on printed works, our story begins around the 8th century, to which the earliest extant examples of woodblock printed texts can be dated. The story ends in the early 20th century, by which time mechanized printing had more or less replaced xylography—until that point the dominant technology of print in China—and new genres of popular literature had begun to capture the interest of readers. Much has been lost from the early centuries of print; the richest store of sources comes from the last four centuries of imperial rule, the late Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties.

Popular Literature in the First Age of Print (8th–15th Centuries)

The publication of popular literature long predated the invention of printing in China. Evidence from the monastic library at Dunhuang reveals a rich tradition of manuscript (and print) publication of popular literature. The transformation tales (bianwen 變文‎, vernacular, often prosimetric texts that recount Buddhist miracles and heroic actions), letter-writing manuals, almanacs, medical prescriptions, primers, dream divination, and geomancy handbooks in the collection, although dating from the 9th or 10th century, were clearly products of a long-standing textual culture, one that provided entertainment and useful guides for “the daily life of the common man” and the highly literate elite alike.1

By the 9th century, observers were reporting a range of printed popular texts on sale in Chengdu, in the southwestern province of Sichuan. In 883, the Tang (618–907) official Liu Pian 柳玭‎ (d. 895) noted that the book market in that city offered “many miscellaneous records of yin and yang, covering dream divination, geomancy, and prognostication with the eight trigrams, as well as dictionaries and lexicons.” But these texts were poorly produced, perhaps for a not-very-discriminating readership: “The blocks were carelessly printed, so the ink was smeared to the point that the text was not intelligible.”2 Unfortunately, little is known of publishing in the other printing centers of the day: Chang’an, Luoyang, Yangzhou, and Shaoxing.

By the 10th century, the state, up to that point interested in printing largely as a vehicle for the display of Buddhist or Daoist devotion, had begun to grasp the potential of woodblock printing as a tool for the dissemination of standardized editions of the dynastic histories, literary anthologies, canonical medical texts—and especially the Confucian Classics—that would spread orthodox political and ethical principles. Emperor Zhenzong (真宗‎, r. 998–1007), for example, commanded that such texts be printed and “transmitted throughout the empire, to spread teaching and learning” and “to lead people to the true and proper.”3

But this was publishing for the elite; the people to be led “to the true and proper” were the highly educated literati. What about popular literature? That the lively late-Tang mixed manuscript and imprint market in almanacs, divination texts, school primers, and vernacular stories simply dried up in the Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1279–1368) periods is implausible. Indeed, there are signs that a commercial market for popular texts persisted despite the efforts of the state to control publishing. Publishers in the Jianyang region of northern Fujian, although they produced their fair share of elite texts, also met a demand for texts accessible to a broader audience. At least one of their medical manuals “could easily be read and used by a lay person without much medical knowledge.” They also churned out cheap and shabby editions of the Classics and examination aids contemptuously labeled “Mashaben” 麻沙本‎ [Masha books] after the village where they were produced. But these texts, notorious for their frequent misprints, sloppy editing, and arbitrary abridgment of texts, were still of course designed for an educated readership, albeit one of limited economic means.4

It is with the publication of certain kinds of fictional writings in the Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1279–1368) dynasties that we find the clearest proofs of a growing demand for popular literary works accessible to consumers outside the highly educated elite. Of course fictional works—love stories, supernatural tales, scandalous stories—had been published long before this period, in the form of short stories (chuanqi 傳奇‎) in the Tang and collections of anecdotes (biji 筆記‎) in the Song. But, written in the classical language of the literati, they were not likely to attract a large general audience. By the 11th century, however, the lively urban culture of the day had spurred the production of popular performance literature in both manuscript and print. In the pleasure quarters of the capitals Kaifeng and Hangzhou, people of all classes gathered to visit playhouses, enjoy the attentions of “purveyors of herbal simples, sellers of hexagram prognostications, hawkers of used clothing, ... cutters of paper designs, and singers of ditties,” and generally enjoy themselves. Both “people of worth and commoners were completely uninhibited and without restraint,” explained a commentator on the Kaifeng scene.5 This theater culture produced, in the north, prosimetric medleys (zhugongdiao 諸宮調‎), consisting of a series of song verses connected by brief prose passages in the colloquial language or simple classical Chinese; all three surviving examples are famous love stories. In manuscript form, these performance texts probably functioned as scripts for performers; print facilitated their wider circulation to a reading audience. Their poor production quality suggests that their publishers were marketing them to readers of modest spending power.6

At the same time, prose historical narratives called plain tales (pinghua 平話‎) made their appearance in print. Written in a mixed classical and colloquial language, these works often drew on stories in elite historical texts, but enlivened them with fictional touches. Rhetorically they ape some of the techniques of oral storytelling (“Let’s now speak of ... ” as an introductory phrase; the inclusion of summarizing verses), but their length and organization mark them as texts that were meant to be read. The Newly Printed, Fully Illustrated in the Zhiyuan Era: The Plain Tale of the Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms (Zhiyuan xinkan quanxiang Sanguo pinghua 至元新刊全相三國志平話‎), a narrative of the heroic struggle between the three kingdoms that divided China after the fall of the Han in 220, published in Jianyang in the 1320s, was, like so much of the early popular literature, a possible source for a later Ming novel, in this case The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi 三國演義‎). This edition used the distinctive picture above, text below (shangtu xiawen 上圖下文‎) format adopted from Buddhist manuscripts designed to appeal to an audience that required pictures to understand a text—and common to many Jianyang fictions.7

The Mongol conquest of the Song further stimulated the development of popular literature. Kubilai Khan (r. 1279–1294), the first Mongol emperor of the Yuan, abolished the civil service examinations, thereby freeing many literati from the necessity of devoting their youth (and often middle age) to study of the Classics, at the same time burdening them with the need to find means of employment outside officialdom. One option was professional writing, in particular providing scripts for the drama troupes of the urban pleasure quarters. No longer constrained to write in conformity with Confucian values or to fashion personae as proper scholar-officials, they could write more openly about the “‘common world’—a world of crime, sex, and violence, and of love in which the latitudes of behaviour are quite wide.”8 A song-suite from the late 13th century, “Country Cousin Knows Nothing about the Stage” (Zhuangjia bu shi goulan 莊家不識構欄‎), a satire on a country bumpkin enticed into a theater on a rare visit to the city, suggests that the audience for such dramas, though primarily urban, was socially deep enough to include illiterates who needed only a few coppers to get a seat.9

Different traditions of prosimetric performance literature developed in the north and south. Northern dramas (zaju 雜劇‎) treated historical events, court intrigues, famous battles, love stories, tales of injustice and retribution, and stories of Buddhist enlightenment and Daoist immortality. Southern dramas (nanxi 南戲‎ or xiwen 戲文‎), devoted primarily to tracing the meeting, separation, and reunion of lovers—were the products of writing societies (e.g., “the Writing Society of old Hangzhou” [Gu Hang shuhui 古杭書會‎]) attached to dramatic troupes. These works were often condemned by contemporaries for “teaching licentiousness” and were even banned in the late 12th century—a sure sign of their popularity.10

Despite their regional origins, these works circulated fairly widely. Northern dramas were published in the north, in the Yuan capital, Dadu, but also in the southern city of Hangzhou.11 Another genre of prosimetric texts, the chantefable (shuochang cihua 說唱詞話‎), which relates stories in song interspersed with brief prose passages, also enjoyed some popularity outside its region of origin. The earliest extant examples of chantefables, dating from the late 15th century, tell stories that defend the moral, economic, and social status of a growing class of well-off commoner landowners against the privileges of the court; subversively, imperial officials or even the emperor himself are often the villains of the stories. Set in the Jiangnan region (that is, the lower Yangzi delta) and including passages in the Wu (Suzhou) dialect, these chantefables were drawn from a southern narrative tradition passed down through oral performance. But seven of the thirteen works were published in Beijing, far distant from the delta and the speakers of Wu dialect. Print thus sped the development of an inter-regional market for popular fictional texts, a market that stimulated the exchange of distinctive local and regional stories and their gradual homogenization into a trans-regional popular literary culture.12

The poor survival rate of texts deemed unworthy of preservation or even mention by elites and the often inadequate publication information in those texts that are extant make it difficult to assess either the full scope of popular literary culture or the relative size of the market for it during the first age of print, from the late Tang through the early Ming dynasties. But the publication, in language accessible to non-elites, of performance texts and plain tales signals the growth of a popular literary culture, one large enough to ensure at least some profit to commercial publishers. It is easy to imagine that the few works of that culture left to us today represent the tip of a very large iceberg.

The Publishing Boom of the Later Empires (16th–19th Centuries): Expansion and Diversification of the Audience for Popular Literature

A great boom in commercial publishing, begun in the mid-16th century, marks the second great age of print in pre-modern China. It spurred the publication of ever-greater numbers of texts—in an ever greater number of genres—and the distribution of texts to ever broader audiences, both geographically and socially. Fueled by the commercialization and monetization of the economy, a concomitant multiplication of cities and growth in urban population, and a decline in the costs associated with book production,13 the boom made the centuries from the late Ming to the high Qing a period of rising literacy, greater diversification in readership, and explosion in the production of popular literature.

The major intellectual and aesthetic movements of the day helped promote the production of works for a popular readership. Wang Yangming 王陽明‎ (1472–1529) and his followers, arguing against the highly intellectualized mode of self-cultivation supported by the examination system, urged the notion that moral perfection was best achieved through intuitive recognition of the innate goodness that all people possess; and from that, the realization that anyone—even ignorant men and women (yufu yufu 愚夫愚婦‎)—could become a sage. It was then but a short step to a movement devoted to providing “ignorant men and women” with simple guides to the Classics, the original words of the sages. In the literary field, there developed a related trend toward the recognition of the greater power of popular historical fiction over dry “classic” texts and a growing admiration for the emotional immediacy and authenticity of folk narratives over polished literati writings. The distinguished poet Yuan Hongdao 袁宏道‎ (1568–1610), after admitting that the Thirteen Classics and Twenty-one Histories put him to sleep, argued for the value of historical romances as means of teaching both the educated and the illiterate, both “gowned officials and women”: “When [classical] compositions cannot get their meaning across, vulgar works can; for this reason the [historical novel] Popular Elaboration of the Eastern and Western Han (Dong Xi Han tongsu yanyi 東西漢通俗演義‎) is termed a ‘popular elaboration.’”14

Developments in book production indicate that commercial publishers, whether responding to these ideas or to concrete market demands (or both), were keenly aware of the advantages of appealing to a broad audience of consumers. First, they began introducing a variety of aids to readers: copious illustration, punctuation (often advertised in book titles as pidian 批點‎), and prefatorial notes to the reader (fanli 凡例‎) that explained the system of punctuation or annotation. Editions of the Four Books or Five Classics might now include, in addition to the orthodox commentaries in classical Chinese, glosses in an easier language, the vernacular or a simple classical. Efforts to explain texts for readers of limited literacy did not stop with the Classics. Xiong Zongli 熊宗立‎ (1409–1492), a Jianyang publisher specializing in medical texts, produced a work on pulse diagnosis that in its very title announced its popularizing intention: Wang Shuhe’s Discussion on Pulse Analysis, with Essential Illustrations and Popularized Explanation (Wang Shuhe maijue tuyao sujie 王叔和脈訣圖要俗解‎).15

Most striking, however, are the measures taken by commercial publishers to craft different editions of fictional and dramatic texts for audiences not only of different literacy levels, but also of different interests. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, perhaps the most popular of all Ming novels, combines popular story cycles that appeared first in the entertainment quarters of the Song dynasty and that were then edited and reworked by authors of Yuan dramas and plain tales. The first extant edition of this historical novel, which highlights the moral conflict between the code of honor that binds sworn brothers and loyalty between minister and ruler, was published in 1522. Thereafter it appeared in no fewer than thirty-two different editions over the course of the late Ming. One edition contains illustrations, captions, and interlinear commentary revealing that the text was for readers interested in military strategy. Yet another edition was clearly intended to help readers of limited education make their way through the text; it included phonetic and lexical glosses to the text (already in mixed simple classical and vernacular Chinese).16

This practice of reworking stories, practiced for centuries, accelerated in the late Ming, particularly as literati turned their attention to popular literature. Where many different versions of stories survive, it is possible to see what impact this elite interest had on popular literature. A comparison of seventeen editions of The Lute Song (Pipa ji 琵琶記‎), one of the most widely read dramas of the Ming, reveals a gradual “cleaning up” of the text, as successive versions, produced between the early 15th and the early 17th century, tone down or omit broad humor and vulgar language; translate local dialect terms into standard language; mute anti-establishment criticism; emphasize moralism over realism and authentic emotion; and correct imprecise use of status identifications.17

In “elevating” the moral content of popular stories through vigorous editing, literati authors often significantly altered their original ethos and tamped down their potentially subversive elements; in smoothing out and/or “enriching” the language of the stories, they may, too, have moved these texts beyond the linguistic reach or interest of the readers for whom they were first produced. Certainly the assertion of local power and resentment of the imperial court that appears so markedly in the 15th-century chantefables was lost when their stories were embraced and reshaped by elite writers. That elite re-workings of many of the great vernacular works of the Ming became the standard versions—and thus the ones most likely to survive—obscures the fact that the stories these works told originally circulated in a rich variety of different genres, oral, handwritten, and printed, and in different linguistic registers.18 They formed the core of the expansive popular literature of the late imperial period.

Popular Literature and the Geography of Publishing in the Late Ming

Of course, full participation in this culture depended to a considerable extent on access to printed texts. Here the advantage in the late Ming clearly lay with the population of the eastern littoral, the corridor that stretched from Beijing via the Grand Canal through Jiangnan, economically and culturally the most advanced region of the empire, to the southeast coast. The major commercial production sites of the late Ming were the cities of the Jiangnan region (in particular, Nanjing, Suzhou, and Hangzhou); Huizhou, a cluster of counties at the western edge of the delta; and Jianyang, the northern Fujian site that had dominated commercial publishing since the Song. Beijing, the capital, was the largest book market of the empire; it supplemented the products of its own official and literati publishing units with commercial imports from the south. Of course, there were smaller but still sizeable book markets in Jianyang and throughout Jiangnan. Long-distance book merchants transported texts produced along the eastern seaboard inland to the interior provinces; traveling officials and literati as well as merchants carried the products of the interior provinces back to the eastern markets. By the late 16th century, there had developed networks for the transmission of print that traversed most of the Ming empire. The dominant direction of transmission was east to west, however; Jiangnan and Jianyang dominated the circulation of commercial texts.


Perhaps the richest source of commercial imprints designed for a popular audience was Jianyang. While publishers there continued to produce works of scholarship for an elite readership, they became famous (to some, notorious) for inexpensive and poorly produced texts. Xie Zhaozhe 謝肇淛‎ (1567–1624), like some members of the highly educated elite distressed by the rise of popular publishing, sadly noted: “The bookstores of Jianyang put out the most books, but the printing and paper are wretched, because they are meant to make money and not to be transmitted through the ages. In general, books printed for the purpose of making a profit cannot be well produced, so they are not worth the cost of their printing.”19 Although there is no reason why the wealthy and educated might not also welcome inexpensive texts, the Jianyang printers were most likely thinking of an expansive—but not necessarily well-off—readership in devoting their efforts to the production of cheaper works. Here the Jianyang businessmen were pioneers, often initiating trends in publication that were later embraced by other commercial publishers.

The Jianyang publishers put out a wide range of popular texts, including guides to the Classics, digests of historical information, encyclopedias for daily use (advertised as “for all under heaven”), medical handbooks, divination guides, etc. But they really distinguished themselves in their production of popular fiction; because of their work, Fujian is identified now as “where the novel began.”20 The Jianyang houses often employed professional writers and editors to author or compile these works in simple classical or vernacular Chinese. Deng Zhimo 鄧志謨‎ (b. c. 1560), a hack writer noted for his ability to churn out “entertaining middle-brow pieces that sold well in the book markets” at a rapid pace, was in great demand and seems to have worked for several different houses.21 And several of the Jianyang publishers authored and edited—or at least claimed to—the works they published. Many of their works of fiction employed the shangtu xiawen format; the pictures running across the tops of the pages aided readers of limited literacy to understand the (often cramped and poorly printed) text below.

Their fiction output was impressively wide-ranging, including didactic stories, song miscellanies, court-case fictions, tales of supernatural adventure and spiritual enlightenment, and historical and military romances. In conceiving and designing their texts, they made efforts both to ensure comprehension and to appeal to a diverse audience attentive to the latest trends. Twenty-four Stories of Filial Piety for Daily Reading Made Easy for Beginners (Bianmeng ershisi xiao riji gushi 便蒙二十四孝日記故事‎, 1601), a story collection celebrating filial piety, was punctuated and heavily illustrated, clearly crafted, as its title suggests, for readers of limited literacy. Their song miscellanies offered something to all readers; they are often motley collections from a range of different genres: folk songs, drinking songs, arias from plays, lyric verses, regional songs in dialect, etc. The publication of these works was propelled to some extent by the passion for novelty that characterized the late Ming; their titles often advertise them as “latest and most popular,” “new,” or “currently in fashion.”22

Stories of spiritual adventure and court-case drama proved very popular. Yu Xiangdou 余象斗‎ (fl. 1588–1609), the most prolific and commercially astute of the Jianyang group, edited records of spirit-medium séances into Record of a Journey North (Beiyou ji 北遊記‎), one of a set of novels describing the adventures of various gods and other mythological figures as they traveled on spiritual journeys to different points of the compass.23 Deng Zhimo also contributed to this genre with the compilation of novels of supernatural adventure; his Flying Sword: The Enlightenment of Lü Dongbin (Lü Chunyang de dao: feijian ji [呂純陽得道]飛劍記‎), for example, is an account of the trials that the famous Daoist immortal endured on his path to immortality. The Jianyang publishers were quick, too, to exploit the popularity of the Judge Bao stories told previously in prosimetric narratives. The first extant edition of a court-case collection, Newly Cut Capital Edition of the Complete Stories of the Hundred Criminal Cases Judged by Magistrate Bao, with Popular Explanations, Illustrated (Xinkan jingben tongsu yanyi quanxiang Bao Longtu pan biajia gongan quanzhuan 新刊京本通俗演義全像包龍圖判百家公案全傳‎) was published by the Jianyang Zhu-family publishing house, Yugeng Tang 與耕堂‎, in 1594. Evidence from surviving works in this genre suggests that it was so popular that publishers, struggling to keep up with demand, resorted to “borrowing” stories from gongan collections produced by their rivals in order to publish “new” works. Blocks were printed and reprinted until they were worn down; some extant copies are barely legible.24

The Jianyang output in the fiction category reveals most clearly, however, the enormous popularity of works of military historical fiction, many of them recyclings of earlier tales. Jianyang’s popular historical novels were often identified as chronicles (zhizhuan 志傳‎) to distinguish them from more sophisticated works. Yu Xiangdou is credited with producing the first edition (or the first extant edition) of what was to become, in a later version, one of the towering works of Chinese vernacular fiction: Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳‎ or Shuihu zhizhuan pinglin 水滸志傳評林‎, 1594), a tale of brave men loyal to the emperor, but forced into banditry by a corrupt officialdom. But other Jianyang natives contributed to the flood of chronicles printed in the late Ming. Xiong Damu 熊大木‎ (fl. mid-16th c.), a member of a local publishing family who worked as an author and editor, compiled his Chronicle of the Northern and Southern Song (Nan Bei liang Song zhizhuan 南北兩宋志傳‎), a sensationalized narrative of the violent transition between the Northern and Southern Song dynasties, specifically for “ignorant men and women.”25 By the early 17th century, works in this category had become more fiction than history.

The Cities of Jiangnan (the Lower Yangzi Delta)

As important to the publishing boom as Jianyang were commercial publishers in the great cities of the Jiangnan region—Nanjing, Suzhou, and Hangzhou. While it is estimated that, at the time, Jianyang boasted 84 publishing operations, Nanjing had 93, Suzhou 37, and Hangzhou 24.26 These cities were also centers of literati culture and literary production in the 16th and 17th centuries. Indeed, relationships between commercial publishers and literati authors (some anonymous) in these cities spawned some of the greatest works of Chinese popular literature in the Ming. And the greater wealth of the top end of the reading public there also meant that publishers could profit from investing more in production costs and manufacturing higher quality texts. Certainly it is no accident that the most beautifully illustrated and finest color printed texts of the woodblock canon were published in the delta region in the late Ming; illustration was particularly important in popular literature, although the quality and quantity of illustration, as they affected prices, of course limited the accessibility of texts.

From the Wanli era (1572–1620) to the end of the dynasty, Nanjing (or Jinling, as it was known) in particular was noted for the publication of dramas and drama miscellanies. Roughly one hundred works survive, some in different editions. Some houses specialized in such works; the Tang 唐‎ family Fuchun Tang 富春堂‎, for example, produced no fewer than 45 different titles (although they published other types of texts as well) in uniform illustrated editions “of only moderate quality,” presumably for readers at the middle of the market.27 The Tang seem, in fact to have managed a small empire of publishing houses; their Shide tang 世德堂‎, Wenlin ge 文林閣‎, and Guangqing tang 廣慶堂‎ together published roughly another 50 drama titles, including at least one edition of the Yuan-era Record of the Western Chamber (Xixiang ji 西廂記‎), the wildly popular southern-style romance (chuanqi 傳奇‎) recounting the love story of the Tang beauty Cui Yingying and the scholar Zhang Sheng. Each house developed its own formatting and printing style; the Guangqing tang was noted for its high-end illustrations.

Authors of popular dramas continued to re-work (and usually clean up) versions of earlier works. The Fuchun tang edition of The White Hare (Baitu ji 白兔記‎), for example, was an extensively revised account of a medley about the long separation and final reconciliation of Liu Zhiyuan, the founder of the Later Han dynasty (947–951) and his long-suffering wife; the late Ming chuanqi chastely omits the open air sex scene found in the earlier work.28 But contemporary playwrights also had considerable success with original works. Most notable is Peony Pavilion (Mudan ting 牡丹亭‎), the masterpiece of the failed official Tang Xianzu 湯顯祖‎ (1550–1616, jinshi 1583). Written in 1588, when Tang was serving in Nanjing, this love story (the heroine dies of love, only to be restored to life by the power of love) reflected and furthered the popularity of the cult of qing 情‎, or pure emotion, in the late Ming, a time when many literati, disdainful of the worldly ambition and artificiality of learning associated with the civil-service examination system, celebrated the purity of romantic love and direct emotional expression. Despite the difficulty of its language, this work became very popular almost overnight; it survives in six editions from Ming Nanjing (although some of these editions reflect efforts to solve some of the problems with the prosody of the original).29

The outpouring of drama stimulated a taste for short stories and novels. Several Nanjing houses, most likely in collaboration with some Jianyang operations, produced the sort of historical romances—and, indeed, all the other fictional genres—favored by those publishers, although in distinctively different editions. Thus the Shide tang of Tang Fuchun published Xiong Damu’s Chronicle of the History of the Tang, elaborated, with marginal commentary (Tangshu zhizhuan tongsu yanyi tiping 唐書志傳通俗演義題評‎) in 1593, a work also published by Yu Xiangdou. The Nanjing edition has full-page (half-folio) illustrations; the Jianyang edition places the illustrations in a middle register, between commentary (above) and the main text (below). At the same time, the Shide tang put out a companion work, Chronicle of the Northern and Southern Song, with marginal commentary (Nan Bei liang Song zhizhuan tiping 南北兩宋志傳題評‎), in the same format as its Chronicle of the History of the Tang; this work was originally published in shangtu xiawen format in Jianyang as well. This is just one example of many interactions between Jianyang and Nanjing publishers; it suggests both the extent of the networks of publication that had developed by the late Ming and publishers’ sensitivity to the different aesthetic tastes and economic constraints within their expanding readerships.

Although Nanjing may have been the most prolific publishing center of the late Ming, Suzhou and Hangzhou also made significant contributions to the production and circulation of popular literature in the period. The enduringly popular Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi 封神演義‎)like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, it has appeared in modern video game form—which describes the founding of the Zhou dynasty as a series of spectacular battles between the gods and their human allies or enemies, was published in Suzhou in the 1620s. One of the earliest editions of Water Margin, famous for its fine illustrations, was produced by the Rongyu tang 容與堂‎ of Hangzhou between 1602 and 1610. Different from the earlier Jianyang edition, this work was the first to include commentary attributed to the maverick literatus Li Zhi 李贄‎ (1527–1602), indicating a trend to elevate the literary status of the vernacular novel. This trend peaked in the very last decade of the dynasty, when another eccentric, Jin Shengtan 金聖歎‎ (1610?–1661) produced the version of the novel that has been accepted as standard ever since. It is revealing of the social distance the work had traveled that it was published not by a commercial house, but by fellow literatus Han Zhu 韓住‎ in Jin’s native city of Suzhou.

A somewhat similar trajectory can be traced for two of the other great popular novels of the period—works, like Water Margin, that remain universally loved today—Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West (Xiyou ji 西遊記‎). Both these novels were forged over the course of centuries from various story cycles; after repeated revisions (and publication by both Jianyang and Jiangnan houses), they finally appeared in relatively polished versions that “fixed” their texts as standard. Journey to the West, a sensationalized narrative of the journey of the Tang monk Xuanzang to India to collect Buddhist sutras—it combines high adventure with a spiritual journey and introduces one of the most engaging heroes of Chinese fiction, Sun Wukong or Monkey—stabilized fairly early, in a version published by the Nanjing Shide tang in 1592. It was not until roughly a century later, however, that what became the standard text of Three Kingdoms, edited by Mao Zonggang 毛宗崗‎ (1632 to after 1709), was published.

Even the fourth great vernacular novel of the Ming, Plum in a Golden Vase (Jin Ping Mei 金瓶梅‎)—the only one believed to be the original invention of a single (unknown) author, although it excerpted heavily from contemporary daily use encyclopedias and other popular works—was subject to some degree of re-writing and “cleaning up.” A novel of manners exposing the corruption and moral turpitude of commercialized late-Ming society, this dark work, after circulating in manuscript, was first printed in 1618. But it continued to circulate in different manuscript and print editions; the version most commonly read (until recent research uncovered a more authentic version) was published in 1695, after some of its more explicit sexual references had been edited out by a commentator, Zhang Zhupo 張竹坡‎ (1670–1698).

The most famous editor-rewriter of the late Ming, however, was Feng Menglong 馮夢龍‎ (1574–1646). Born in Suzhou into an elite family, Feng, despite repeated efforts, failed to earn the examination degrees that would earn him an official post. In order to support himself, he turned to writing and publishing, specifically to the refashioning of older stories or novellas (huaben 話本‎) into vernacular stories that would, as he stated in prefaces to his collections, appeal to the “ears of the common people” far more effectively than the teachings of the Confucian Analects or the Classic of Filial Piety. These Classics, together with the dynastic histories, might reach “venerable men” and “erudite scholars,” but he aimed to touch a different audience:

[S]ince villagers, children, ordinary women, and peddlers are easily stirred to joy or wrath by what others do rightly or wrongly, take guidance in their actions from stories about the operations of karma, and gain knowledge from hearsay and gossip, popular historical romances can well serve as supplements where the Classics and histories are found lacking.30

A follower of Wang Yangming and promoter of the cult of qing, Feng crafted his stories to illuminate the potential moral goodness of the common people (in “The Oil Peddler and the Courtesan,” for example, the filial piety and sincerity of a humble peddler puts the cruel and feckless elite characters to shame) or the capacity of women for emotional purity and loyalty (in “The Courtesan’s Jewel Box,” the prostitute heroine far outshines her spineless scholar-lover in steadfastness and courage). Feng Menglong’s career signaled the emergence of a new class in 16th century China: “men with impeccable elite credentials who nonetheless openly made their living by writing and publishing.”31 The other great vernacular short-story (re)writer of the day, author of two collections of stories that, as the title promised, would make the reader “slap the table in amazement,” Ling Mengchu 凌蒙初‎ (1580–1645), even more perfectly represented this class. From a prestigious family in the Hangzhou area, he made a living in his family’s famous publishing business before taking up, late in life, a minor official post.

The Diffusion of Popular Literature in the Qing

The commercial publishing boom of the late Ming was driven by—and then in turn, drove—an expanding audience of readers of different literacy levels and reading tastes. Economic growth made education and texts available to more people at the same time that new ideas about the moral capacities of the common man and woman and the worth of qing valorized expansion of the reading to populations, male and female, below the ranks of the social, cultural, and political elite. The proliferation of popular literature accessible to virtually all readers marks the period as the first stage in the development of a mass readership—although, to be sure, the final stage was not reached until almost three centuries later, in the 20th century.

During the last dynasty, the Qing, this trend toward ever larger numbers of readers intensified at the same time that new demographic shifts worked to reconfigure the geography of publishing. The Manchu conquest of the Ming in 1644, following on decades of civil unrest and economic crisis—and succeeded by decades of ruthless pacification of the Chinese population—not surprisingly stalled or terminated book production in the late Ming publishing centers. The Jianyang publishers never recovered from the conquest.

But by the end of the 17th century, by which time the Manchus had firmly established themselves in power, commercial publishing enjoyed a revival in Beijing and the cities of Jiangnan. Suzhou eventually replaced Nanjing as the major publishing site of the region. With peace came population growth and a greater demand for texts. Publishing industries arose in the interior and the hinterland, in places that previously had been at the peripheries—or even outside—of the book trade. In the late Ming, publishing operations could be found in all the provinces of the empire, but the industries of the eastern seaboard dominated the trade. In the Qing, Beijing became the major center of both production and sale—Liulichang 琉璃廠‎, the book district, was the greatest market in the empire. But commercial publishing operations of considerable size, serving local and regional audiences, sprang up across China Proper—in the mountains of western Fujian, a market town in Jiangxi province, Chengdu and Chongqing in the far southwest, to give a few scattered examples.32

The portability and simplicity of woodblock print technology facilitated the spread of publishing to the interior; and the great migrations of the early Qing—as people, encouraged by government policies, moved into regions devastated by the disorders of the 17th century—spurred both the diffusion of the technology (as craftsmen took their skills to new settlements) and of readership (as new settlers established schools and created a broader demand for texts). Continuing a trend that began in the late Ming, the cost of cutting woodblocks—by far the most expensive part of the production process—declined, so that investing in commercial publishing became a reasonably attractive enterprise.

Although skewed survival rates make statistical analysis of text quantities tricky, it seems that more texts (of all kinds) were produced in the Qing than in any previous dynasty. That many of these texts were produced with a large non-elite readership in mind is suggested by one of the other major characteristics of Qing commercial publication: an overall decline in production quality. Of course, finely cut and scrupulously edited editions were produced (particularly by government agencies, literati, and the scholars of the 18th-century evidential research (kaozheng 考證‎) movement, but commercial editions of popular literature suffered a gradual decline in quality. Illustrations became cruder and scarcer, paper coarser and more brittle, characters clumsier and more abbreviated, printing fainter and more uneven.33 Publishing decisions to cut production costs grew, at least in part, out of a perceived demand for cheap texts affordable to poorer readers. There is considerable debate over the actual affordability of popular literature in the late Ming, however much writers may have claimed to want to reach an audience of “ignorant men and women”; but it is clear that by the mid-Qing, shabbily produced texts were, in fact, within the reach of literate shopkeepers, petty traders, and well-off peasants.

While in the late Ming at least an important minority of literati author-publishers promoted and produced literature ostensibly about and for the common man and woman, literary production and publication in the Qing developed in two more or less distinct trends. Most elites considered fiction (and particularly vernacular fiction) a trivial pursuit, certainly not suited to the expression of serious ideas or emotions. Yet some elite authors were still drawn to vernacular fiction, but not now as a vehicle for broader dissemination of historical tales, adventure stories, or the celebration of the moral value and emotional purity of commoners and women. Rather, they used vernacular fiction to produce “literati novels” of “unprecedented sophistication and erudition” that reflected their own experiences or views and were written for limited circulation among a small group of friends and discriminating readers.34

Wu Jingzi 吳敬梓‎ (1701–1754), for example, wrote The Scholars (Rulin waishi 儒林外史‎) to satirize the morally corrupting effect of the conventional path to success in Chinese society: attainment of examination degrees and official posts. From a wealthy family with a long history of examination and official achievement, Wu chose to abandon this path and lived out his life as a recluse in the city of Nanjing. The Scholars is his apologia pro vita sua.35 Cao Xueqin’s 曹雪芹‎ (1715, or 1724–1763, or 1764) Dream of the Red Chamber (Honglou meng 紅樓夢‎), the greatest of the Qing literati novels, recounts the downfall of a fabulously wealthy elite family, one that bears a striking resemblance to Cao’s own. Neither author was in a rush to print his work; the novels circulated in manuscript (and in different manuscript versions) among a small group of select readers for decades before they were finally published in print (Honglou meng in 1791, The Scholars in 1803), in both cases well after their authors had died.

At the same time, commercial publishers devoted to disseminating their works as widely as possible among as large an audience as possible were eagerly churning out much less sophisticated and less erudite fiction, often anonymously written, in vernacular or simple classical Chinese. Like the Jianyang publishers before them, they profited nicely from the recycling of stories and characters that drove the production of much late imperial popular fiction; many of their imprints were reworked versions of late Ming fictions, which themselves, as we have seen, were reworked versions of earlier stories.

To be sure, some relatively new genres gained popularity. Talent-beauty (caizi jiaren 才子佳人‎) love stories, which first appeared in the late Ming, reached their peak of popularity in the 18th century; the formula here was the happy reunion of a talented scholar and a beautiful woman after overcoming a host of barriers to their love. The Fortunate Union (Haoqiu zhuan 好逑傳‎), seemingly written for a fairly literate readership in a “beautiful and refined” style,36 provided a template for the genre after its publication in the early Qing. But quality varied widely, particularly as these works became more popular; at their worst, talent-beauty novellas have been labeled “pedantic and soporific Chinese equivalents of the dime novel.”37

New titles in the old genre of historical romance and adventure proliferated from the mid-18th through much of the 19th century. Particularly popular were novels that sensationalized the martial exploits of historical figures. Five Tigers Pacify the West (Wuhu ping xi 五虎平西‎), (early 19th century), for example, is a very highly colored account of the general Di Qing’s 狄青‎ conquest of the Tanguts in the mid-11th century and just one of several novels that celebrated the military campaigns of the Song dynasty against its hostile neighbors. Many of the works in this category were cheap products of hack writing. Thus the prose of one of the military romances, the Complete Story of Huyan Bixian (Shuo Hu quanzhuan 說呼全傳‎), a fictionalized account of a real 11th-century general of mixed Han-Xiongnu descent, is written in a “clumsy and weak vernacular,” never “edited by a literary man.”38

These historical romances and tales of adventure grew ever more fantastic over the course of the Qing—and ever more centered on the martial skills and supernatural powers of their characters. They are, in fact, forerunners of the enormously popular martial-arts novels (wuxia xiaoshuo 武俠小說‎) of the present day. These works often borrowed freely from other fictional genres. Thus the extremely popular Three Valiant and Five Righteous Men (Sanxia wuyi 三俠五義‎), published in 1879, recounts the adventures of Judge Bao, the hero of earlier court-case fiction. But here the wise judge is peripheral to the action; the real heroes are the martial-arts experts who work as his assistants, and the stories are dominated by their superhuman feats of derring-do. Quality, again, varied widely. Three Valiant and Five Righteous Men remains a classic of the genre, but the language of the Court Cases of [Judge] Peng (Peng gongan 彭公案‎), a martial arts adventure story masquerading as court-case fiction, has been excoriated as “atrocious, barely grammatical Chinese.”39

Theater flourished in the Qing. The rise of regional opera forms in different urban centers challenged the dominance of the kunqu 崑曲‎ form favored by literati of the late Ming (Peony Pavilion and Peach Blossom Fan [Taohua shan 桃花扇]‎, the dramatic masterpiece of the early Qing, were both kunqu dramas). Sojourning merchants like the long-distance traders of Shanxi and Anhui carried their own much-loved regional dramas to new areas; the result was a “trans-regional cross-fertilization of theater culture” that inspired the creation of ever new dramatic forms.40Peking opera (jingju 京劇‎), the most famous of Chinese opera forms, was forged from just such a cross-fertilization.

As was commonly the case within the realm of popular literature, dramas borrowed stories from other genres and circulated in different versions. Take, for example, Thunder Peak Pagoda (Leifeng ta 雷峰塔‎), written in 1738 by the official Huang Tubi 黃圖珌‎ (1700–1771?). Huang drew on a story by Feng Menglong based on a legend about the obsessive love of a demon, a white snake who takes on human form, for a young scholar; the young man wakes from his infatuation with “Madam White” only after a Buddhist monk reveals her true snake form and imprisons her forever under the Thunder Peak pagoda. Huang preserves this very proper ending—the snake vanquished and the divide between demon and human affirmed. But audiences disliked the unhappy conclusion to what they saw as a story of love and devotion, and some performances of the work provided a happier conclusion (Madam White bears a son who succeeds in the examinations).41 Here literati authors refined a popular legend into works of literature with a nicely orthodox resolution (the expulsion of a demon from the human realm), only to see the combined forces of popular taste and commercial theater subvert this message (as the demon produces a fine Confucian son).

Humbler performance literature suitable for use in market or village theaters also flourished, and here, too, distinct regional forms arose. In the north, drum verses (guci 鼓詞‎), long narratives often centered on great battles, were recited to drum music. Verses for plucking (tanci 彈詞‎), products of Jiangnan, particularly Suzhou, were often love stories recited to the accompaniment of stringed instruments; some tanci were written by women, who were seen as their primary audience. Wooden fish books (muyushu 木魚書‎), originating in Guangdong and Guangxi, were short narratives in Cantonese, while bamboo-clapper songs (zhuban ge 竹板歌‎) were favored by the Hakka-speaking communities of those provinces.42 These works survive both in performance texts and in texts that have been adapted for reading.43 Many of them told universally popular stories like Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai (Liang Shanbo yu Zhu Yingtai 梁山伯與祝英台‎), a tale of star-crossed lovers, and Meng Jiangnü Weeps at the Great Wall (Meng Jiangnü ku changcheng 孟姜女哭長城‎), the lament of a woman whose husband died while working as a laborer on the Great Wall. Yet comparison of texts from different regions shows reveals considerable variation, not just in generic form but also in narrative content.44

These types of performance literature helped to preserve and perpetuate regional and local literary traditions in the face of the broader dissemination, over the course of the late Ming and Qing, of a body of universally popular fictional writings, including the vernacular novels, simple classical tales, dramas, and well-known ballads mentioned here. With the spread of publishing sites throughout much of China Proper, this popular literature was now much more accessible to hinterland rural regions than even in the late Ming. For example, the lower-level publishing center of Sibao, isolated in the mountains of western Fujian, produced the full range of popular literary works in the 18th and 19th centuries: elite literati novels like Dream of the Red Chamber, the four masterpieces of Ming vernacular fiction, a host of talent-beauty love stories, a very impressive range of historical fictions and military romances, court-case tales, annotated editions of Record of the Western Chamber, songbooks, etc. They specialized not in genres of print, but in low production quality, making sure that their works were cheap enough to market to their customers in the county seats, market towns, and peasant villages along their bookselling networks in Fujian, Jiangxi, Guangdong, Guangxi, Hunan, Hubei, and Guizhou. Through the work of commercial publisher-booksellers like the Sibao businessmen, Chinese with a range of literacy levels—and, through oral transmission, illiterates as well—might participate in a shared popular literary culture. Until the late 19th and early 20th century, this shared culture remained fairly stable and provided a powerful source of cultural integration for the Han population of the Qing empire.45

It was not, however, until the introduction of mechanized letterpress printing from the West, which enabled much more rapid reproduction of texts, that print began to reach a true mass audience. Once again the cities of the eastern seaboard dominated the production of texts; Shanghai became the new center of publishing.46 The development of modern methods of transportation—the steamboat and the railroad—made the dissemination of texts into the interior much easier and faster; the new publishers also exploited the bookselling routes established by woodblock publishers to ensure that their products made it deep into the countryside.

Coincident with this reorientation in the technology and geography of publishing was the development of new genres of print—most notably Western-style newspapers and periodicals and modern short stories and novels—that transformed the nature of Chinese book culture. The old popular book culture did not entirely disappear, however. Woodblock publishers continued to produce songbooks and primers well into the 20th century; and the new publishers of Shanghai profited not only from the new literature of modern China but also from reprinting much of the popular fiction of the woodblock era.

Discussion of the Literature

Research relevant to the study of the relationship between publishing and popular literature treats three very broad topics: the history of publishing sites and their output; the production of popular literature and its relationship to elite literary writing and oral literature; and the accessibility of texts to and their reception by different populations defined by socioeconomic class, gender, and region. Full bibliographical references to works mentioned here are provided either in the “Further Reading” section or in “Notes.”

Although much more research is required before we have a comprehensive picture of publishing sites and operations, Zhang Xiumin’s pioneering History of Chinese Printing offers a useful—if now somewhat outdated—overview; he lists the major known publishing houses and their major products for each dynasty beginning with the Tang. Lucille Chia’s study of the Jianyang publishers and their texts from the Song through the Ming dynasties is an excellent introduction to one of the most prolific publishing sites of the imperial period (and one that pioneered the publication of much popular literature). Cynthia Brokaw argues for the spread of woodblock publishing in the Qing in her study of an obscure but very productive industry in the wilds of western Fujian, one that specialized in manufacturing popular texts for non-elite readers. Other article-length studies treat publishing operations in Hangzhou, Nanjing, and Suzhou.47

Only a superficial summary of the many studies of popular literature is possible here. Three works provide useful surveys of literature: The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature is structured as a chronological overview, and, in treating both elite and popular literature of all genres, it helps the reader to place the evolution of popular literature within the larger literary scene. The Columbia History of Chinese Literature is organized by literary genre; the sections on fiction, drama, and popular “manifestations” are most helpful. A Guide to Chinese Literature is a concise and comprehensive reference structured around stages in the development of publishing in China. All these works include useful bibliographies. Scholars should also be aware of two early pioneering surveys of Chinese popular literature, Lu Xun’s history of fiction and Zheng Zhenduo’s history of prosimetric literature.

Controversies over the origins of vernacular fiction were more or less resolved in 1974, with the publication of Wilt Idema’s groundbreaking study of the early development of vernacular works in the Song and Yuan; Idema challenges the assumption that they evolved out of storytellers’ prompt books and plain tales and argues that their editor-authors drew on a much wider range of sources, including classical tales, dynastic and other histories, and drama as well. Individual novels and story collections—Water Margin, Journey to the West, Green Peony, and the work of Feng Menglong—are the subjects of studies that trace in great detail their evolution and the ways in which successive editor-authors refashioned them.48 Some scholarship has also been devoted to the many sequels that fed off the popularity of the great vernacular works of the Ming and Qing.49

More recently, scholars have grappled with two inter-related issues: the relationship between oral performance and popular literature and the role that literati editors played in rewriting and “polishing” popular works (often drawn from oral performance) for elite audiences. Anne McLaren, for example, highlights the importance of the oral in the construction of Ming chantefables and emphasizes how significantly later literati editors changed—indeed, distorted—their stories in the process of rewriting them for new audiences. Liangyan Ge argues that Water Margin, often seen as the quintessential literati novel, in fact owed much to the oral tradition.50 In his study of Feng Menglong, Ōki Yasushi describes the new breed of professional literatus-author who worked closely with commercial publishers to “update” earlier vernacular stories or novellas in the vernacular.51 Shang Wei, in studies of Plum in the Golden Vase, demonstrates that the author borrowed, if not from oral literature, then from the popular daily life encyclopedias of the late Ming, a genre much despised by the elite.52 Patricia Sieber and Guo Qitao have examined the elite appropriation of popular dramatic forms, albeit from very different perspectives: Sieber demonstrates how Ming literati rewrote and manipulated the themes of Yuan zaju,53 while Guo traces the “Confucianization” of local opera among the merchant lineages of Huizhou.54 The Popular Culture Project at the University of California, Berkeley, has produced a collection of essays on the various popular iterations of the ritual opera “Mulian Rescues His Mother.”55

Greater attention is now paid to regional popular literatures, particularly literature based on performance texts. Mark Bender, drawing on fieldwork, describes the still-active oral performance tradition of Suzhou and the prompt texts that support it.56 Margaret Wan’s study of northern drum ballads examines the difference between performance prompt texts and texts meant for reading. Idema, in a series of translations, explores numerous prosimetric texts in often quite different regional versions.57 McLaren, in her study of Ming chantefables, argued that elite appropriation of popular prosimetric works led to their absorption into an empire-wide literary canon. All these studies suggest the persistence of distinctive regional stories and forms.

Who read popular literature? This question haunts most scholarship on the topic, doubtless in large part because the evidence that would allow an answer is so slight. It is usually broken down into two separate questions: Who in the population was literate enough to read popular literature? Who had access, geographic, social, and economic, to the texts of popular literature?

Evelyn Rawski, who has conducted the most comprehensive research on literacy in late imperial China, concludes that, by the 19th century, males had achieved a literacy rate of 30 to 45 percent, females, 2 to 10 percent. Based on a generous definition of literacy, this figure has been challenged by other scholars; an estimate of 20 to 25 percent literacy for men, though still generous, is more reasonable.58 But literacy estimates can tell us only so much—and only in part because they rest on insufficient evidence. More research must be done on the registers of language in popular literature before we can understand more precisely who had the knowledge of written Chinese necessary to read and comprehend different works. There has been an inclination to associate readability with the vernacular or colloquial language on the grounds that people with limited education would find it easier to read texts that mimicked the spoken language.59 This tie is substantiated by the fact that the development of prose narratives and performance literature in semi-colloquial, semi-classical Chinese marks the birth of popular fiction in the Song and Yuan. Yet it is also true that readers of limited education might also find it easier to read simple classical Chinese, the language of the literacy primers. In fact, texts in a simple classical language (or a mixed colloquial-classical language) might actually be easier for such readers than works in a highly sophisticated vernacular.60

There is some disagreement over the geographical and socioeconomic reach of print. Brokaw, in her study of a publishing industry in western Fujian, argues that the spread of publishing to hinterland and rural areas in the Qing meant that even portions of the peasant population (not to mention petty traders, shopkeepers, transport workers, etc.) had physical access to the cheap, poorly produced texts that were the staple of many lower-level publishing operations. Robert Hegel reaches a not incompatible conclusion through a study of the decline in the production quality of illustrated fiction imprints in the Qing: the generally smaller, shabbier, and poorly illustrated works of the last dynasty bespoke a larger and poorer reading public. But James Hayes, drawing on fieldwork among peasant communities in 20th-century Hong Kong, claims that few villagers owned or read books; the popular works that he found were the possession of a small number of “village specialists” who read for their communities.

There is, however, scholarly agreement on the increasing significance of one sector of the Chinese population as both readers and producers of texts: women. The fears expressed by conservative literati that the popular texts of the late Ming would have a dangerous effect on female virtue long ago revealed that women were part—although most likely a very small part—of the reading public. More recently, scholars have explored women’s more active involvement in the literary field, as producers of texts eager to see their work in print. Initial studies focused on their poetry collections and anthologies, works designed very much for an elite readership and ushered into print with the help of literati husbands, brothers, and sons.61 But most recently, Ellen Widmer has shown that some women, often driven by economic necessity after the death of a husband, worked professionally as writers and editors of popular works, particularly in genres like tanci, which was perceived as a “woman’s literature.” And there is evidence that sequels to works like Dream of the Red Chamber might have been driven by publishers’ awareness of the huge popularity of that work among female readers.

Primary Sources

The low survival rate of publishing business records and the general indifference of Chinese bibliophiles to popular texts limit the primary sources available for the study of publishing and popular culture. The richest primary sources for the study of pre-modern Chinese publishing are the imprints themselves. Publication information may be printed on cover pages or in colophons. Even when this information is not included, study of the paratexts of these works—the prefaces, postfaces, annotations, illustrations, page formats, etc.—yield insights about authorship and intended audience.

Works of popular literature published before 1620 (or, in some cases, the end of the 18th century) are considered rare books (shanben 善本‎), no matter how shabby, and therefore may appear in rare books collections in any library with significant Chinese holdings anywhere in the world (National Library of China, Shanghai Municipal Library, Fudan University Library, Zhejiang Provincial Library, Nanjing Municipal Library in China; Naikaku Bunko 內閣文庫‎, Tōyō Bunko 東洋文庫‎, Tōyō bunka kenkyūjo 東洋文庫研究所‎, Seikadō Bunko 靜嘉堂文庫‎, Kyōto daigaku Jinbun kagaku kenkyūjo 京都大學人文科學研究所‎, Tenri University Library in Japan, to list the most obvious). Works published after those dates are catalogued as ancient books (guji 古籍‎) or “string-bound books” (xianzhuang shu 線裝書‎) and can be found in great numbers in an even wider range of collections far too numerous to be named here. The Capital Library (Shoudu tushuguan 首都图书馆‎, in particular the Wu Xiaoling 吴晓铃‎ and Chewangfu quben 車王府曲本‎ collections) and the Academy of Sciences (Zhongguo kexue yanjiuyuan 中国科学研究院‎) Library, both in Beijiing; the Tianjin Library; the Fu Sinian Library (Fu Sinian Tushuguan 傅斯年圖書館‎) at the Academia Sinica (Zhongyang yanjiuyuan 中央研究院‎) in Taipei; and Leiden University are all known to have holdings of popular literary and performance texts.

There are many reference works that aid research on the publishing of popular literature. Record of Publishers of Fiction (Xiaoshuo shufang lu 小说书坊录‎), edited by Wang Qingyuan 王清原‎, Mou Renlong 牟仁隆‎, and Han Xiduo 韩锡铎‎; Beijing: Beijing tushuguan chubanshe, 2002) lists publishing houses that produced xiaoshuo from the Song through the Republican period. The invaluable Index to Chinese Popular Fiction (Zhongguo tongsu xiaoshuo zongmu tiyao 中國通俗小說總目提要‎, Beijing: Zhongguo wenlian chubanshe, 1990) lists authors, editors, and publishers—and plot summaries. Sun Kaidi’s 孫楷第‎Bibliography of Chinese Popular Fiction (Zhongguo tongsu xiaoshuo shumu 中國通俗小說書目‎, revised edition 1958), expanded by the Japanese scholar Ōtsuka Hidetaka 大壉秀高‎in Bibliography of Chinese Popular Fiction, Expanded (Zōho Chūgoku tsūzoku shōsetsu shomoku 增補中國通俗小說書目‎, Tokyo: Kyūko shoin, 1987) aids the researcher to sort out the many different editions of fictional works. Zhuang Yifu’s 莊一拂‎ Investigation into Extant Classical Dramas (Gudian xiqu cunmu huikao 古典戲曲存目匯考‎, Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1982, 3 vols.) provides similar information for drama publications. For a list of useful publications on popular literature in both Chinese and Western languages, consult Endymion Wilkinson, ed., “Vernacular Literature and Folklore,” Chinese History: A New Manual.62

For those interested in rural publishing sites, fieldwork may yield useful information on the production and sale of popular texts and reading practices in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Once research in local archives and libraries has been exhausted, the local collection of imprints, genealogies of publishing families, interviews with older local residents about the availability of texts can be the best way to learn in some detail about the reach of popular literature.63 But identification of fieldwork sites is difficult. The provincial gazetteers published in the 1990s and 2000s usually contain historical surveys that provide names of local publishing sites active in the Qing. The county-level periodical Sources in Culture and History (Wenshi ziliao 文史资料‎) can be used to supplement these surveys with occasionally useful essays, often in the form of memoirs, on particular publishers or booksellers.

Tidbits of information can be gleaned, albeit laboriously, from extensive reading in gazetteers, literati notebooks, and essay collections. Hu Yinglin’s 胡應麟‎ (1551–1602) Notes from the Shaoshi Retreat (Shaoshi shanfang bicong 少室山房筆叢‎), for example, contains information on the major Ming sites of publishing, while the above-cited Xie Zhaozhe’s Five-part Tapestry provides a useful depiction of Jianyang as a site of popular publishing. Ye Dehui 葉德輝‎ (1864–1927), a pioneering book scholar, helpfully collected many such comments in his Plain Talk about Books (Shulin qinghua 書林清話‎, 1920).

The writings of missionaries and other foreigners living in China in the 19th century often supply surprisingly useful information about popular texts and publishing technologies. Works such as Arthur Smith’s Village Life in China (1899), S. Wells Williams’ The Middle Kingdom (first edition 1848), and articles in periodicals like The Chinese Recorder and The Chinese Repository contain firsthand observations about publishing and access to texts (but the reader must suffer as well often derogatory comments about the Chinese).

Further Reading

Studies of the interaction between woodblock publishing and popular literature are lacking. Information on the topic has to be built up from several areas: studies of publishers and their output; histories of popular literature; and analyses of literacy rates and language registers.

Publishing Centers

Brokaw, Cynthia. Commerce in Culture: The Commercial Publishers of Sibao in the Qing and Republican Periods. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2007.Find this resource:

Chia, Lucille. Printing for Profit: The Commercial Publishers of Jianyang, Fujian (11th–17th Centuries). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2002.Find this resource:

Zhang Xiumin 张秀民‎. Zhongguo yinshua shi 中国印刷史‎. Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 1986.Find this resource:

Popular Literature

Chang, Kang-I Sun, and Stephen Owen, eds. The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Ge, Liangyan. Out of the Margins: The Rise of Chinese Vernacular Fiction. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2001.Find this resource:

He,Yuming. Home and the World: Editing the “Glorious Ming” in Woodblock-Printed Books of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2013.Find this resource:

Hegel, Robert E. Reading Illustrated Fiction in Late Imperial China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Idema, W. L. Chinese Vernacular Fiction: The Formative Period. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1974.Find this resource:

Lu Hsun 魯迅‎ (Lu Xun; Zhou Shuren 周樹仁‎). A Brief History of Chinese Fiction. Trans. Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1959. This is a translation of Zhongguo xiaoshuo shilüe (中國小說史略‎), originally published in 1930. Lu Xun lived 1881–1936.Find this resource:

Mair, Victor, ed. The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Mair, Victor, and Marc Bender, eds., The Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

McLaren, Anne E. Chinese Popular Culture & Ming Chantefables. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1998.Find this resource:

Widmer, Ellen. The Beauty and the Book: Women and Fiction in Nineteenth-Century China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2006.Find this resource:

Zheng Zhenduo 鄭振鐸‎. Zhongguo suwenxue shi 中國俗文學史‎. Beijing: Dongfang chubanshe, 1996 (originally published in 1938). Zheng Zhenduo lived 1898–1958.Find this resource:

Literacy Rates and Readers

Hayes, James. “Specialists and Written Materials in the Village World.” In Popular Culture in Late Imperial China. Edited by David Johnson, Andrew J. Nathan, and Evelyn S. Rawski, 75–111. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.Find this resource:

Rawski, Evelyn S. Education and Popular Literacy in Ch’ing China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1979.Find this resource:


(1.) Victor H. Mair, Tang Transformation Texts (Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1989), 6.

(2.) Airi zhai congchao 愛日齋叢鈔‎, in Shoushan ge congshu 守山閣叢書‎ (1922), chapter 1, 3a; cited in Tsien Tsuen-hsuin, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 1: Paper and Printing (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 151–152.

(3.) Ronald Egan, “To Count Grains of Sand on the Ocean Floor: Changing Perceptions of Books and Learning in the Song Dynasty, in Knowledge and Text Production in an Age of Print: China, 900–1400, ed. Lucille Chia and Hilde de Weerdt (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011), 35.

(4.) Lucille Chia, Printing for Profit: The Commercial Publishers of Jianyang, Fujian (11th–17th Centuries) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2002), 106, 134.

(5.) Meng Yuanlao 孟元老‎, Dongjing meng Hua lu 東京夢華錄‎, in Monks, Bandits, Lovers, and Immortals: Eleven Early Chinese Plays, trans. Stephen H. West and Wilt L. Idema (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2010), xi–xii. Meng Yuanlao lived c. 1090–1150.

(6.) Michael A. Fuller and Shuen-fu Lin, “North and South: The Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries,” in Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, vol. 1: To 1375, ed. Kang-I Sun Chang and Stephen Owen (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 541–542.

(7.) Stephen H. West, “Literature from the Late Jin to the Early Ming: c. 1230–c. 1375,” in Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, vol. 1: To 1375, 628–632.

(8.) West, “Literature from the Late Jin to the Early Ming: c. 1230–c. 1375,” 626.

(9.) West and Idema, Monks, Bandits, Lovers, and Immortals, xii–xv.

(10.) Wilt Idema and Lloyd Haft, A Guide to Chinese Literature (Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan, 1997), 172–176; West, “Literature from the Late Jin to the Early Ming,” 628.

(11.) West, “Literature from the Late Jin to the Early Ming,” 624.

(12.) Anne E. McLaren, Chinese Popular Culture & Ming Chantefables (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1998), 123.

(13.) Joseph P. McDermott, A Social History of the Chinese Book: Books and Literati Culture in Late Imperial China (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2006), 25–31.

(14.) Anne E. McLaren, “Constructing New Reading Publics in Late Ming China,” in Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China, ed. Cynthia J. Brokaw and Kai-wing Chow (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 157.

(15.) Chia, Printing for Profit, 232.

(16.) Anne E. McLaren, “Ming Audiences and Vernacular Hermeneutics: The Uses of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” T’oung Pao 81 (1995): 51–80.

(17.) Tanaka, “The Social and Historical Context of Ming-Ch’ing Local Drama,” in Popular Culture in Late Imperial China, ed. David Johnson, Andrew J. Nathan, and Evelyn S. Rawski (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 153–159.

(18.) McLaren, Chinese Popular Culture and Ming Chantefables, 190, 290–291; West, “Literature from the Late Jin to the Early Ming,” 632–633.

(19.) Xie Zhaozhe, Wu Zaze 五雜組‎, 13.21ab, in Wakakuhon kanseki zuihitus shū 和刻本漢籍隨筆集‎, no. 1 (Tokyo: Kyūko shoin, 1982), translated in Chia, Printing for Profit, 185.

(20.) Robert E. Hegel, Reading Illustrated Fiction in Late Imperial China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 135.

(21.) Chia, Printing for Profit, 161.

(22.) Chia, Printing for Profit, 236, 241.

(23.) Gary Seaman, Journey to the North: An Ethnohistorical Analysis and Annotated Translation of the Chinese Folk Novel Pei-yu-chi (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 12–16, 38–39.

(24.) Chia, Printing for Profit, 243.

(25.) Chia, Printing for Profit, 346, note 26.

(26.) Zhang Xiumin, Zhongguo yinshua shi (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 1986), 343–348, 365–372, 550–551, 553–554, and 558.

(27.) Hegel, Reading Illustrated Fiction in Late Imperial China, 143.

(28.) Wilt Idema, “Traditional Dramatic Literature,” in The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, ed. Victor Mair (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 822.

(29.) Tina Lu, “The Literary Culture of the Late Ming (1573–1644),” in Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, vol. 2: From 1375, ed. Kang-I Sun Chang and Stephen Owen (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 139–140.

(30.) Feng Menglong, comp., Stories Old and New, A Ming Dynasty Collection, translated by Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000), 6; and Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang, trans., Stories to Caution the World, A Ming Dynasty Collection, vol. 2 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005), 5.

(31.) Tina Lu, “The Literary Culture of the Late Ming (1573–1644),” p. 125.

(32.) Cynthia J. Brokaw, Commerce in Culture: The Sibao Book Trade in the Qing and Republican Periods (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2007), chapter 6.

(33.) Tsien, Paper and Printing, 190; Hegel, Reading Illustrated Fiction, 327–335.

(34.) Shang Wei, “The Literati Era and Its Demise,” in The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, vol. 2: From 1375, 267.

(35.) Timothy Wong, “Ju-lin wai-shih,” in The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, ed. William H. Nienhauser Jr. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 462.

(36.) Zhang Jun张俊‎, Qingdai xiaoshuo shi 清代小说史‎ (Hangzhou: Zhejiang guji chubanshe, 1997), 55.

(37.) Idema and Haft, A Guide to Chinese Literature, 227.

(38.) Zhang Jun, Qingdai xiaoshuo shi, 241.

(39.) Lu Hsun (Lu Xun, Zhou Shuren 周樹人‎), A Brief History of Chinese Fiction (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1964), 368. Lu Xun lived 1881–1936.

(40.) Shang Wei, “The Literati Era and Its Demise,” 322.

(41.) Shang Wei, “The Literati Era and Its Demise,” 317–318.

(42.) For fuller coverage of the different types of performance literature, see Wilt L. Idema, “Prosimetric and Verse Narrative,” in The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, vol. 2: From 1375, 343–412.

(43.) Margaret B. Wan, “Audiences and Reading Practices for Qing Dynasty Drum Ballads,” in The Interplay of the Oral and the Written in Chinese Popular Literature, eds. Vibeke Bordahl and Margaret B. Wan (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2010), 61–82.

(44.) Meng Jiangnü Brings Down the Great Wall: Ten Versions of a Chinese Legend (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2008), 3–23.

(45.) Brokaw, Commerce in Culture, 536–559.

(46.) Christopher A. Reed, Gutenberg in Shanghai: Chinese Print Capitalism, 1876–1937 (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2004).

(47.) Sören Edgren, “Southern Song Printing at Hangzhou,” Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 61 (1989): 1–212; Lucille Chia, “Of Three Mountains Street: The Commercial Publishers of Ming Nanjing,” in Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China, eds. Cynthia Brokaw and Kai-wing Chow (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005): 107–151; and Ellen Widmer, “The Huanduzhai of Hangzhou and Suzhou: A Study in Seventeenth-Century Publishing,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 56.1 (1996): 77–122.

(48.) See Glen Dudbridge, The Hsi-yu chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1970); Richard G. Irwin, The Evolution of a Chinese Novel: Shui-hu chuan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953); Margaret B. Wan, Green Peony and the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts Novel (Binghamton, NY: SUNY Press, 2009); and Patrick Hanan, The Chinese Short Story: Studies in Dating, Authorship, and Composition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973).

(49.) See Martin Huang, ed., Snakes’ Legs: Sequels, Continuations, Rewritings, and Chinese Fiction (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004).

(50.) Andrew Plaks, The Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel: Ssu ta ch’i shu (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), makes a vigorous argument for considering not only Water Margin, but also the other three masterworks of the Ming (Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, and Jin Ping Mei), carefully crafted “literati novels” that reflect the values and concerns of their author-editors.

(51.) Ōki Yasushi 大木康‎, Minmatsu Kōnan ni okeru shuppan bunka no kenkyū 明末江南に置ける出版文化の研究‎, Hiroshima daigaku bungakubu kiyō 50, special issue 1 (1991), 1–176.

(52.) Shang Wei, “Jin Ping Mei and Late Ming Print Culture,” in Writing and Materiality in China: Essays in Honor of Patrick Hanan, eds. Judith T. Zeitlin, Lydia Liu, and Ellen Widmer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2003): 187–238.

(53.) Patricia Sieber, Theaters of Desire: Authors, Readers, and the Reproduction of Early Chinese Song-Drama, 1300–2000 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

(54.) Guo Qitao, Ritual Opera and Mercantile Lineage: The Confucian Transformation of Popular Culture in Late Imperial Huizhou (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005).

(55.) David Johnson, “Ritual Opera, Operatic Ritual: “Mu-lien Rescues His Mother in David Johnson, ed., Chinese Popular Culture (Berkeley, CA: Chinese Popular Culture Project, 1989), 1–45.

(56.) Mark Bender, Plum and Bamboo: China’s Suzhou Chantefable Tradition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

(57.) See, to give just two of many works, The Butterfly Lovers: The Legend of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai: Four Versions with Related Texts (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2010); and Passion, Poverty, and Travel: Traditional Hakka Songs and Ballads (Hackensack, NJ: World Century Corporation, 2015). See also Wolfram Eberhard, Cantonese Ballads, Munich State Library Collection (Taipei: Oriental Cultural Service, 1972).

(58.) Wilt L. Idema, “Review of Evelyn Rawski, Education and Popular Literacy in Ch’ing China,” T’oung Pao 66.4–5 (1980), 314–324. For a survey of the scholarship on literacy, see Brokaw, Commerce in Culture, 559–568.

(59.) Patrick Hanan, The Chinese Vernacular Story (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 10–11.

(60.) W. L. Idema, “The Extent of Literacy and the Diffusion of Books in China,” in Chinese Vernacular Fiction: The Formative Period (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1974), li–lii.

(61.) Dorothy Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995); and Susan Mann, Precious Records: Women in China’s Long Eighteenth Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997).

(62.) Record of Publishers of Fiction [Xiaoshuo shufang lu 小说书坊录‎], ed. Wang Qingyuan王清原‎, Mou Renlong 牟仁隆‎, Han Xiduo 韩锡铎‎ (Beijing: Beijing tushuguan chubanshe, 2002); Index to Chinese Popular Fiction [Zhongguo tongsu xiaoshuo zongmu tiyao 中國通俗小說總目提要‎] (Beijing: Zhongguo wenlian chubanshe, 1990); Sun Kaidi, 孫楷第‎,Bibliography of Chinese Popular Fiction [Zhongguo tongsu xiaoshuo shumu 中國通俗小說書目‎], expanded by the Japanese scholar Ōtsuka Hidetaka 大壉秀高‎in Bibliography of Chinese Popular Fiction, Expanded [Zōho Chūgoku tsūzoku shōsetsu shomoku 增補中國通俗小說書目‎], (Tokyo: Kyūko shoin, 1987); Zhuang Yifu莊一拂‎, Investigation into Extant Classical Dramas [Gudian xiqu cunmu huikao古典戲曲存目匯考‎] (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1982, 3 vols.); Endymion Wilkinson, ed., “Vernacular Literature and Folklore,” in Chinese History: A New Manual (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2015), 411–415.

(63.) Cynthia J. Brokaw, “Fieldwork on the Social and Economic History of Chinese Print Culture: A Survey of Sources,” East Asia Library Journal 10.2 (Autumn 2001): 6–59.