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date: 16 December 2017

Print Culture and the Circulation of Knowledge 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.

Print culture in imperial China spanned over twelve hundred years, from the late 7th century ce to the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. During this long period, mechanical reproduction of texts and images meant primarily woodblock printing (xylography), and, to a lesser extent, typography, using movable types made of wood, metal, and ceramics. Xylography was first used for religious purposes, such as prayer sheets and scriptures, but by the late 8th century, non-religious imprints for daily use were produced. Only in the mid-10th century, however, did the state and the elites begin to produce and disseminate many non-religious works in print. Thus the dramatic growth in the number and diversity of imprints produced by government, private, religious, and commercial publishers took off in the Song Dynasty (960–1279), due in great part to the state’s efforts to compile and publish many works. One may argue, however, that not until the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) would print culture be sufficiently widespread to be in ascendance, as evidenced by the great variety of works, the evolving page designs, and the changing attitudes of readers toward imprints. By the mid-Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), printing had spread throughout the country into remote regions and throughout all levels of society. Changes in publishing culture from the 19th century onward were spurred by the adoption of new print technologies from the West, such as lithography and movable type letterpress, which allowed for faster publication of far greater press runs, even as the traditional printing technologies continued to be used. Finally, it is important to note that a thriving manuscript culture continued to coexist with print until at least the late 19th century. The parting of the ways between print and manuscript became lasting only with the dominance of modern print technologies in the 20th century.