A Social History of the Chinese Book: Books and Literati by Joseph McDermott

By Joseph McDermott

This publication bargains with a variety of matters at the heritage of the booklet in overdue imperial China (1000 to 1800), often considering literati courses and readers within the reduce Yangzi delta.

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19 In all likelihood, then, the most persuasive explanations for the prolonged absence of such a record in Chinese about the production of woodblock printing are the most obvious. Initially, some detailed descriptions of printing may have appeared in writing and perhaps print, but they do not survive. Meanwhile, workers with special skills for producing good quality imprints had little reason or interest in sharing such valuable knowledge with non-family members. The general skills and technology, however, were so simple and, by the Song, so widespread that literate people regarded them as too commonplace to write about.

Three twentieth-century accounts generally confirm and clarify the workings of this carving process. 91 Such a reconstitution of the work process had potential implications for the carvers themselves; that is, once this work was divided in this way, more than one carver could in theory share in the work of carving the text of a single woodblock. In fact, this type of division of labor into distinct work modules was observed by Tanaka Shish¯o on a visit to China before World War II. 93 Since the first detailed Chinese account of the process of book production dates from 1947, the lack of any Ming or Qing source confirming such a division of carving labor need not rule out its practice then.

22 All these landmark events in the historiography of Chinese printing result from early nineteenth-century missionary activities supported in East and Southeast Asia by the London Missionary Society. In the first half of this chapter, I wish to introduce and discuss Milne’s exceptionally informative early nineteenth-century account of woodblock book production. In making use of a book that has so far escaped the attention of virtually all earlier studies of the Chinese book (the main exception is the noted French expert on the Chinese book, Jean-Pierre Drège),23 my aim is more than bibliographical.

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