The Book Worlds of East Asia and Europe, 1450-1850

Hang Lin

It is not surprising to observe that there is a long tradition of book study in China, the country with probably the longest history of printing. The origin of this tradition can be traced back to the cataloging efforts of Liu Xiang (ca. 79-6 BC) and reached an apex in the last decades of the twentieth century, when Chinese and Japanese scholars produced a host of insightful studies on the origin and historical development of printing, paper production, publishing, and the physical evolution to modern books in China. Such approaches to the study of the book in China are evidently inspired by the large corpus of debates and bibliophiles on the European book and book culture, designated as the “history of the book” (histories du livre). Yet until now there has been regrettably only few attempts to synthesis the concerning issues through a comparative examination of printing and book culture in East Asia and Europe.

The Book Worlds of East Asia and Europe, 1450-1850: Connections and Comparisons, edited by Joseph P. McDermott and Peter Burke, is a timely addition. The comparative approach adopted in this volume is certainly “neither as new nor as novel as might be thought” (p. 4), as McDermott and Burke acknowledge. But they take a step forward to have six leading experts on East Asian and European book history to further explore issues of mutual interest, thus filling the hitherto largely overlooked lacuna by offering an analysis of the development of book production, distribution, and consumption of the two regions of Eurasia, which “in premodern times made the most of publishing books”, from “a consciously comparative perspective” (p. 5). The time span that the volume covers — from 1450 to 1850 — includes the four centuries of the rise of the Gutenberg revolution in Europe and the proliferation of woodblock printing in East Asia before the introduction of European printing technologies.

The volume opens with an extensive introduction which investigates how much of the issues examined in this collection can be revealed through what recent French studies have called historie croisée (connected history). McDermott and Burke adopt this approach to examine how it can inform interlinked reflections of the issues discussed in the volume through a profound review of the likelihood of the transmission of printing technology (woodblock and moveable-type westward and Western printing-press eastward), the knowledge transfer brought up by this technological exchange, and the history of sharing the common sense of current events through printing. In doing so, the editors offer a clear ground for discussion of a comparative “book world” consisting of the network of people and institutions in East Asia and Europe that “supported and sometimes restricted the production, diffusion, and consumption of books” (p. 9).

Certainly, the authors of the chapters are fully aware that the pre-1850 book worlds of East Asia and Europe often interacted only indirectly or intermittently, so they have pursed different strategies to show how these separate histories can still inform each other. In the first two chapters, David McKittrick and Joseph McDermott focus on distinctive features of book production in East Asia and Europe, respectively, in particular bibliographical practices and non-commercial publishing. While McKittrick cogently reminds us that bibliographical statistics shall be used with great care, McDermott shows that the growth of publishing in late imperial China was largely shaped by the rise of capitalism and the development of an integrated culture of “a public sphere”. Peter Kornicki and Peter Burke take direct comparison of consumption practices in the two regions dealt, concentrating on the increase of female readers and books published for women, the contents and reception of imprints in vernacular, as well as the rise of reference books and the cultural and social background of their production and consumption. Focusing primarily on economic aspects of book distribution, James Raven and Cynthia Brokaw, in the final two chapters, collectively demonstrate how the comparative approach can reveal the advantages and disadvantages of different economic organisations in facilitating long-distance trade of books. 

Although the core of this volume consists of only six chapters, each has directly or indirectly woven into his or her analysis the perspective adopted in the others’ studies, and one can easily identify that each is deeply informed by one another’s findings in a way rarely seen in collections of comparative research. In this way, the volume itself stands as a vivid example of “interconnectivity” and demonstrate how fruitful such interconnectivity can be: it raises questions previously overlooked and put set conclusions again under scrutiny, extending the perspectives beyond the dimension of each’s expertise. In many respects, the findings emerging from these finely interwoven studies of pre-1850 book worlds are still valid. Although the world of text has been transforming from printed to electronic publishing, the role of the state is still vital, certain types of books are preferred as before, activities of private publishers cannot be neglected, and books are still considered as a way to fulfil social obligations.  

Many of the issues this volume covers are inspiring and will surely stimulate future comparative studies of other fields. For scholars on European and East Asian books, learning about the history of printing and its impact in other regions can offer a valuable counterpoint to the tendency to universalise the one’s experience. Yet critical readers may expect elaborations on other issues which are of equal importance as those dealt in the volume. For instance, whereas we can estimate rates of literacy in early modern Europe by using figures of book production, it is to be explored as to what extent the increase in the production of printed books in Ming-Qing China correlated with changes in readership and literacy rates. Although cultural historians have recently began to probe into the multifaceted impact of printing on reading habits, literary composition, and knowledge transformation in China, how would texts other than encyclopedias such as notebook, jottings, and correspondences help facilitate a more systematic comprehension of the ways in which printing affected reading experience and literary production? How did the expansion of printing in Ming-Qing China contribute to the unlocking of the rigorous relationship between the state, the educated elite, and the Confucian orthodoxy? Did the printed medium loosen or sharpen the social distinctions, did it enhance or restrict social mobility? All these await further exploration.

Certainly it seems unfair to require so many aspects to be discussed in this fine collection, which consists of well-researched and eloquently written chapters. Offering comparative survey of the relations between the two most active books worlds in Eurasia between 1450 and 1850, it demonstrates many feasible strategies to discuss key issues of comparative study and offers directions for writing transnational history. It will definitely attract both academic and general readers interested in book culture, publishing history, and European and Asian history.