Learning the history of Chinese books from local gazetteers

Danni Cai

As essential historical sources of information, Chinese local gazetteers officially documented miscellaneous records of administrative districts. Because of their comprehensiveness and acknowledged authority, local gazetteers have long been widely used by scholars to investigate the local administration, economy, culture, people, and much more. The study of the local gazetteer as a distinct genre of text and its relationship with local society, however, remains fascinating, yet a virtually uncharted realm of research. 

 In this regard, Dennis’ book makes a noticeable contribution to the field of Chinese book history by delineating the “life cycles” of local gazetteers. As noted in the introduction, this book is not only the first monograph in English focusing on local gazetteers, but also the first in any language to explore the social contexts of their production, dissemination, consumption and use. His in-depth analysis on the social contexts deserves particular attention in that he insightfully weaves the local gazetteers into various social, cultural, economic, and political dynamics. The contextualization of the local gazetteer as a historical object with its own life will not only enhance the study of book history, but also contribute to the study of Chinese social and cultural history in general.

The “life cycles” of local gazetteers

Following the “life cycles” of local gazetteers, the main body of this book is broken up into three parts. The first part investigates the impetus to compile gazetteers from different levels of government and local society respectively. Dennis highlights the role of the courts, at various stages during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, in promoting the genre of gazetteer and universalizing the compilation of the local gazetteer at different administrative units. Nonetheless, the diverse conventions of the fanli 凡例 (rules of compilation) in local gazetteers reflect the nuanced concerns of producing gazetteers among different levels of government. For the courts, the empire-wide gazetteers served to consolidate imperial control; while for the local governments, the motivations varied: self-promotion was an important motivator, among others, and local borderland governments, in particular, sought cultural transformation, as well as incorporation into the state. To discuss the motivation to compile a gazetteer for the local society, Dennis focuses on a county-level gazetteer Xinchang xianzhi 新昌縣志 (Xinchang county gazetteer) and perceptively asserts that it could be read as a public and extended family genealogy. He carefully examines the members of editorial committee of the 1579 gazetteer and fleshes out a social network behind it built by paternal, maternal, and affinal relatives. For the prominent families involved in this network, the county gazetteer provided an avenue for enhancing their social status at the county and even higher levels. The borrowing of texts from local genealogies denotes the subtle manipulation of social power in local gazetteers and, therefore, implies the hazards of using local gazetteers as reliable historical sources without weighing their credibility.
The second part analyzes the editing, publishing and financing processes of gazetteer production. Regarding the editing of gazetteers, Dennis first casts doubt on the current figures of the total number of local gazetteers, which were calculated by scholars interested in periodization, yet, without a clear definition of what constitutes a gazetteer. Instead, he regards gazetteers as “living documents” and expands the definitional scope of gazetteers to include not only the conventional and official published volumes, but also the unpublished manuscript compilations, which are more difficult to trace due to the rarity of physical copies or the lack of official recognition. For the publishing of local gazetteers, Dennis identifies the unique strength of gazetteers in unfolding the map of major business zones and publishing centers surrounding the printing craftsmen, who are far from being explored up to this point. He cites particularly interesting cases to show the labor obligation of printing craftsmen under the system of household register (180-181), the commercial interests in local gazetteers (188-189), and the method of communication between craftsmen and their distant patrons (193). Whether these cases should simply be seen as isolated examples or as a significant phenomenon occurring more broadly across China calls for more extensive research. In terms of financing local gazetteers, Dennis capitalizes on financial information from local gazetteers to further the ongoing debate regarding the cost of producing a book in late imperial China. By examining how local governments raised money or allocated funds for the publication of gazetteers, he associates the history of Chinese book with the local administration and the policies of taxation of the Ming dynasty, thus, offering a new perspective for observing the local administration of late imperial periods.
The last part shifts the focus from the producers of gazetteers to its users and readers. Dennis recognizes the compilers’ concerns of social stratification, gender difference, and spatial consciousness in the rhetoric of their statements for intended audiences. In particular, the evidence of readers outside the literati and official classes indicates an expanding readership of the period. Another critical aspect of his arguments for contemporary readers is his attention to a wide variety of texts from diaries, letters, legal records, gazetteer prefaces, literati writings, genealogies, and so on. Many of these varied sources were accessed by searching for gazetteer titles from two online databases, Scripta Sinica 漢籍電子文獻資料 and the Siku quan shu 四庫全書. But Dennis does not give a clear explanation for choosing these two databases rather than others, as well as the keywords he uses to obtain the results. In fact, recent years have witnessed a burgeoning development of digital resources available for historical research, including the database exclusively dedicated to local gazetteers, such as Zhongguo fangzhi ku中國方志庫 (Chinese local gazetteers database). How to maximize the outcomes from these abundant resources and to minimize the deviation from keyword searching, will surely concern many researchers for decades to come.

Questions for further exploration

In a nutshell, Dennis’s study is highly informative and exceptionally insightful. It unveils many previously neglected details of gazetteers and raises a new array of thought-provoking research questions. Most of Dennis’ arguments are elaborated through compelling case studies, however, as mentioned above, to what extent these cases embody the full and accurate picture remains inconclusive.
Dennis’ manipulation of data and his interpretation of texts, in some cases, also require further clarification. Although he questions the reliability of the total number of local gazetteers, Dennis still quotes the controversial data of gazetteers to show the possible connection between the regional distribution of Ming gazetteers in modern administrative units and the distribution of the contemporary population recorded in the 1586 Da Ming huidian 大明會典 (Collected statutes of the Great Ming). Considering the complex development of the administrative boundaries in Chinese history and the fluid figure of the population, a more comprehensive survey needs to be conducted before generalizing this connection. Another example is Dennis’ focus on min 民 (commoners) as reader (254-255), raises the question on who exactly the so-called min were. The actual scope of this term is generally believed to go far beyond the prescriptive category of the household registration in the Ming dynasty. It is also not clear whether the factors, such as economic conditions, or the educational backgrounds, or the cultural imaginations, or the residential spaces, differentiated the min from others in light of contemporary compilers.
Last but not least, though Dennis has scrutinized more than five hundred gazetteers from the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties, as he explains, most of his cases come from eastern China because few gazetteers from the western provinces survive. Also, he excludes voluminous local gazetteers of the Qing dynasty and the Republican period, which conceivably contain more extensive sources that respond to the questions raised in this study. Despite the wide scope of Dennis’ efforts, thus, there is still much more to be found and examined in local gazetteers.

Danni Cai, East Asian Studies, McGill