Book Review: Robert Culp: The Power of Print in Modern China

As suggested by its name, this book discusses the print history of modern China and its influence on the Chinese society. It started the story right after the abrogation of China’s civil service examination in 1905, which functioned for over a thousand years and was a symbol of China’s long-lasting meritocracy, and ended the discussion in the 1960s, when the printing industry landscape was damaged and largely restructured by the Cultural Revolution and the cotemporaneous political climate. The author vividly portrayed a printing industry that predated his readers by at least half a century through a detailed presentation of the people of that age, including successful civil service exam candidates from the Qing Dynasty, western-educated scholars, and ordinary laborers, and how they fought and conformed to the great changes of the times and gathered together to devote themselves to the burgeoning industry.

This book provides us a great opportunity to look back at the transitional period in China’s history and rethink what the changes meant for Chinese people and the society as a whole through the lens of the printing industry. Printing has closely been connected with every marginalized household to the elite class, opinion makers, and the state machinery, through the powerful linguistic tools and media communications. Printing is a signal of movements in the language, culture, and politics as well as corresponding revolutions in each realm. The New Culture Movement, the May Fourth Movement, the adoption of the American-style New School System, and the Great Leap Forward could not have had such far-reaching impacts if not backed and enhanced by the media. Simultaneously, the chaotic yet hopeful modern China had the appropriate environment for the printing industry to develop and flourish, playing a unique role in the history.

The author intimately described the rich context of a foreign country without using excessive jargon or inaccessible ideas. For example, the author used plain language to describe how publishing industry leaders were trying to sell large series of books that they compiled to libraries; “in promoting the series to regional and local government leaders, Commercial Press’ branch managers emphasized the underdeveloped state of China’s libraries and argued that they… could address fundamental problem for the development of libraries, such as the cost of building a collection.” In addition, the author focuses on explaining the reasons behind social behaviors bridging cultural barrier and temporal gaps. For example, while readers might be questioning why the literati from the late Qing Dynasty were willing to take a job in commercial publishing instead of professional fields like law or medicine, the author explained that publishing “provided the educated elite with a way to play a prominent role in public life and to use the novel power of industrial capitalism to transform Chinese culture.” In another chapter on the transforming from ancient Chinese prose to the vernacular oral language, the author described that an example of an anecdote of Benjamin Franklin was used in a primary school textbook to indicate that Chinese exclamations and slang terms were included in the new textbook. The example also subtly reflected the opening-up trend toward western culture, even if it was as small as including an American story in a Chinese textbook.

Moreover, the author presented a strong combination of interesting statistical facts with an exploration of people’s thoughts. A chart of the monthly salaries of over 150 staff for the Commercial Press Editing Department in 1921 provided readers a more comprehensive overview of those professionals’ lives in the twentieth Century. The author then combined the numbers with an analysis of the pursuit of literati elites, spiritual desires in particular, elevating the narrative with a touch of humanity. The literati elites had certain requirements for clothing, food, housing, and social activities, as well as the need to be distinguished from laborers at the presses where they worked. They hired servants to do housework. These observations explained the literati elites’ need to earn high salaries and their firm rejection of the idea of getting paid based on the draft pages they reviewed each day. They believed they stood superior to the laborers, whose work could be quantified.

This book would suit well those who are interested in knowing how exactly the printing and publishing industry is connected with the people, culture, and social movements in modern China. The book would also suit those who merely want to take a closer look at the modern history of China through the lens of a specific industry. It is fascinating to read about how ideas and hard work by enthusiastic and skillful people with physical tools created by mankind, as indicated by the cover of this book, are able to form a driving social force that moves the civilization forward.

​Originally published on Publishing Research Quarterly on January 23, 2020