Cynthia Brokaw - Professor of History, Brown University
“Fieldwork in Chinese Book Culture” presents one piece of a project designed to examine the ways in which the spread of woodblock publishing (and other print technologies) worked to integrate distant “frontier” regions of the empire into the Qing imperium. Here I examine the role that a community of peasant block cutters played in the expansion of woodblock publishing in Sichuan in the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries.
The talk focuses on several related questions: How did the labor relations between the block cutters and publishers shape the nature and scope of book culture in a borderland region? What do these relations suggest about the economy of publishing in a borderland province? How did these relations influence both the integration of Sichuan into the mainstream textual culture of the Qing empire and the development of a distinctive regional book culture? I suggest that the extension of a “central” book culture to frontier/borderland areas was an important element of imperial consolidation in the Qing. At the same time, this textual integration stimulated the publication of distinctively Sichuanese popular cultural texts (and, at the elite level, a creation or revival of “Sichuan learning”).
Finally, I have a methodological goal: to emphasize the value of fieldwork in the study of late imperial (very late imperial), modern, and contemporary Chinese history. The information presented in “Fieldwork in Chinese Book Culture” is drawn from interviews of former block cutters, conversations with men and women who were able to describe early reading (or oral literary) practices, and the collection of local materials (printed texts, manuscripts, genealogies, fenjia documents, and so forth). These sources have proven—despite their obvious drawbacks—to be crucially useful to an understanding of both text production and the use of texts in local societies.