Response to Rudolf Wagner’s Review of
Gutenberg in Shanghai: Chinese Print Capitalism, 1876-1937

By Christopher A. Reed

I am writing in response to Professor Rudolf Wagner’s review of my book Gutenberg in Shanghai: Chinese Print Capitalism, 1876-1937(2004). I would like to thank MCLC for having selected a reviewer of Professor Wagner’s stature. As organizer of the late-Qing-Shanghai newspaper seminar at Heidelberg University, where he and his students/colleagues have been working on Shenbao and related matters for over a decade, Professor Wagner has a deep knowledge of certain aspects of the subject I engage in my book.

As interesting as Wagner’s critique is, however, he has not done justice to the real topic of the book: Chinese print capitalism. Gutenberg in Shanghai is a chronologically organized, problem-oriented, analytical history of Shanghai’s Chinese-invested book printing and publishing industry. Combining the approaches of the history of the book and print culture, the social history of technology, and business history, it argues that traditional Chinese print culture and print commerce influenced modern Chinese technological choices and created a narrative of adaptation at odds with the conventional Western history of print capitalism. At the same time, the material cost of Gutenberg’s and subsequent technology imposed an organizational imperative that transformed traditional Chinese-invested book printing and publishing organizations, creating Chinese print capitalism. Workplace relations in printing and publishing were also changed significantly, more so at the bottom than at the top.

The difference between print commerce and industrial print capitalism is fundamental to understanding what separates the modern mode of production from what preceded it historically. I argue in the book that “print capitalism … is an offshoot of the process of mechanization in the printing and publishing sector … done not as a handicraft, but as a form of ‘industry carried on by machinery’” (p. 9). This distinction is what separates my understanding from that of the many others who have examined late Qing and Republican Shanghai’s modern print media by focusing on themes of cultural and intellectual continuity/discontinuity. Not an incidental theme, this interpretation is sustained until the end of the book, where I write “this book has suggested that [Shanghai’s Wenhuajie’s] importance is best understood when seen as part of a technological, geographical, temporal, and organizational continuum [that] extended technologically from Gutenberg’s manual printing press to electric rotary machines, geographically from Europe and America to Shanghai, temporally from 1876 to 1937, and organizationally from corporate editorial offices to printing plants and then back to [Wenhuajie’s] retail outlets. Without Western technology, industrialized printing plants, and the system of extraterritoriality … Shanghai’s publishing district would have been no different from those of many older Chinese book districts” (261-62).

The traditional Chinese book publishing industry, based on inexpensive woodblock technology, was widely dispersed across the Chinese empire and had created a national print culture and commerce many centuries old. Between 1876 and 1937, however, by centralizing print capitalism and access to Western technology in one city, the Chinese-language Shanghai printing and publishing industry became the preeminent supplier of books and periodicals to the Chinese reading public. I argue that pre-1937 Shanghai Chinese print capitalists set national agendas in educational and intellectual life, strongly influencing both their own social environment and China’s future in ways that traditional publishers had not.

My book focuses on Shanghai’s Chinese investors, publishers, editors, and printers, and the Western printing press, along with its social and cultural effects, as a means of exploring China’s business, cultural, political, and industrial history in this period. It discusses Western printing techniques and technologies as one part of a complex of events and processes that are subordinated to the much larger story involving the Chinese indigenization of the world system known as print capitalism. The book concludes with a historically nuanced definition of Chinese print capitalism as “the social, economic, and political system that resulted from the reciprocal influences of the mental realm of … literati print culture and the material world of industrialized mechanical duplication of printed commodities for privatized profit” (258).

Previous historical scholarship, in attempting to explain Shanghai’s unexpected emergence as China’s leading intellectual, cultural, and educational center in the early decades of the twentieth century, has most often concentrated on the establishment of educational institutions and political philosophies/organizations. By contrast, Gutenberg in Shanghai argues that Shanghai’s new status was the result, in large part, of its business and industrial institutions, especially its printing and publishing industry. Thanks to a wide range of documentation, including previously untapped archival documents, published collections of primary materials, memoirs, and oral interviews that I collected or conducted, Gutenberg in Shanghai shows how China’s traditional culture influenced its modern technological choices through the decisions of legions of Chinese people.

Gutenberg in Shanghai is the first scholarly work in any language to analyze “print capitalism with Chinese characteristics” historically, critically, and comparatively. “China’s Gutenberg revolution,” “Chinese print capitalism,” and the industrialization of Shanghai’s printing and publishing sector are the key elements in this argument yet these concepts get lost in Wagner’s review. Professor Wagner suggests that Ernest Major and the Shenbaoguan were in fact responsible for much of the innovation in modern Chinese printing and publishing. Along with many other scholars working in this field, I eagerly await the publication of a book that substantiates these claims.

Christopher A. Reed
The Ohio State University

January 21, 2005