Print, Profit, and Perception: Ideas, Information
and Knowledge in Chinese Societies, 1895-1949

Edited by Pei-yin Lin and Weipin Tsai

Reviewed by Bert Scruggs
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright February, 2016)

Pei-yin Lin and Weipin Tsai, eds . Print, Profit, and Perception: Ideas, Information and Knowledge in Chinese Societies 1895-1949. Leiden: Brill, 2014. 276 pp. ISBN13: 9789004259102. $149.00 (cloth)

Pei-yin Lin and Weipin Tsai, eds . Print, Profit, and Perception: Ideas, Information and Knowledge in Chinese Societies 1895-1949 Leiden: Brill, 2014. 276 pp. ISBN13: 9789004259102. $149.00 (cloth)

Anthologies, especially those derived from conferences, often prove to be problematical. They lack the conceptual coherence of a single author monograph; the subject matter and methodology can be digressive. Editors of such volumes must complete several tasks before the printing presses are set in motion, but two stand apart. The first, which is often overlooked but is the more significant, is choosing which papers to publish. Coherently and meaningfully introducing the papers that made the cut is the second. Pei-yin Lin and Weipin Tsai have produced mixed results with Print, Profit, and Perception: Ideas, Information and Knowledge in Chinese Societies, 1895-1949, which is comprised of papers culled from two conferences: “Encounters and Transformations: Cultural Transmission and Knowledge Production in a Cross-literary and Historical Perspective 1850-1960” held at the University of Cambridge, and “The Power of Information in Shaping Chinese Modernity: A Historical Investigation from the Late Qing to Early Republican” held at Royal Holloway University. Lin and Tsai have assembled a wide range of carefully written essays, but the quality of the introduction does not match the quality of their editorial decisions.

In a nutshell, despite a sometimes confusing and frustrating introduction and copyediting mistakes throughout, Pei-yin Lin and Weipin Tsai deserve recognition for assembling a diverse and thought provoking collection of essays on the history of Chinese globalization and localization in the first half of the twentieth century. In what follows, I discuss one example of the sometimes confusing organization of the introduction, offer observations on two ideas immanent in the volume, give thumbnail sketches of each contribution, and make a plea for Brill to improve their copy editing.

Introducing Print, Profit, and Perception: Ideas, Information and Knowledge in Chinese Societies, 1895-1949, Lin and Tsai claim that the anthology “places particular emphasis on three areas” (1). In fact, their “three” emphases actually number four: they and their contributors examine how individuals and collectives adopted and localized foreign discourses in “greater Chinese society”; highlight personal rather than governmental or institutional networks, especially those driven by profit; include Taiwan in the discussion of China in the first half of the twentieth century both “in the process of Chinese modernization, as well as Taiwan’s response to changes on the mainland”; and employ an interdisciplinary approach “which combines literary analysis with historical study” (1-2). (Lin and Tsai collapse the third and fourth emphases into one.). In the three sections of the introduction that follow, they both discuss these emphases in greater detail and establish scholarly backgrounds with useful information presented in footnotes.

The organization and depth of these problematizing and contextualizing sections is unfortunately uneven and sometimes disappointing. In the section titled “Chinese Modernities Revisited: Globalization and Localization,” Lin and Tsai introduce globalization as a phenomenon whereby the scope and spread of exchanges of “texts, commodities, and people” is expanded and articulated (2). But when they turn to localization it is “a natural prism through which to examine novelty, and at the same time to articulate cultural practices which reinforced identities at a local level, often through comparison and contrast with other cultures. Equally, the feedback generated through localization became critical reinforcement for the expanding waves of globalization” (2). Following this definition and observation there is an abridged thumbnail-history of China and the West, a note on Taiwanese education, a definition of larger or greater Chinese society as Taiwan and China, a mention of the pitfalls of postcolonial Taiwanese history and politics, and then a quick turn to Arjun Appadurai in order to “think beyond the nation” (3-4).  These are all important ideas and relevant to the anthology, but it is unclear how we are supposed to think about them individually or collectively. Moreover, it may seem a pedestrian question to some, but why is it that localization is not defined but seen as a prism (or means) for articulating cultural practices, but globalization is defined but left unused? This question seems especially relevant, because in the very next section, “Fluid Modernity and Ideas,” they offer a crisp and concise example of localization (or what I would call indigenization) when they discuss Henrietta Harrison’s work on Catholicism in China (6). Perhaps they noted Harrison’s research in the section on “Fluid Modernity and Ideas” rather than in their discussion of localization to underscore the fluidity of localization rather than define localization: in either case, the organization of the introduction can confuse and at times frustrate.

Beyond the uneven and sometimes unexpected turns of the introduction, Lin and Tsai reintroduce important facets, such as networks of individuals and translinguality, of Chinese modernization in the first half of the twentieth century. Furthermore, they highlight the importance of the profit motive to the exchange of texts, commodities, and ideas, which is one of the more important contributions of the anthology. “Despite the volatile nature of cross-cultural encounters and wide ranging cases of textual transmission,” they write, “the profit motive remained common and crucial. Through the study of commercial interests and networks across those engaged in print-related activity, we can gain valuable insight into patterns around the exchange of knowledge and human relationships previously not transparent in historical discourse” (5). If for no other reason than because it repeatedly forces a consideration of the effects of the profit motive, this collection makes a valuable addition to the study of modern Chinese literature and culture.

Some of the topics linked together or reconciled within the frame of networks in Print, Profit, and Perception include tofu and work-study in a Parisian suburb, love stories in a Chinese language tabloid published in colonial Taiwan when Japanese literacy was ascendant, and global shifts in the contours of medicine, the body, and advertising. Each of these examples and to varying degrees each of the other six studies in this volume provide surfaces described with the idiom of Lin and Tsai’s four emphases, but to their four emphases I would like to add two additional concerns that draw attention to the fluid nature of modernity: degrees of intercourse and linguistic transparency. Each contributor draws attention to the intimacy of individuals in the network (salons, editorial offices, letters, reading each others work in journals). And each contributor draws attention to questions of linguistic transparency, or opacity—in other words, how well interlocutors understood each other when speaking second or third languages or the quality of translation from one language to another.

Here, briefly, are notes on each contribution. Weipin Tsai’s chapter, a reprint of an article published previously in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, provides a brief history of war correspondence, fact and fiction in Chinese newspapers during the 1895 Sino-Japanese War, and how such facts and fictions were driven by patriotism and profit. Pei-yin Lin’s essay also notes the profit motive but instead of attending to putative realities in objective reports of war, she considers the idea of love in Taiwan in the years leading up to World War II in the tabloid newspaper Fengyue bao. Resonating with Tsai’s concern with truth, Shi-Chi Mike Lan’s chapter traces World War II in textbooks used in Taiwan by both the Japanese colonial and the ROC governments in the years immediately preceding and following the war, and highlights the complexity of postcolonial Taiwanese politics and thinking as recently as the 2000s.

Involving localization, globalization, and indigenization, Mei-e Huang’s essay on Zheng Kunwu’s never published science fiction story, “A Strange Tale of a Martian Adventure,” introduces the growing body of work on popular fiction in colonial Taiwan to English readers and situates his tale against historical and cultural backdrops, including science, science fiction, and detective fiction in Europe and Taiwan. Also touching on globalization and “cultural translation,” Max K. W. Huang provides readings that disclose the profit motive and local priorities in medical advertisements in newspapers in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Japan, and Taiwan. Through a genealogy of two journals, the Journal of National Essence and the Journal of Geographical Studies, Tze-ki Hon traces the eclipse of the literati by modern intellectuals in China that paralleled an increasing concern with markets, circulation, and profits.

Elizabeth Emrich illustrates localization and translation in art and art theory through an analysis of changes in Lu Xun’s critical approach to art—especially the modern woodcut movement—that stemmed from, among other influences, his encounter with Alois Reigl’s Kunstwollen when translating Itagaki Takaho’s Trends in the History of Modern Art from Japanese to Chinese. Changes and continuities in attitudes toward traditional Chinese medicine and observations on the lack of public hygiene found in accounts of travel by a range of Japanese individuals are key to Che-chia Chang’s contribution. Paul Bailey provides an account of Chinese students and workers in France, with a focus on Li Shizheng, who led projects to provide a new Chinese vision on work and study and to change dietary habits among the French with the establishment of a soybean processing plant near Paris in 1908.

Each contribution articulates networks among individuals, but the connections holding these networks together vary from that of colleagues and associates—or even employees—to those of tabloid editors and writers, to war correspondents and editors, to shared ideas of science and art conveyed through translations of fiction, through advertisers selling backache pills, nationalist geographers, and finally, to art theorists and textbook writers. In each case the ostensible connections that allow for the attribution of “network” status depends on the degrees of intercourse involved and linguistic transparency, and this calls attention to the basic research that still needs to be undertaken to create fuller pictures of the late Qing and Republican past, in order to link nodes among points on these networks of ideas and individuals, theorize the forces such constellations of intercourse map, and propose larger yet undefined questions.

There is understandably no conclusion to this anthology, so to bring this review to an end, I wish to attend to the unpleasant task of nitpicking that reviewers seem to inevitably face. This volume is not neat and tidy conceptually, nor, unfortunately, is it editorially. As has been noted in other reviews of and in MCLC list postings about Brill volumes, editorial diligence seems lacking. Perceived mistakes in diction or grammar may in part stem from the fact that the book contains essays written by scholars employing both British and American English and is produced by a Dutch publisher: the slips are distracting, but for the most part do not result in incoherence. But one editorial oversight Max Huang was probably disappointed to discover is that the illustration labeled “5.20” is missing (142). There are numerous mistakes in the bibliography as well, but the index seems to be by and large free of errors. Such editorial gaffs may seem trivial, but they cast doubt on the footnotes and bibliographies that these careful scholars no doubt spent hours vetting for accuracy. Such scholarship deserves better editing.

That the volume is not conceptually neat is in my opinion perhaps its strongest point, and the range of texts examined provide countless directions for further basic research. Notwithstanding the at times frustrating or confusing organization of Lin and Tsai’s introduction and the poor copyediting, the contributors to Print, Profit, and Perception (including Lin and Tsai) cogently raise many important questions, fill in historical gaps, and open up new discursive space for early twentieth century Chinese historical and literary studies.

Bert Scruggs
University of California, Irvine