The Power of Print in Modern China:
Intellectuals and Industrial Publishing from the End of Empire to Maoist State Socialism

By Robert Culp

Reviewed by Yue Du
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January, 2020)

Robert Culp, The Power of Print in Modern China: Intellectuals and Industrial Publishing from the End of Empire to Maoist State Socialism New York: Columbia University Press, 2019. xviii + 371 pgs. ISBN: 9780231545358.

For Robert Culp, prominent leaders in twentieth-century cultural and political revolutions, such as Hu Shi and Mao Zedong, were not the only major players to implement the cultural transformation of modern China. A group of people Culp calls “petty intellectuals” (小知識分子), who engaged in the production of textbooks, reference books, reprinted classics, and book series at China’s leading commercial publishers, also fundamentally shaped the cultural landscape of China during the late Qing and Republican periods and into the early years of the People’s Republic. Focusing on the Commercial Press (商務印書館), Zhonghua Book Company (中華書局), and other institutions in China’s industrialized publishing sector, The Power of Print in Modern China successfully reconstructs the work lives and cultural activities of editors who were tremendously influential but who have heretofore received inadequate scholarly attention. This reconstruction in turn enables the author to engage with core academic debates on print and media, negotiated power, and modernity in China.

While observing the importance of the introduction of mechanized print technology, Culp distinguishes his work from earlier scholarship (by Christopher Reed and others) by laying out how print industrialism affected the ways in which books were produced and the relationship editors had with their products. To generate a wide range of texts in great numbers and in short periods of time, the most influential publishers in twentieth century China maintained large standing editorial departments, something that made China’s publishing sector globally distinctive. These departments adopted an organizational structure that over time came to resemble the factory assembly line. Staff editors with hybrid classical Chinese and Western educations collaboratively generated new content that they then incorporated into different titles to quickly meet market demand. Culp notes that, on the one hand, this process led to the vast majority of these editors losing control over the dynamics of their labor in this factory-style book production; on the other hand, print industrialism gave these petty intellectuals a direct say in the materials that went into standard products such as textbooks and reference books. Because of these books’ authoritative status, staff editors were able to play a key role in introducing new terms, shaping the modern Chinese lexicon, modeling vernacular writing, and “reorganizing the national heritage” (整理國故).

Commercial publishing was an arena in which state governance, market forces, intellectual trends, and cultural life were formed and reformed. In spite of the authoritarian nature of the Nationalist, and later, Communist, states in China, leading commercial publishers managed to carve out an autonomous space for themselves, and they provided academics and writers with a valuable institutional resource for knowledge production relatively free from government intervention. Culp uses publication of textbooks and dictionaries, reprints of classics, and series publications as three examples of the vital part played by industrial publishers in China’s twentieth-century cultural transformation. He also notes that, while commercial publishers’ power to negotiate with the state was largely due to their economic independence, market-oriented mass production itself also imposed certain constraints on book writing and publication. These dynamics continued all the way into the 1960s. While profit was no longer a major concern for publishers under strict party and state supervision, the CCP’s goal during most of the first seventeen years of the PRC—to produce accessible books that met popular demand and serve national construction—was best achieved by incorporating, rather than abandoning, the established organizational structures and practices of commercial publishers. As a result, the socialist state allowed editors working at major publishers to continue to exercise influence over knowledge production right up until the eve of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

In telling the stories of intellectuals who worked at China’s major commercial publishers, The Power of Print in Modern China inspires its readers not only to reconsider such concepts as print and power, but also to think deeply about what modernity means in China’s long twentieth century. Culp’s meticulous research shows that the agents of modern cultural construction in China—the publishing hands who put modern terms and frameworks in place—were hybrid figures who had mixed classical and modern education, enjoyed literati leisure life, and recruited new talents largely through personal and professional networks instead of on an open job market. In the “modern” Republican era, elite work styles and modes of collaboration that were common in the late imperial period remained instrumental to the commercial success of publishers. After 1949, new “revolutionary” approaches were often displaced by these older, more efficient Republican systems of labor division and cooperation. Culp demonstrates that Chinese modernity, capitalist and socialist alike, was an assemblage of “traditional” and “progressive” elements, connecting the past to the present in a future-oriented aspirational enterprise. The hybrid backgrounds and practices of agents who engaged in industrial publishing shaped the cultural landscape of twentieth-century China, contributing to a process of transformation that could be at once both fast-paced and slow-moving, radical and conservative.

A couple of theoretical issues raised in this book might have benefited from further articulation. First, editors, especially staff editors in the leading commercial publishers in late Qing and twentieth-century China, are defined by Culp as “petty intellectuals”—namely, clerks, government employees, and primary and secondary school teachers—who shared similar educational backgrounds with the vast majority of general readers. But he also shows that the editing departments at major publishers employed as many as one hundred and fifty or so such editors; in other words, petty intellectual staff editors occupied a less prestigious position than managing editors or academic stars, but they had much better access to resources and influence than the rest of petty intellectuals. The privilege they enjoyed make staff editors wonderful objects of research, but readers might question how these influential figures were representative of petty intellectuals as a group.

Second, Culp’s conceptualization of the early PRC state as a “pedagogical state” rather than a “propaganda state” is refreshing. He convincingly demonstrates that editing departments at Commercial Press and Zhonghua managed to negotiate with party and state administrators throughout the 1950s and the 1960s. That said, the increasingly suffocating political and cultural environment over the course of the seventeen years, which eventually led to the shutdown of these publishers during the Cultural Revolution, seems egregiously at odds with Culp’s emphasis on the negotiated nature of cultural production. It should be said, however, that because of the paradoxical nature of state building, this conundrum confronts any historian of the 1950s and the 1960s PRC.

These minor concerns are food for thought and debate rather than shortcomings, and do not in any way undermine the incredible value of this narratively rich and analytically rigorous book. Robert Culp’s lucid prose and engaging rhetoric masterfully guide readers to ponder complex intellectual issues while narrating history through life stories, a precious virtue in the increasingly mechanized world of academic book publishing. The Power of Print in Modern China is a must-read for anyone interested in print, power, modernity, or their interplay in China, and for anyone who might want to stroll through twentieth-century Chinese intellectual history with a new set of companions and not the usual suspects.

Yue Du
Cornell University