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Block-printing workshops shaped classical Chinese novel production

MIAO HUAIMING | 2017-10-26 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A restoration of a Song Dynasty block-printing workshop


Novels are not only literary works but also commodities with cultural and entertainment value. However, previous research often focused on the literary traits of classical Chinese novels by stressing the author’s perspective and the tastes of readers, while neglecting their commercial value and the role of block-printing workshops. As a result, our understanding of classical novels has tended to be biased and our studies constrained. 

The phrase “block-printing workshops” here refers to book publishers operated by individuals that printed and sold books in previous eras in China. The evolution of Chinese fiction, particularly popular fiction, at the time was closely associated with the publishing industry. Though official printing houses and some family printing units also published works of fiction, on the whole, private commercial workshops held the most sway over the prosperity of classical novels.


Promoters of ancient novels
In the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1206-1368) dynasties, there was a boom in popular fiction, especially the storyteller scripts, and it was also a period of great development for private workshops. In the beginning, the manuscripts were used by folk performers, but performances were limited by the constraints of artists, time, venue, audience and other objective conditions, thus driving the demand for reading. The book vendors spotted the value of this emerging type of folk literature and seized the opportunity to bring it to the market. Thus, storyteller script, a new type of literature, was transferred from the stage to the desk.

Thanks to the private workshops, these scripts were widely disseminated at the time and remain well preserved after all these years. Though it is hard to estimate the scale and genre of storyteller scripts, the surviving documents, such as Red and White Spider, Monk Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage and Tales of the Three Kingdom, shed some light on the quantity of this type of literature. 

Among them, the story of Tang Dynasty monk Xuanzang’s journey to India in search of Buddhist scriptures, was believed to be the prototype for the famous Ming Dynasty masterpiece Journey to the West.

Most of these workshops were located in southern Chinese cities, such as Hangzhou and Jian’an. Prior to the Ming-Qing era, official, family and private block-printing had developed extensively, forming several regional centers in Jianyang, Nanjing, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Beijing. There were also a number of private workshops that specialized in publishing novels and operas, such as Wanjuanlou Building in Putian City, Shuangfengtang Building in Jian’an and Shidetang Building in Nanjing.

In the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1616-1911) dynasties, private workshops became deeply involved in novel production. The thriving publishing industry promoted cultural development and expanded the public’s access to literature. In turn, the prosperity of popular fiction also boosted the growth of private workshops. Such a cultural context laid the basis for a boom in popular fiction.


Participation in fiction creation
There is no doubt that private workshops directly drove the development of popular fiction in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Their presence and competition made possible the mass proliferation of novels. Without them, the ability to read fiction would have been the privilege of an elite. Novels soon became a literary product sold into hundreds of households.

At the beginning, due to the shortage of vernacular fiction, some workshop owners started to write and compile novels themselves and thus became professional novelists. For example, Xiong Damu (c. 1506-78) was a Ming dynasty bookstore owner who compiled a number of popular historical saga novels, such as The Northern Song Dynasties Yang Family Heroes. Some scholars called it the “Xiong Damu Phenomenon.”

Indeed, these block-printing workshop owners played a significant role in developing popular novels. Their contribution cannot be understated. They were crucial to the history of Chinese fiction.

In most cases though, the role of block-printing workshops in publishing was limited to printing purchased manuscripts. For example, late-Ming scholar Feng Menglong’s (1574-1646) sanyan, three collections of vernacular short stories,  were written and compiled at the behest of book vendors.

This group of businessmen understood the market and the needs of readers, so they often influenced the writers through business operations, and then affected the evolution of novels and the contents as well. To be more specific, these vendors would invite novelists to write on particular topics and grab market share. Or when certain topics became popular, they would rush publication to produce multiple bestsellers like in today’s publishing industry.

During Emperor Wanli’s reign in the Ming Dynasty, legal novels became quite popular. Hundreds of Legal Cases, published in 1594 or earlier, was believed to be the first short story collection on legal matters in the Ming era. After its release, a number of publications on similar topics became available on the market, such as Yu Xiangdou’s (c. 1560-1637) Upright Judge and Legal Cases Collection.

In this light, private block-printing workshops started to launch a series of legal novels, starting a popular trend.

Similarly, in the late-Ming and early-Qing era, stories about romance between cunning men and beautiful women became the trend. Dream of the Red Chamber and its sequels were widely popular, while in the mid- and late-Qing Dynasty, depictions of swordsmen and chivalrous acts were the norm. All these trends could not have taken shape without the efforts of block-printing workshops.


Negative implications
Though the book vendors’ pursuit of profit promoted the development of Chinese fiction, often shaping the direction of genres, we must bear in mind that excess commercialism also had its downsides, such as rampant piracy, random misappropriation of celebrity names, arbitrary deletion of or changes to content to save costs, shoddy printing quality, a large number of repetitive works and pornography.

These adverse implications, to a considerable extent, affected and restricted the benign development of novels, especially popular novels, while it also made later research problematic and confusing.

For example, to cut costs, some book vendors arbitrarily abridged content. Well-known Chinese classics The Water Margin and Journey to the West were not spared such treatment, which not only affects the readers, but also created great obstacles for later scholars.

Creation and transmission of novels from the Ming and Qing dynasties were basically carried out in adherence to the mode of business operation, showing a disorderly natural state. Therefore, to comprehensively understand the characteristics of classical novels, especially popular novels, the publishing industry represented by private block-printing workshops offers an indispensable perspective.

In the past, academics have not had much interest in the relationship between the publishing industry and classcial novels. In recent years, this relationship has received more and more attention, prompting numerous publications, such as Cheng Guofu’s Workshops in the Ming Dynasty and Fiction Studies, Wen Gehong’s Studies on Popular Novels in the Early Qing Dynasty, and Han Chunping’s Nanjing Popular Fiction Creation and Publication Studies in the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

In addition, there are also many academic papers on the topic. However, there is still room for exploration and refinement in this area, and much remains to be done. It should surely become a scholarly hot spot in the next few years or so in the study of the history of Chinese fiction.


Miao Huaiming is a professor from the School of Liberal Arts at Nanjing University.