Publishing and Popular Literature in Imperial China
- Cynthia BrokawCynthia BrokawBrown University
Although popular literature circulated in manuscript from very early in Chinese history, the invention of woodblock printing or xylography in the 7th century greatly facilitated the dissemination of popular texts. The lively urban culture of the 11th through the 14th centuries stimulated the production of performance literature, prose or prosimetric narratives in simple classical and vernacular Chinese. Commercial publishers in the cities and Jianyang, Fujian, took advantage of the growing demand for texts among readers of modest literacy and produced ballads and “plain tales” for this audience.
The publishing boom of the 16th century greatly accelerated this trend, as publishers in the cities of the lower Yangzi delta (Jiangnan), and most particularly Jianyang (in northern Fujian), began crafting texts explicitly designed to meet the needs of non-elite readers: literacy primers, vernacular explanations of the Classics, historical fictions and adventure tales, and popular encyclopedias for daily use, all in a language accessible to readers of limited education.
At the same time literati authors mined the popular literature of earlier centuries for stories that they transformed into literary masterpieces—although in the process they often reversed the subversive messages and smoothed out the vigorous “vulgar” language of the originals. But their greatest achievements, dramas like The Lute Song and the novels Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and Journey to the West, remain among the most universally admired works of Chinese fiction. These latter texts presage, too, the development of the vernacular novel as one of the literary glories of the late imperial period.
By the 18th century, the population increase and growing demand for texts—and the spread of woodblock printing to the interior and hinterland—ensured the dissemination of a common core of universally popular fictional works throughout China Proper. It was not, however, until the early 20th century and the widespread adoption of mechanized printing, that a true mass readership developed. By that time, the introduction of new genres of literature—the modern short story and novel—had transformed the nature of popular literature.