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Printing Culture and the Chinese Society Research Paper


Johannes Gutenberg is often regarded as the inventor of modern printing technology. However, a closer look reveals that many centuries before Gutenberg printing was created, the Chinese had been engaged in printing technology. They would use woodblocks to cast important information that could then be stored for future reference. The printing culture underwent several centuries of transformation to become what people observe today. The print culture in China dates back to 5,000 years ago. It was a key aspect of Chinese civilization. Block printing was first used in China during the Tang Dynasty. Block printing involved writing a text on a piece of paper then sticking the paper on a woodblock. An imprint would then be formed on the woodblock. As time progressed, the Chinese print technology advanced. The movable type printing was invented during the Song dynasty to replace woodblock publishing. According to Reed, the latter print technology had various advantages over woodblock printing, including the ability to be reused.1

The print culture can be understood to refer to a set of intellectual and sociological processes that have an impact on people who produce and consume printed information. The print culture had far-reaching impacts on Chinese civilization. People could now store information for future reference. Printing also promoted learning and consequently literacy. Economically, print technology enabled the Chinese to make and use paper money as the medium for business transactions hence boosting commerce. This paper will discuss the impacts stated above among others to show how printing culture has transformed Chinese society and literature over the centuries. Areas of discussion will be literacy, the economy, and religion.

Printing Culture and Literacy

For learning to be effective, there must be efficient media for passing information from the coach to the instructed party. Printing in China made it easy for information to be passed from one person to another, a situation that facilitated learning. According to Brokaw, the printing culture boosted intellectualism and literacy in China because more people could access information that was now being stored as print.2 This new class of learned individuals came to be known as Shidafu. Reading materials such as the Shuowenjiezi dictionaries became available, thus encouraging more Chinese people to take up a culture of reading. There was also a growing pressure for scholars to read many texts, which in turn meant that more written materials needed to be printed.3 Written texts also came to be more valued compared to oral “hearsay.” This situation encouraged more people to learn how to read.

Book culture promoted the spread of intellectualism in China. At first, texts had been used to store information for government use only. Hence, only the aristocratic class could access the texts. However, according to Ma, Confucius introduced the idea of using books as a medium of exchanging knowledge.4 The 3rd century BC was characteristic of the Chinese people outside the aristocratic class using books to acquire “broad learning”.5 During the same century, thinkers such as Xunzi established schools where they could teach young learners. These schools relied on the transmission of texts. As a result, the demand for written texts increased even further. The era around the 3rd century came to be known as the “golden age of scholarship” when texts were being widely circulated to feed the growing desire to learn. Despite efforts by the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE) to limit the access of these texts to the government and aristocratic circles, the spread of intellectualism proceeded undeterred.

The inability of the government to regulate the spread of texts facilitated learning across China. Scholars who had been trained at the Taixue (Imperial University) returned to their home provinces to establish their learning centers. According to Berg, during the Eastern Han that the government totally lost its control over the texts to the extent that the most renowned scholars such as Zheng Xuan were not affiliated with the government.6 By the 2nd century B.C, the paper had effectively replaced bamboo strips as the medium for casting texts. This change from bamboo strips to paper was necessitated by the growing demand for texts. Hence, it was imperative to improvise a medium that facilitated the rapid printing of these texts.

Another important aspect of the Chinese print culture is Keju, which refers to an examination system that began during the Tang dynasty. Through Keju, Zhang asserts that people were ranked based on their performance in the examination.7 Evidence shows that keju and the printing culture were directly linked.8 The examination was invented to increase the efficiency of learning. The examination system encouraged many people to learn for them to gain individual success. People from humble backgrounds saw the passing of examination as a way of achieving success. Once successful, the lives of the respective individuals or families would be changed for the better. For instance, they could obtain high-profile government positions, which were preserved for educated people.

Education helped to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor in China. The printing technology made it possible to print numerous, yet inexpensive books. many people could access the books, despite their financial socioeconomic status. Previously, scripture texts had only been available as government documents. Their use was limited to the aristocrats. However, with the printing technology, education was no longer a preserve of the rich elite who were affiliated with the government. As a result, Chinese civilization spread widely across all provinces. This situation led to the empowerment of people through the elimination of ignorance. People could now make informed decisions and/or participate in processes that had an impact on their lives. In addition, Stalder reveals how learning caused people to strive to obtain personal privacy, which is typical of modern society.9 As people became more educated, they began to think independently. As a result, they began to value their privacy and/or take responsibility for the choices they made.

Printing Culture and Religion

China has a long history of religious practices spanning many centuries. Buddhism is the most popular religion in the country, having been introduced towards the 2nd century AD. Other main religions in China are Confucianism and Taoism. Christianity and Islam are also practiced in the country, although they are not widespread. While the term religion is commonly used to refer to the Chinese religions (Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism), some scholars believe it does not accurately capture the nature of Chinese religions. Rather, they propose “cultural practices” as the appropriate terminology for describing Chinese religious practices. Buddhism emerged the single most widespread religion in China due to the use of texts to promote the belief. Today, approximately 30 percent of Chinese practice Buddhism.

Printing in China began as a way of preserving religious scriptures. As Huang reveals, the earliest texts were dharanis and Sutras.10 These religious manuscripts are still extant. They offer an important insight into historians’ work regarding the origin of the printing culture. Beginning in the 13th century B.C, the Chinese used bones and shells to create religious inscriptions. These inscriptions helped to spread Buddhism across China. By the 2nd century AD, it was the mainstream religion in the country. During the second century, the first translation of Buddhism became available. By the following century, the volume of these translations had increased tremendously. As more people embraced Buddhism, they began to learn these religious texts. For this reason, Buddhism is credited as the biggest influence on the spread of the printing culture. Some historians such as Stalder believe that Buddhist teachings were better delivered in print as opposed to being conveyed orally.11 This approach helped to spread the culture of reading and writing among the converted individuals.

Fast forward to the late 19th century and early 20th century, religious culture in China experienced a series of developments. As a result, new ideas, texts, practices, and institutions emerged. According to Scott, the Chinese Buddhists refer to this era as the period of religious ‘revival’ with Yang Wenhui being identified as the progenitor.12 This period was marked by a revamped production of Buddhist publications. The materials were based on Buddhist works published centuries earlier and hence the term religious revival. The renewed circulation of Buddhist materials in China led to the conversion of many people. Wehnui’s case is only one of the many stories of “conversion by the manuscript” that dominated this period.13 Many young scholars were now dedicated to studying the translated Buddhist texts to gain a deeper understanding of religion. This move had the overall impact of promoting literacy among the Buddhists and the Chinese citizens.

More than 5000 religious materials were printed between 1866 and 1949 to mark one of the most religious eras in Chinese history. According to Wang, this era witnessed a great expansion of the social processes of print.14 Particularly, Wenhui’s students created their religious texts and established publishing houses to spread Buddhism. Other Buddhist associations, including the Zhonghua Fojiaozonghui, focused on publishing materials to spread the religion across the country. Other small-scale publishers were dedicated to promoting Buddhism through scriptures. These publications captured all aspects of Buddhist culture. As such, they served as a religious manual for the converted, thus highlighting their central importance to the religion. Importantly, as Wood reveals, these publications linked Buddhism to intellectualism.15 Therefore, many people would seek Buddhism as a source of knowledge. With the successful integration of scripture into Buddhism, new religious practices emerged, for instance, the fahui (dharma assemblies) and songjing (scripture recitation). Fahui and songjing relied on printed scripture to reach many of the followers.

The role of book culture in spreading Buddhism has influenced the major religions of the world. The use of scripture texts to preserve religious texts originated from Buddhism.16 Major religions such as Christianity and Islam now use scriptures (the Bible and Koran respectively) to pass and preserve their teachings. Confucianism and Taoism have also relied on texts to promote their teachings among their followers. Particularly, Confucianism has gained followers all over the world through the spread of its teachings by way of text. Therefore, the print culture has promoted the spread of religions all over the world.

Printing Culture and the Economy

Printing affected the Chinese economy in various ways. One of the most important results of the print technology was the invention of paper-based money. China was the first country in history to use paper-based money. Paper money in China was created during the Song dynasty when the moveable ‘type printing’ was invented. Before long, paper money became the medium for commercial transactions in the country. This situation led to the standardization of currency to promote trade. According to Angeles, paper money was easy to transport from place to place because of its small size and negligible weight.17 The move was a major development from the previously used barter exchange. Barter exchange was tedious. It could only be effective if parties had a double coincidence of wants. Conversely, paper money offered a relatively stable and predictable medium of business transactions. While coins had also been stable and reliable, they were heavy to carry, especially where long distances were involved and/or major transactions had to be made.

For three centuries (920-1279) after paper money was invented, China experienced high growth in per capita income because transacting had become easier, hence boosting trade. Paper money also influenced economic growth by facilitating a uniform tax system and definite trade routes.18 Additional imprints and pictures were also added to the paper money as a precaution against counterfeiting. The use of paper documents was also adopted in making other official documents such as tea and salt certificates. The growth of the Chinese economy encouraged the country to trade with the outside world. By the end of the Song dynasty, the Chinese were trading as far as East Africa. Because the Chinese had a standardized currency, it was easy to trade with other regions. With time, Berg asserts that China emerged as the global leader in trade during the Song dynasty.19 Historians refer to China as the “early modern” economy due to its dominance of the world economy long before western civilization.

By the 16th century, the printing business was a major economic activity in China. The government had failed in controlling the printing business, thus leaving the space for private individuals to venture into the businesses. These printing entrepreneurs would sell their publications for money to earn considerable income. The movable type of technology meant that many documents could be printed simultaneously, leading to economies of scale. Private printing firms also served as a source of employment for the Chinese. Such printing improved the standards of living. Overall, the economy benefited from book consumption by the Chinese people. Until recently, the commercial aspect of the Chinese printing culture had been unknown. However, scholars such as Reed are discovering evidence that shows a robust commercial publishing sector spanning late imperial China.20

The commercialization of the society and the rapid urbanization created a favorable climate for commercial publishing. The urban population and the expanding merchant class led to a great demand for texts. Additionally, according to Brokaw, the works of Wang Yangming (1472-1529), a Confucian, encouraged a reading culture.21 To sustain this reading culture, more books had to be printed and sold to the ever-expanding market. Book consumption was a source of prestige. Families would acquire books based on their financial capabilities. This had the effect of boosting book consumption hence the trade-in printed materials. Commercial publishing formed an important part of the Chinese economy. For instance, schools emerged that charged learners fees to be taught. At the same time, these learning institutions provided employment to educated instructors.


The print culture emerged in China long before the Gutenberg era. At the onset, the print culture was being used to preserve religious scriptures. The earliest manuscripts that are extant today were Buddhist scriptures. Before long, print technology became adapted in other fields such as government publications and commercial publishing. Chinese print technology evolved from the woodblock printing to the moveable type printing. Such printing had more advantages compared to woodblock printing, including the ability to be reproduced. Reproducibility enabled commercial publishers to make many copies of texts, which they then sold them for profit.

This development coincided with a growing demand for texts among the Chinese. A class of intellectuals emerged because of the accessibility of educational materials in the form of text. The print culture resulted in various economic benefits, including the ability to produce paper money. Paper money promoted trade by offering a standardized currency, which was also portable. As a result, China emerged a heavyweight state in terms of global commerce. The print culture also facilitated the spread of Buddhist doctrine. As a result, Buddhism became the most widely practiced religion in China. The practice of spreading religion through text also became prominent. Today, major religions such as Christianity and Islam spread their teachings through text scriptures.


Angeles, Luis. The Economics of Printing in Early Modern China and Europe. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2014.

Berg, DPhil. Consuming Secrets: China’s New Print Culture at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century. Leiden: Brill, 2010.

Brokaw, Cynthia. “Book History in Premodern China: The State of the Discipline I.” Book History 10, no. 1 (2007): 253-290.

Brokaw, Cynthia. “Publishing, Society and Culture in Pre-modern China: The Evolution of Print Culture.” International Journal of Asian Studies 2, no. 1 (2005): 135-165.

Huang, Susan. Early Buddhist Illustrated Prints in Hangzhou. Leiden: Brill, 2011.

Ma, Tianyu.”The Politics of Defining the Legacy of Confucius.”Asian Culture and History 8, no. 2 (2016): 52-56.

Reed, Christopher. Gutenberg in Shanghai: Chinese print capitalism, 1876-1937. Toronto: UBC Press, 2011.

Scott, Gregory. Conversion by the Book: Buddhist Print Culture in Early Republican China. New York: Columbia University, 2013.

Stalder, Felix. “Privacy is not the Antidote to Surveillance.” Surveillance & Society 1, no. 1 (2009): 120-124.

Wang, Edward. “Buddhism in Modern China: Editor’s Introduction.” Chinese Studies in History 46, no. 3 (2013): 3-6.

Wood, Frances. The History and Cultural Heritage of Chinese Calligraphy, Printing and Library Work. London: IFLA Publications, 2010.

Zhang, Pingzhong. “A Test of Climate, Sun, and Culture Relationships from an 1810-year Chinese Cave Record.” Science 322, no. 5903 (2008): 940-942.


  1. Christopher Reed, Gutenberg in Shanghai: Chinese print capitalism, 1876-1937 (Toronto: UBC Press, 2011), 36.
  2. Cynthia Brokaw, “Publishing, Society, and Culture in Pre-modern China: The Evolution of Print Culture.” International Journal of Asian Studies 2, no. 1 (2005): 142.
  3. Brokaw, “Publishing, Society, and Culture in Pre-modern China,” 149.
  4. Tianyu Ma, “The Politics of Defining the Legacy of Confucius,” Asian Culture and History 8, no. 2 (2016): 54.
  5. Brokaw, “Publishing, Society, and Culture in Pre-modern China,” 144.
  6. DPhil Berg, Consuming Secrets: China’s New Print Culture at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 317.
  7. Pingzhong Zhang, “A Test of Climate, Sun, and Culture Relationships from an 1810-year Chinese Cave Record,” Science 322, no. 5903 (2008): 945.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Felix Stalder, “Privacy is not the Antidote to Surveillance,” Surveillance & Society 1, no. 1 (2009): 122.
  10. Susan Huang, Early Buddhist Illustrated Prints in Hangzhou (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 138.
  11. Stalder, 123.
  12. Gregory Scott, Conversion by the Book: Buddhist Print Culture in Early Republican China (New York: Columbia University, 2013), 1.
  13. Ibid, 18.
  14. Edward Wang, “Buddhism in Modern China: Editor’s Introduction,” Chinese Studies In History 46, no. 3 (2013): 4.
  15. Frances Wood, The History and Cultural Heritage of Chinese Calligraphy, Printing and Library Work (London: IFLA Publications, 2010), 68.
  16. Ibid, 69.
  17. Luis Angeles, The Economics of Printing in Early Modern China and Europe (Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2014), 22.
  18. Ibid, 21.
  19. Berg, 317.
  20. Reed, 25.
  21. Cynthia Brokaw, “Book History in Premodern China: The State of the Discipline I,” Book History 10, no. 1 (2007): 282.
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