In 2021, Cynthia Brokaw delivered three talks as part of the Panizzi Lectures at the British Library in London, England. Her first talk titled, "Spreading Culture Throughout the Land: Woodblock Publishing and Chinese Book Culture in the Early Modern Era" explored why woodblock printing or xylography, remained, throughout China’s pre-modern history, the major print technology.
Centuries before Gutenberg, the Chinese invented a form of movable-type printing. Yet movable type did not become the most important mode of textual reproduction in China until the twentieth century; China’s flourishing pre-modern book culture, originating in the seventh century, was founded on woodblock printing or xylography. “’Spreading Culture throughout the Land” explores the nature of woodblock printing and the reasons for and consequences of its twelve-century technological dominance. Early in the history of Chinese printing Buddhist and Daoist institutions, imperial governments, and private literati-scholars used xylography to affirm and disseminate religious teachings and the values of official service and elite culture.
In the late sixteenth century, the dawn of early modern China, the growth of commerce and a rapid increase in the population of city dwellers spurred a publishing boom, centered in the great cities of the southeast, which far overshadowed—at least in terms of print quantity—the achievements of the first age of print. Commercial publishers, the prime movers of the boom, competed to satisfy the aesthetic demands of pleasure-seeking elite readers by publishing exquisitely illustrated (and occasionally color-printed) novels, dramas, painting catalogues, and erotic albums. At the same time, they eagerly sought out—and helped to create—a broader reading public by churning out a range of inexpensive popular texts (textbooks, household encyclopedias, vernacular explanations of the Classics, cheaply illustrated fiction, morality books, etc.) designed to meet the needs, tastes, and pocket-books of humbler readers. By the end of the eighteenth century, a fairly unified popular book culture had taken root and would serve as a powerful force for the cultural integration of China Proper.