I bought this book with the gift voucher for waterstones that they gave me from school. It seemed like a good thing to spend library school money on. I'm thinking that at some point I'd like to write a big essay (or book) on the history of reading and libraries in China, and this book covered all the most recent scholarship on the subject. Rather than cover the whole of China this book focused in on the lower Yanzi delta.
Overall I did find the writing style to be a little dry. It also focused a lot more on the elite, and the "classic" texts rather than the novels and plays and lewd stories so popular in the Ming and Qing which was a little disappointing. Still on the whole I was Very impressed and felt that I learned an awful lot by reading this book, which considering I felt I had a decent understanding of the subject already is quite impressive.
One of the things that struck me most was how printing didn't dislodge manuscript copies of books, that 100s of years after it invention people were still using, and making manuscript copies of books. McDermott mentioned how if you were wanting to produce less than a 1000 copies of a book it was still cheaper to do so by hand rather than printing. A lot of scholars also hand copied, books from their friends as it was thought that this was a great way to learn and understand a text, as well as to make sure it didn't contain any errors. Book exchanges between collectors were often very formal affairs with written contracts drawn up. There was much fear within the literati of loaning books out for fear that they would never return.
There were many different places people could buy books, the book peddler, the lending library, books stalls and book stores. Book peddlers in the 13th century carried books for female readers (presumably Buddhist texts) which I thought was very interesting (95).
The book also discusses the history of libraries, some of the peddlers would loan books instead of sell them. "The first written reference to a lending library tells of a stall, in the Suzhou county seat of Changshu in 1370 which lent old and new books to customers of all ages for a small fee" (96). McDermott goes on to discuss the development of libraries in the 18th century both men and women both used them, and that the rules of the libraries (such as not loaning the borrowed books to other people) were frequently ignored. By the mid 19th century missionaries were reporting back that lending libraries in Canton were consisting mainly of novels of "a bad character" (97).
The book talks a lot about bibliophiles, and has some fantastic comments about the love of books. I think this love of books and literature, and the emphasis on the written word is one of the most appealing things about Chinese culture to me.
One of my favorite quotes was from Ding Xiongfei in the 1620s who said,
"Once I arrived in Tiger Grove [Mt in Hangzhou] and Tiger Hill [in Suzhou] I saw the bookstores crowded in rows and the books piled high like mountains. My insides shock, I gave a great shout and was about to go mad. I spent everything I had saved up in exchange for books."
His wife also took after me, apparently bringing books as part of her dowry and selling off clothes and jewelry so they could buy more books (160).
It was interesting to think that for so many of these scholars books were hard to obtain. Nowadays I almost take it for granted that there are many versions of the Chinese classics available for free consultation online.
A fascinating book that I'm sure I'll be using as a reference for years to come....Continua