Chinese-European Lecture Series 2018/19

Chinese Manuscript Cultures in the Age of Print

This year’s lecture series organized by the European Centre for Chinese Studies (Beijing), jointly formed by the École Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO) and Germany’s Max Weber Stiftung (MWS), continues the cooperation with the Institute for the History of Natural Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

It is well-known that printing technology was invented in China centuries before its introduction in Europe in the 15th century. In recent decades research on the history of the book in China has become a vibrant field of its own. However, this research has tended to focus largely on the printed book, even though the persisting role of manuscripts in the period after the invention of printing technology is acknowledged. This is probably in part due to the still widely influential deterministic model of a progressive transition of media (orality–manuscript–print). The huge amount of extant manuscripts dating from the period after the invention of printing, however, tells us that this evolutionary model is inadequate. Manuscripts continued to be widely produced and used well into the 20th century.

The emergence of new media, as in the case of the printing technology or the currently emerging digital media, obviously does not entail the complete demise of older media. It seems to rather result in a change of how and in which areas older media continue to be used. Instead of a clear break we must acknowledge a long-lasting simultaneous existence of new and old media. In case of manuscript and print in China we are dealing with a time span of more than 1000 years. There is good reason to even assert that this period is not over yet since manuscripts are still being produced in China today.

Moreover, manuscript and imprint did not merely coexist side by side but also strongly influenced each other. This is evident, for instance, from the characteristics of the in China once dominant woodblock-printing, which shows a much closer relation to manuscript than does moveable-type printing. At a larger scale, we might ask what effects the introduction of printing technology had on the production of manuscripts in terms of format and layout?

While there is a longstanding tradition in studying manuscript cultures prior to the invention of print, for which there exist well established fields (i.e. Dunhuang studies and the study of bamboo, wood and silk manuscripts from early China), the study of manuscript cultures in the age of print is still at an infant stage.

Initial studies have identified aesthetic, economic and religious factors for the persistence of the manuscript in the age of print. However, we are still far from having a complete picture of the lasting Chinese post-print manuscript cultures. What were the specific areas in which manuscripts persisted and was it always for the same reasons? How did the evolving print culture interact with existing manuscript cultures? What can be said about the interdependence of the two? What changes may be observed in the relation between imprint and manuscript during their long coexistence?

The lecture series will bring together contributions dealing with various manuscript cultures (religious, artistic, scholarly, medical, literary, commercial etc.) from different periods of the printing age. Thus, fostering the study of manuscript cultures in the age of print and helping us realize the lasting importance of an ostensibly outdated media. At last, learning about the manuscript’s fate in the age of print may also lend us some hints for understanding the current emergence of digital media and major challenges this poses for traditional print culture.









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