AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 507

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Session 507: New Perspectives on the History of Reading in Late Imperial China

Organizer: Li Yu, Williams College, USA

Discussant: Joachim Kurtz, University of Heidelberg, Germany

As many recent studies shed new light on the history of the late imperial Chinese books and printing, there is an increasing need to address the question regarding the link between the book and its reader. While literary scholars and art historians are more concerned with the "ideal," "implied," "intended," "inscribed," "informed," or other hypothetical readers/viewers, historians of reading are keen on discovering the "real" readers and their actual reading practices. Who were these readers? What did they read? Why and how? When and where? This panel aims to answer some of these questions based on three case studies and provides new perspectives on the history of reading in late imperial China. Kuang-che Pan studies the readers surrounding a late Qing newspaper and examines the impact of newspaper reading on individual readers and the society. Carla Nappi examines a special group of readers: translators who studied and worked in "translation bureaus" who had to read and decipher documents written in a foreign linguistic code. Li Yu focuses on children as readers and investigates a new technique introduced in the late 17th century to teach young children to read, which turned out to have a profound impact on how native speakers and foreign learners are taught to read Chinese today. Joachim Kurtz, an expert of Chinese intellectual history, concludes the panel with thoughts on how the study of readers and reading practices can inform the study of epistemological processes of knowledge formation, transmission, translation, and migration across time and space.

Shiwu bao (China Progress) and Its Readers
Kuang-che Pan, Academia Sinica, Taiwan (R.O.C.)

This study focuses on the readers of the journal Shiwubao (China Progress). Founded in 1896, Shiwubao soon became one of the most influential periodicals during the 1898 Reform in the late Qing dynasty, and attracted a great number of subscribers and readers. Who were those readers? How did they get access to the journal? How and why did they support the journal financially and ideologically? Why did they read it? How did they respond to the materials presented in it? How did they help shaping the debates in and around the journal? How, if at all, did their acts of reading change their actions? Through a close examination of letters by, between, and among readers and editors, amongst other source materials, this study investigates the various ways in which the reform press exerted its influence on the reading public. I argue that although every reader might understand and interpret the information carried by and provided in the journal according to their own individual concerns or intellectual stands, the information presented by the journal did shape their personal knowledge of the outside world as well as of their own identities. As a result, readers' strategies and actions covered a wide spectrum of possible ways of responding to a mass medium. Taken as a whole, the readers' sentiments and responses toward Shiwu bao as a news medium reflected the confrontation and contradiction of ideas and values that were being formed in the public sphere.

Reading in the Margins: Learning Foreign Languages in Late Imperial China
Carla S. Nappi, University of British Columbia, Canada

From 1407 to 1748, the Translators’ College (Siyi guan) was charged with training scholars to translate between Chinese and several foreign scripts that were of commercial, cultural, or diplomatic interest to the court. Many pedagogical tools were available to help these translators who struggled to render Persian, Thai, Mongolian, Sanskrit, Tibetan, and other south and central Asian terms and documents into Chinese. While some translators came to the College with prior expertise in the foreign language they were to translate, many did not. In either case, all students at the College needed to learn to read and translate a very specific vocabulary and in a particular rhetorical style. What, however, did it mean to “read” foreign documents? In what did reading consist? Using extant pedagogical materials developed and used by the College, this paper will explore the ways in which scholars learned to read foreign languages in late imperial China, attempting to understand the experience of learning to read from the perspective of students and their teachers. By learning to recognize and reproduce foreign alphabets, composing and memorizing bilingual poems, learning to navigate and reproduce glossaries, and studying bilingual models of memorials, student-translators could hope to pass the triennial College exams that guaranteed them a higher salary and position. In situating their experiences and tools within a history of reading, this paper will contribute to a more general understanding of the ways in which bi- or tri-lingual readers moved among linguistic contexts and experienced multilingual texts in Chinese history.

A New Technology of Learning to Read: Wang Yun and his Method of Teaching Young Children
Li Yu, Williams College, USA

This paper traces the development of a particular practice of reading pedagogy in Qing China and investigates the role played by the famous philologist and educator Wang Yun (1784-1854) in this development. In the late 17th century, a new technology of teaching young children to read emerged in some southern regions: putting individual characters on blocks made of wood or paper and having young children aged three or four sui recognize them. This method advanced the beginning age for children to learn to read by two years. Behind this technique was a new understanding about how Chinese literacy should be reached: a stage of character learning (shizi or renzi) should be set apart from and ahead of real reading (dushu). Before the appearance of this method, character learning was merged in the process of reading: whole texts were first memorized through numerous aural/oral repetitions and then students recognized characters by matching their sounds with their shapes. In other words, no formal training or guidance was given about the shape of each individual character. The new theory and practice focusing on character recognition first proposed in works by early Qing teachers such as Tang Biao and Cui Xuegu did not gain wide popularity until Wang Yun refined and propagated the approach. Wang Yun's theory and practice was in turn adopted by a prominent philologist and educator of modern China, Zhang Zhigong (1918-1997), whose advocacy of this method influenced how native Chinese and foreign learners are taught to read today.