The Nature of the Book Trade between China and France


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In the past, it was apparent that the Chinese governments approach to matters culture and art did not significantly differ from its stance on a variety of other factors that involved various internal affairs of the nation. However, while it may have exercised some control on the distribution aspect of culture and art, it has largely remained ineffective as far as control on the consumption front was concerned. In general terms literature has always been an important item of culture and art. In recent times, more and more current authors are exploring modern literature. Towards this end, geographical boundaries no longer act like a limiting factor. As a matter of fact, this is increasingly becoming a competitive frontier amongst contemporary authors. Chinese authors, who have been missing in action in this particular case, are catching up. In addition to highlighting the nature and conduct of book trade between China and France, this text will assess the system of publishing in Sibao. In so doing, it will highlight both the physical manufacture of books at Sibao, as well as the structure of the Sibao publishing industry.


I. What Types of Books are Traded Between China and France?


i. What Books are Published in France from China?


It is important to note that in essence, Chinas desire to see its literature presented to a global audience of readers is further enhanced via the publication of literary pieces in France, from China. France provides a welcoming platform in this endeavor. The fact that significant progress has been made in seeking to showcase Chinese literature at the global scene could be gleaned from, amongst other indicators, the winning of a Nobel Prize for literature by Mo Yan. Further, it is also important to note that writers of global repute have paid tribute to Chinese writers in the past. In basic terms, contemporary Chinese literature has seen more active translation within the last two decades. The said translations have gone hand in hand with the acceptance of the Chinese literary pieces in France. These advances are not merely a consequence of greater focus on readers in France. Instead, it is born of the convergence of Chinese and French interests in which both countries seek to engage in mutually beneficial cultural exchanges. It is important to note that thanks to editorial policy changes, most particularly the follow-up policy, it has become possible to shorten the translation period.


Some of the literary pieces published in France are largely controversial, with some largely dwelling on Chinas past policies, family life, and the communist way of life. A good example on this front would be Frog by Mo Yan. In essence, this is a book that attempts to highlight the workings of Chinas one-child policy. In so doing, it assesses the controversies of this particular policy and enforcement concerns at both the state and familial level. Published in China in 2009, the same book made an appearance in France two years later. In a sense, it brings to the fore the desperation of most of the families and the forced abortions that results from a policy of this nature.


Another set of texts published in France from China seek to define Chinese history from a modernist viewpoint. In so doing, the evolution of the country is clearly brought out, while at the same time alluding to a society that is constantly undergoing some form of metamorphosis. The China of today differs very significantly from the China of yesteryears. While the country was more focused on the enforcement of policies that were largely coercive and against the wishes of the general public, i.e. the demographic policy, the China of today is presented in a more tolerating and accepting light. It is, however, important to note that there are some like Mo Yan who have in some instances criticized the modern China in which the Chinese authorities in general are presented as a contradictory formation that does not have much regard for basic human rights. This is more so the case with regard to the states constant censorship of viewpoints deemed to be critical of its operations.


Next, there are also literary pieces that address contemporary Chinese issues and societal concerns. This is more so the case with such books as Mo Yans collection of short stories, titled The Beauty Riding a Donkey on Changan Avenue. Some of the short stories contained therein focus on the complexities of life and the weaknesses of human nature. This is particularly the case with The Woman with Flowers and The Fight in the Popular Forest where, without going into much detail, the frailties of men and the timid nature of the adult world are highlighted. Through fictionisation, most of the books published in France from China, such as Mo Yans pieces, effectively uncover various social deficiencies and moral decay. It is, however, important to note that although the imagery used appears to be extreme on some fronts, i.e. with regard to cruelty and violence, it manages to present the authors viewpoints and stimulate the readers imagination.


ii. What Books are Published in China From France?


With the opening up of China in the 1840s, there was marked development of western studies in China. The said development assumed three formats, i.e. instrumental or technical approach, political or institutional approach, and cultural or intellectual approach. It is important to note that after the first two approaches, China effectively transitioned from the ancient imperial regime. It is the third approach that ushered in a period of global enlightenment, with the focus being on familiarization with the way of life in the West. For this to happen, Western literary pieces had to be translated into Chinese. With the West being widely regarded as a beacon of science and democracy, most translations at this time largely focused on scientific articles and works. Most specifically, a variety of books translations of Western literature were for natural science genres. As a matter of fact, between 1912 and 1949, a total of 1,121 literary pieces that largely had a natural sciences bias were made available in the Chinese language and format (figure 1). This period is largely seen as having experienced a boom in Chinese language translations for scientific texts.


Figure 1: Chinese language translations between 1912 and 1949


It is, however, important to note that apart from translation, dissemination of the literary pieces also became widespread during this period. The greater number of scientific publications in a language the local population could understand and relate to meant that readership would expand. It is also this period that saw a marked increase in the diversity of topics covered in the translations, and the more active participation of specialists. However, the increased translation undertakings and the further enhanced readership did not have meaningful impact on the staying power of the said scientific journals. In most cases, scientific journals did not last more than a decade. It was during the 1930s that scientific journal translations and coverage peaked with a total of 33 titles being in circulation as of 1936 (figure 2).


Figure 2: Scientific journals broadcast between 1912 and 1948


The significant number of titles in circulation is an indicator of the extensive, as opposed to intensive, nature of focus that was being adopted at the time. Although many regions were able to interact with the Western scientific culture via the said publications, not all regions were welcoming of the said literature. The most embracive regions, which also turned out to be the most active as far as readership of western scientific literature is concerned include, but they are not limited to, Nanjing, Peking, and Shanghe cities.


It is important to note that most of the translations into Chinese were undertaken in diverse ways. While during the initial stages of translation the actual translation was conducted by two persons working in collaboration, i.e. a Chinese and a Westerner, during the MinGuo years, scientific translations were largely the work of Chinese scientists cultured in the Western way of life and scientific thinking.


At the time, scientists coming back to their home countries could only find work in three fields i.e. politics, teaching, or translation. There were no research fellow jobs available and hence this enlightened cast could only exercise their intellectual capabilities in very few settings or setups. Some of the more popular ones in this case include, but they are not limited to, Yang Zhongjian (a paleontologist), Zhou Changshou (a physicist), Wang Jin (a chemist), amongst others.


As I have pointed out above, the sheer number of titles in circulation is an indicator of the extensive, as opposed to intensive, nature of focus that was being adopted at the time. It is also an indicator of the diversity of coverage, as far as various subjects are concerned. However, it should be noted that even then, some specific specializations appeared to be more superior to others. A review of the translations at the time indicates that in comparison to other subjects, mathematics and biology appeared to be regarded highly (figure 3). This is also true in relation to geo-science.


Figure 3: Mathematics and biology primacy


Earlier on, Western researchers had compiled pieces that defined and assessed the strata, fauna, as well as flora of China. Thus translations in geography and geology were merely a re-introduction of information that was readily available in this specific setting. Most of the translations during the Min-Guo period were mainly focused on recent advances in science and largely concerned themselves with advanced scientific concepts, as opposed to primary or secondary level science. This could be explained simply by the fact that most of those undertaking translation work were intellectuals who had elected to pursue higher education in the West and were accustomed to higher level thinking, and were also well versed on advanced scientific concepts.

There is another category of translation that ought to be mentioned, i.e. books concerning themselves with fundamental questions. In essence, these were not really focused or delimited to a single issue of immediate concern. Instead, they were more of curiosity triggers, with some focused on such diverse subjects such as the nature of the universe, the deeper workings of the planet, evolution, etc. Good examples of such texts include, but they are not limited to, the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, and the Story of Evolution by Joseph Martin. Of the 1,121 literary pieces having a natural sciences bias and made available in the Chinese language and format between 1912 and 1949, a total of 330 were books that could be grouped in this particular category.


A number of conclusions could be drawn from the kinds of books traded between China and France. To begin with, the relevance of the cultural and literary exchanges between France and China cannot be overstated as far as the literary progress of both countries are concerned, particularly China. In todays modern society, the ideal of cosmopolitanism is undeniable and, as a matter of fact, desirable. This is more so the case given that the world in which we live in today has more or less become a global village. The promotion of literature without regard for boundaries is one way to promote and advance the cosmopolitanism ideal. With the transition into a modern republic, China was effectively set on a path of exploration and fact finding. Essentially, this could be seen as the foundation on which the merger between world literature (specifically French literature) and Chinese literature was set in motion. One of the early texts that foresaw this development was A View on the Unification of Literature by Zhenduo Zheng. This was back in the early 1920s.


In the final analysis, therefore, Chinese literary pieces published in France adopt a more radical approach in their presentation. In so doing, they display the ingenuity of Chinese writers in seeking to present various issues in a creative and imaginative format. This further advances the agenda of Chinese writers in seeking to showcase their literary abilities on a global platform. Towards this end, there is need to reconcile journalistic and academic perceptions so as to achieve some format of singularity in the discourse involving Chinese literature. This is particularly important given that while journalistic perception is largely hinged on appropriation, academic viewpoints, which are traditionally conservative, adopt an individualizing posture. As it has been pointed out above, there have been intensified efforts to translate contemporary Chinese literature within the last 20 years. The relevance of translators in seeking to promote and advance the dialogue cannot be overstated. This is more so the case in their role of providing sensitivity and being conscious of the expectations of the reader on the world stage. In some instances, translated literature could be shunned on the basis of it being a recreation, and hence the probability of the original meaning being lost in translation.


II. System of Production and Publishing


It is important to note, from the onset, that in the words of Brokaw (2007), the multi-occupational household headed by a patriarch who assigned each member an economic role was by far the most common pattern for Sibao publishing. In seeking to define the system of production and publishing, this section will highlight not only the physical manufacture of books at Sibao, but also the structure of the Sibao publishing industry. The book market in Sibao will also be briefly highlighted.


From the onset, it should be noted that publishing houses were organized in a household format of business. According to Brokaw (2007), household size ranged widely, from small groups of five to six persons to large units of seventy to eighty people. Shops were presided over by the family patriarch, with the other members of the family being allocated diverse roles and functions. In essence, specifically with reference to Sibao, families could run the book trade and at the same time engage in other activities such as farming in a parallel format. As a matter of fact, in some instances, the book trade to some was a business on the side, with farming being the primary undertaking. In that regard, therefore, the book trade came in handy to supplement the income raked in from farming.


Publishing and bookselling was, however, the main revenue generating activity for most families when there was still high demand for texts from Sibao, i.e. during the 18th and 19th centuries. Publishing houses that were more prosperous and large enough to guarantee continued operations in most cases employed all male members of the family in the managerial and operational contexts of the business, with laborers being employed to till the land or the same being rented out to those interested in farming. This was the format adopted by Bingujuns family which at the time was one of Sibaos largest publishing entities. Most publishing households used proceeds of the publishing and bookselling business to either grow and expand the businesses or buy more land. Indeed, as Brokaw (2007) observes, never, apparently, did any household, however lucrative its publishing operation, consider selling its land and devoting all its energies to publishing and bookselling. This could be explained by the view of land at the time as a secure investment, unlike was the case with a brick and mortal publishing house establishment which was prone to supply and demand shocks.


Although, as it has been pointed out elsewhere in this text, the common Sibao publishing pattern was a household that was largely multi-occupational and run by a patriarch who was responsible for the allocation of duties to members, there were other specific circumstances in which case nephews, uncles, or even brothers established publishing entities mostly by way of contributing capital for a common cause. A good example of this according to Brokaw (2007) would be the Zou Shuwen and his brothers who, after being orphaned, pooled together capital and founded a publishing entity during the early periods of the 18th century. In some other instances, older brothers could fund their younger siblings in an attempt to support their publishing and distributions. In other cases, uncles could assist their nephews in the same way, especially where those being assisted had no fathers to lend them. As a matter of fact, there are many examples of publishing and distribution entities that became successful as a consequence of help or interventions advanced in this format. During the busiest periods, such as the , the biggest publishing houses would supplement familial labor by hiring away from the family and reaching out from other Ma or Zou households to help with various tasks including, but not limited to, binding and printing (Brokaw, 2007).

Another aspect of the Sibao publishing labor force that ought to be mentioned due to its relevance is an available female workforce, and as Brokaw (2007) points out, child labor to some extent. In the words of the author, the labor of women, both as house-hold members and hired laborers, was crucial to the success of this industry they provided the relatively unskilled labor needed for printing and binding, the technologies consistently associated with women in the publishing trade, freeing their husbands and fathers for the tasks of management and bookselling (Brokaw, 2007). It is important to note that the mentioned roles of bookselling and management were largely reserved for men. This effectively means that they were more or less out of bounds for women. Despite the fact that their contribution was not seen as being significant, women were a source of cheap labor that could not be overlooked. For the same roles played by men, i.e. binding and printing, women would receive significantly lower wages that their male counterparts in the very same roles. There are exceptional instances, however, where women could take over managerial roles and responsibilities. There are instances where women took over the role of their husbands while their husbands were out selling books. The society, however, frowned upon women being assigned men roles. It is for this reason that Brokaw (2007) observes that for the most part, womens roles in publishing were limited by custom. Thus, in essence, a woman would take over more responsible positions in a publishing house as a consequence of the absence of a male figure, i.e. her husband. For this reason, the role of women in as far as the success of publishing houses at the time is concerned, should be lauded.


The success of the Sibao publishing families could be explained in various ways. According to Brokaw (2007), there is sufficient evidence from families to suggest that households at first instance attempted to educate their children in what was a deliberate attempt to instill some scholastic talent sufficient to succeed in examinations. Poor families could not afford this luxury. For this reason, there are those who had to quit their studies so as to contribute towards the support of their poor families. In attempting their luck in other ventures, there are those who took up book trade and ended up succeeding immensely on this front. This was the case with the orphaned Ma Quanwen whose uncle had supported him in his studies earlier on but could not continue doing so after a while due to a decline in familial fortunes (Brokaw, 2007). Book trade in this case proved to be the only alternative for the young man, and later on, a source of great fortune. There are also those who were from wealthy families but did not possess the intellectual capability to pass in exams. They ended up dropping out of school and taking up publishing as a form of business. A good example in this case would be Hongchun who, as Brokaw (2007) points out started on the course of study common to all Sibao schoolboys, but had little ambition in his studies. He took up publishing. The common threat in these examples is that those who pursued book trade saw obvious economic benefits of the same and had the desire to support their families. As a matter of fact, most of those who sought to pursue their studies did not often register immense success. Instead, they oftentimes ended up in teaching positions in various family schools some of which were owned by families in the publishing business. It should, however, be noted that the relevance of education could not be overstated as some level of education was required to effectively run the publishing business. Also, the mentorship and on the job exposure most got from an early age proved critical for those who sought to pursue publishing later on.


With Sibao being the industrys de facto headquarters, it would be prudent to highlight how publishing houses operated and how business was organized in Sibao. Recordkeeping was considered an important activity with each side agreeing to keep clean, precise, and detailed records. To see to it that funds were accounted for and to ensure the smooth flow of business, matched accounting was the preferred accounting system amongst most publishing houses. In this case, each book was recorded by the manager, alongside its price and consigned to a bookseller. On selling each book, booksellers were required to record the sale with was then compared with the records held by the manager on the booksellers return, as he also handed the money over.

The households financial wellbeing and unity was revered. For this reason, measures were put in place to ensure that this unity was not upset. One of the key approaches towards this end was by way of ensuring that the central authority of publishing houses was emphasized. Amongst other things, bookstores remained as Sibao publishing outlets and were not permitted to publish on their own. This effectively ensured that the said bookstores did not transform themselves into business rivals. Also, in an attempt to ensure that branch business was not dominated by any one person, branch shops were managed on a rotational basis, i.e. with the father being in charge at some point, then the son, then the brother, etc. Marriage ties were considered an important way of ensuring that loyalty to Sibao was further enhanced. In this case, efforts were made to bind the booksellers and branch sop managers to their native place and the Zou and Ma lineages by marrying them to women from the Sibao area (Brokaw, 2007). It is these women who were left behind to take care of the children when their husbands left to offer books for sale or operate a certain branch of a bookstore.


Various accounts indicate that profits from publishing and bookselling were good. Typically, most households and booksellers turned a profit. However, the inexpensive nature of most books means that even in instances where the margins were good, the actual returns were actually very little. This effectively meant that even sales of several thousand copies would not rake in enormous returns. Those who were skilled enough were sure of consistent profits, although small.

In essence, as it has been pointed out elsewhere in this text, the earnings raked in from publishing and bookselling were used for the good of the business and the family. It should be noted that as Brokaw (2007) points out, once these two needs were addressed, there was some flexibility in the utilization of the remaining funds. Generally, ambitious publishers were keen on expanding their publishing business after conducting an assessment of the benefits and downsides of injecting a specified amount of money back into the business. If there was any justification for reinvestment, then some amount would be injected back into the business. In some instances, the said reinvestments paid off, while in others, projections seemed to have been off. There are various accounts of both outcomes. Ma Quanheng and Ma Dingbang are success stories as far as growth and expansion through pumping back returns is concerned (Brokaw, 2007). In fact, they are prime examples of immense financial success and wealth derived from the publishing business.


Once Sibao publishing and bookselling entrepreneurs made sufficient money from the operation of their businesses, there was often enough left for the acquisition of various items of desire. When Dingbang made sufficient money in the industry, he opted to construct a huge mansion. According to Brokaw (2007), houses and land appear to have been the ultimate desiderata of the Sibao entrepreneurs. Other publishers were in favor of expansion into unrelated fields in what could be deemed as an attempt at diversification. In some other instances, the establishment of family schools appeared to be the favorite course of action for publishing households as far as the nourishment of talent amongst their keen was concerned. Benevolence often came after all the needs of the family, the business, as well as the patriarch had been sufficiently addressed. According to Brokaw (2007), most of those who had made a fortune in publishing and bookselling often elected to engage in philanthropic activities that were largely supportive or closely associated with the very same book trade that had been a source of their material wealth. Towards this end, the author identifies the following as the typical concerns; the establishment of schools and the building and repair of roads, fords, bridges, and pavilions for weary travellers (Brokaw, 2007).


An assessment of the system of production and publishing would be incomplete without taking into consideration the buy side of the equation. Who were the buyers of these texts? Accounts from various informants indicate that in addition to sojourning Sibao book merchants numbering in the hundreds, traders from the cities of Suzhou and Guilin and the provinces of Jiangxi, Guangdong, Guangxi, and Zhejiang came to the market to purchase texts (Brokaw, 2007). In the conduct of business, huge amounts of the legal tender were thus moved and as per some accounts, some of the more successful publishers and distributers were sure to rake in several thousand pieces of silver in a day. By the time the 17th century came to a close, Sibao had become a specialized book market and on this basis, merchants from other regions traveled here to make book purchases.

In conclusion, the success of many Sibao publishing houses was founded on a number of unique and diverse factors. It is important to note that in all industries, from the textile industry, to the music industry, to the mining industry, there are both success stories and spectacular failures. Success or failure is founded on a myriad of factors, i.e. the strategies adopted, the partnerships maintained, organizational culture, etc. This was true for Sibao publishing industry as well. While there were publishing and bookselling enterprises that were immensely successful and thus expanded over time, there were those that found it difficult to consistently remain profitable. Success factors seem to have been largely associated with familial commitment to the business, patriarch mentorship of those being groomed to take over the mantle, controlled growth and expansion, etc.

In essence, the management of Sibao publishing houses was largely unique. This is more so the case with regard to familial nature and conduct of business. An interesting aspect of the publishing and bookselling business in this case was occupational diversity. Here, roles were clearly allocated as per and societal culture. In that regard, therefore, in seeking to understand the organization as well as operation of the publishing and bookselling enterprise in Sibao, one ought to be well-versed on the interlink or connection between household and business, understand the unique management strategies and approaches utilized at the time, and get familiar with the culture and way of life of those who were inhabitants of Sibao at the time.




Brokaw, C.J. (2007). Commerce in Culture: The Sibao Book Trade in the Qing and Republican Periods. London: Harvard University Asia Center.