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Reading for the Republic: Old Texts and New Meanings in Encyclopedias for Everyday Life

Mon, June 22, 11:00am to 1:00pm, North Building, Floor: 5th Floor, N501


When commercial publishers offer old texts in new printed forms they create new publics and new meanings. Closely attuned to the desires of their clientele, they adapt existing works—shortening, simplifying, and illustrating them—in ways that reflect their sense of the abilities, interests, expectations, and reading habits of their target customers.
These processes of adaptation are evident in turn-of-the-twentieth century editions of wanbao quanshu 萬寶全書 (complete compendia of countless treasures) or encyclopedias for everyday life. While the content of these texts had remained relatively stable from the inception of the genre in the late Ming dynasty, they began to undergo radical changes in the late Qing and early Republic. From 1898 publishers struggled to keep their compendia current and attuned to the rapid influx of foreign ideas by appending a series of supplements.
This paper examines the supplements to a number of turn-of-the-twentieth century compendia. It pays particular attention to the ways existing texts were appropriated into these materials designed to serve as guides to the navigation of daily life. While these newly integrated texts include relatively recent works such as Ge Yuanxu’s 葛元煦, Huyou jilue 滬游記略 (Miscellaneous notes on visiting Shanghai, 1876) of clear relevance to an urban audience, they also include less apparently apposite works such as Chen Haozi’s 陳淏子 (1612-?) botanical treatise, the Huajing 花鏡 (The mirror of flowers). In probing the content of the supplements I will ask what they reveal about epistemological change and reading practices in the lead up to and the early years of the Chinese Republic.