Things You Can Do with Woodblocks (3): Punctuation/annotation

In this post, inspired by a fun twitter thread by Shannon Supple, Curator of Rare Books at Smith College, on annotation (so many month ago now!), I’m going to introduce some of the basic features of textual annotation/punctuation – sometimes called judou 句讀 (reading marks) or pidian 批點 (comment marks) – in Chinese printed books.1

I first learned classical Chinese with Alvin P. Cohen at UMass, Amherst. This had some influence on my undergraduate social life, because Dr. Cohen, like many a hard-nosed philologist before him, believed in teaching unpunctuated classical Chinese. I spent countless hours before each 50 minute class trying to punctuate texts, look up characters, and pretend I had the faintest idea of what was happening. My notes from those days show it was not a pretty sight. (I’ll add a photo when I am back stateside.)

Because texts without punctuation can be a pain, people began punctuating Chinese early in its history. Consider this 7th century colophon to the Lotus Sutra found by Imre Galambos:

I punctuated this sūtra for beginner students who read it but are unfamiliar with the segmentation of the text. I neither paid attention to larger sections, nor considered their beginning and end. For the most part segments consist of four characters and I started punctuating them when the segments did not comprise four characters. But for four-character segments I added no dots whatsoever….In this manner, I tentatively distinguished them. Let those who see this later not blame me for using red marks and say that the punctuation is flawed. 余為初學讀此經者不識文句,故憑點之。亦不看科段,亦不論起盡,多以四字為句,若有四字外句 者,然始點之;但是四字句者,絕不加點。別為作為(帷委反);別行作行(閑更反)。如此之流,聊 復分別。後之見者,勿怪下朱,言錯點也。2


Continue reading “Things You Can Do with Woodblocks (3): Punctuation/annotation”

  1. A good starting point for learning about this is: David L. Rolston, Traditional Chinese Fiction and Fiction Commentary: Reading and Writing Between the Lines (Stanford University Press, 1997)
  2. Imre Galambos, “Punctuation Marks in Medieval Chinese Manuscripts,” in Manuscript Cultures: Mapping the Field, ed. Jan-Ulrich Sobisch, Dmitry Bondarev, and Jörg Quenzer (De Gruyter, 2014), 352.

Book boxes

Unsurprisingly, when talking about pre-modern East Asian book bindings, covers, slip-cases, and storage, there’s a dizzying amount of material. Regrettably, compared to other areas of research, these external aspects of the Chinese book are understudied. This is probably due in part to the primary goal of Chinese bibliography (版本學), which was to identify and date editions. The edition lived inside of the covers. Everything outside, while clearly important to owners, has mattered less to scholars.

Given that there’s so much to say on this topic, I’ll begin by focusing on boxes, usually called xiang 箱 and he 盒 in Chinese. These differ from tao/hantao 套/函套, which are usually called slip-cases in English. (Most rare Chinese books have some form of slipcase, and since they’re so common, I need to think of better ways for presenting them). Below, is a small gallery of some nice examples of boxes. As time allows, I’ll add more, as well as some thoughts (I have pictures of a number of them somewhere!).

Things You Can Do with Woodblocks (2)

You don’t often get the chance to work with woodblocks, but last week, as I was planning a class trip to the UCLA special collections to look at Manchu materials, Heather Briston, the wonderful University Archivist, and Octavio Olvera, Visual Arts Specialist, put four boxes of woodblocks onto my request. (A sign of a great librarian! I’ve been meaning to call them up, but couldn’t find them. They must have telepathically sensed my intentions.)

I’ve been thinking about blocks, and their absence in research on Chinese books, quite a bit since last year. At the Chinese books workshop I organized, Li Ren-yuan 李仁淵, at Academia Sinica, recommended  that we take a look at Kaneko Takaaki’s superb Study of Early Modern Woodblocks 近世出版の板木研究. Kaneko and a team at Ritsumei have been cataloging and processing woodblocks for several years now. Their work is some of the finest research on bibliography for xylographic books that I’ve ever read (I will probably summarize it later). They’ve also built a fantastic database. I’m convinced that without a careful study of the form and variety of Chinese woodblocks, we’ll never be able to properly understand East Asian books. Unfortunately, they’re quite hard to track down.

So, when Heather appeared with these boxes, preparing for the special collections visit suddenly became less important. Here they were, in inky gloriousness, almost uncatalogued, and with delightful images (all of my photographs have been reversed to make the text legible):

Continue reading “Things You Can Do with Woodblocks (2)”

How to Know What You Don’t Know

In the wake of the fantastic Bibliography Among the Disciplines conference, I’ve decided to consolidate some of my thoughts on a recurring question people ask: “How can I incorporate more of (insert non-western/non-white region/place/thing here), which you study, into my teaching/work?” Here are some preliminary, slightly snarky responses.

  1. The first thing you should do is what you’re trained to do: read some books. Every East Asianist I know has read books in your field. I don’t care what your field is, they’ve probably read something in your area. I saw this quite a bit at the workshop on global book history organized by Rachel Stein, Ben Nourse and Hwisang Cho. Hwisang, from Xavier University, works on 17th century Korean epistolary culture. He was constantly throwing out references to writing and publishing practices in African American communities in the contemporary US, letter writing practices in pre-modern Yemen, and listening seriously to every perspective people brought to the table. Be like Hwisang.
  2. Another way to put point 1 is to remember that Hwisang, like many in “Area studies,” has learned to look beyond her/his field for the justification of her/his work. If you are not doing this, you are in a deeply privileged field. Reject that privilege. Tear it out by its roots. You can do this by becoming a better scholar and reading some damn books. This will also help you sniff out bad scholars in area studies. If they justify their work only in terms of its importance to their area of study, don’t bother with them. The last thing you want is people who base their authority on a ‘unique’ culture or understanding. Leave that to creepy nationalists.
  3. Don’t read randomly. There’s a huge amount of weird stuff in some fields. You don’t want to come out of reading about pre-modern Chinese book history talking about how irrational it was because you’ve accidentally imbibed the racist ideologies of some idiot. Your colleagues should play a role in helping you select readings. I’ve received requests from many of the awesome folks in the Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography for readings on Chinese book history (i.e. Liza Strakhov, Meghan Cook ). This is good for me and good for them.
  4. Listen to and ask questions about the work of colleagues not working in your area. This is a major problem. I’ve seen many Europeanists lose focus as an area studies scholar tries to explain their perspectives. This is demoralizing to me (a white man from Harvard), so imagine what this does to people with less privilege (i.e. basically everyone who is not a white man from Harvard). Continue reading “How to Know What You Don’t Know”

Things you can do with Woodblocks (1)

Things you can do with Woodblocks (1)

Welcome to a new series entitled, “Things you can do with woodblocks.” The purpose of this series is to begin outlining some of the special features of xylographic printing with useful visuals.

Black blocks

Until the 19th century invention of different forms of plate printing (stereotype, elecotrotype), it was rather difficult to keep type “standing.” ABCs for Book Collectors explains ‘standing type’ to mean:

The type from which a book was printed was not always distributed immediately after use. It was sometimes kept and used for a subsequent impression, which is then said to be printed from standing type. (209)

Printers only kept standing type in rare circumstances. For most jobs, when printing was done, type would be redistributed to type-cases to wait for the next project.

Xylographically printed books, on the other hand, lasted far longer. If blocks were properly cared for, you could use them for a few generations (with occasional repairs). This also meant that the same blocks could be used for new ‘editions.’ (Edition is a problematic concept in this case, but we’ll talk about this later) Continue reading “Things you can do with Woodblocks (1)”

Translation and accessibility

One of the big problems with teaching Chinese history, as many will know, is the issue of accessibility. For non-Chinese reading students, many interesting primary sources are sadly inaccessible. There are obviously some great translations available, but as I recently learned trying to teach a seminar on the Kangxi reign, there’s still much work to be done.

In that spirit, I’ve decided to start making translations available. I have two primary reasons for this:

  1. Translations are not really worth anything on your CV. No matter how polished these things become, no tenure or job committee will ever see them as terribly significant. The amount of work it would take to get them really polished and then published is irksome, given the limited returns.
  2. Sharing is caring. Everyone I know has piles of unpublished translations. It seems like an awful waste to wait for the translator to die and to later discover them in their papers. Having spent the last couple of years discovering finished translations of long-dead Sinologists, I’ve decided that I may as well embarrass myself now.

So, to that end, please check out the new translations section on the site.When I realize I’m too busy to actually fix errors in the reams of material I have started, I’ll share things on the main page.

Now, for a brief introduction to the first set of materials.

As a “New Qing” historian/intellectual historian, I’ve found myself looking for materials on zhengtong several times in my brief teaching career. That inspired me, with the aid of Maura Dykstra, to pull together a few documents on the idea of “China,” zhengtong, and the role of history. These documents would pair well with Treason by the Book, a unit on modern China culminating in Zou Rong and nationalism, or whatever else you think is interesting.

Zhengtong and History


One final note: There will be errors in these. I’ll edit and re-edit as I use them. These are not translations for anyone to quibble with. If you have a problem with them, edit them for your classes (and add your name under ours). Please don’t fill up my inbox with trivial complaints. Major issues, are of course, welcome to be brought to my attention. If you want to comment, please comment on how you use them in your classes, or, better yet, with names of similar texts you think should make it on to the list.


Chinese Paper Stamps

A few weeks ago, I gave a brief talk at the workshop “Asian Papers” at Dartmouth College, organized in part by my colleague and co-Mellon Fellow in Critical Bibliography, Holly Shaffer. The workshop was a welcome opportunity to start organizing some of my thoughts on the difficulty of applying Western descriptive bibliographic standards to the bibliography of the East Asian book. In line with the workshop topic, my presentation focused on the sorts of bibliographic information available from a close examination of paper.

One of the major bibliographic differences between European and East Asian paper in the early modern period is the presence of watermarks in the former. Watermarks are present in most pre-modern western paper. The earliest recorded reference to watermarks comes from the Perugia based jurist Bartolo da Sassoferrato (1314-57). He wrote:

Here there are many paper mills, and some of them produce better paper, although even here the skill of the worker is of considerable importance. And here each sheet of paper has its own watermark by which one can recognize the paper mill. Therefore, in this case the watermark should belong to the one to whom the mills itself belongs, no matter whether it remains in his possession by right of ownership or lease, or by any other title, wholly or in part, or even in bad faith. During the entire time in which he has possession of the mill, he cannot be prohibited from using the watermark…(source)

According to Sassoferrato, these watermarks allowed mills to trademark their products.

The production of watermarks is a simple process. Essentially, every piece of hand-made paper is marked with an impression of the screen which removed its wet pulp from water. Early European watermarks came from wire designs  tied onto wire screens. When the screen, with the deckle on top, was dipped into a vat of pulp, the resulting paper would have the impression of both the screen wires and the design. I had a chance to see this process last year, when visiting the last wind-powered paper mill in the Netherlands, De Schoolmeester in Westzaan. (The field-trip was part of a great conference organized by Megan Williams at the University of Groningen)

Continue reading “Chinese Paper Stamps”

Editions of an Edict

I’ve spent the last couple of days working on a section of my dissertation describing and analyzing the famous Brevis Relatio. The story of the text is well known. In 1700, the French Jesuit Louis Le Comte and several others decided to petition the Kangxi emperor for a judicial ruling on rites to the ancestors and Confucius. On November 30, Hesishen presented a Manchu memorial to the throne outlining three key points in the Jesuit position on the rites. They stated that worship of Confucius was only to show respect to the great teachers and not “to seek wisdom or to pray for official rank or salary;” that performance of sacrifices to the dead was only so that the living will “not forget their relatives of the same clan…[and] keep them in memory forever…;” and that imperial sacrifices to Heaven were in fact “worship of Shangdi.”[Rosso, Apostolic Legations, 133-140] The emperor’s Manchu reply on the same day was brief:

This writing is very good. It accords with the great way. Respecting Heaven, serving the lord and ruler, and respecting teachers and elders are the shared precepts of the Under Heaven. So, [this memorial] is correct. There is nothing in it for emendation.


Ere arahangge umesi sain. Amba doro de acanahabi. Abka be gingulere (sic). Ejen niyaman be weilere. Sefu ungga be kundulerengge. Ere abkai fejergi uhei kooli kai. Ere uthai inu. Umai dasabure ba akū sehe.

[A copy of the original Manchu, from the National Archives UK. Author’s photo] Continue reading “Editions of an Edict”

The Four Books

Lately, I’ve been toying with the idea of eventually trying to write an annotated bibliography of every edition of The Four Books that appeared in print before the year 1912. There are several reasons for this, but the one that looms largest in my mind is rather straight-forward. I have no idea how people read the four books.

Here’s why (click images to enlarge):%e6%96%b0%e9%90%ab%e9%a0%85%e4%bb%b2%e6%98%ad%e5%85%88%e7%94%9f%e5%9b%9b%e6%9b%b8%e5%ab%8f%e5%ac%9b%e9%9b%86%e8%a8%bb-vol-1

This image of A New Carving of the Collected Commentaries from the Imperial Library to the Four Books by Msr. Xiang Zhongzhao 新鐫項仲昭先生四書嫏嬛集註 from the National Archives of Japan overwhelms the reader with information. The main text of The Great Learning below is accompanied by Zhu Xi’s explanation. The text above, which discusses the text below, consists of comments from famous scholars or reference works. Surrounding the printed text there’s yet another layer of annotation done by an unknown reader.

The impenetrable layout of this text is not unique, but seems to have been rather common in the seventeenth century. Another interesting edition to consider is a Kangxi period re-print of Zhang Juzheng’s commentary for the emperor, The Collected Engraving of the Direct Explanation of the Four Books Given as Mat Lectures for Imperial Perusal 彙鐫経筵進講監本四書直解, held in the Waseda University Library. This copy of the text has annotations by Nankaku Hattori 服部南郭, a famous Tokugawa Sinophile, and likewise knocks the reader over with information overload.
sishu-two Continue reading “The Four Books”

Chinese Book Workshop

I am happy to announce that with the sponsorship of the Bibliographical Society of America, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, and Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography at the Rare Book School, we are pleased to announce a four-day workshop on the descriptive bibliography of the Chinese book. By bringing the study of Chinese editions into conversation with Western bibliography, this workshop will provide training in new methods for accurately analyzing, describing, and identifying the distinctive material characteristics of the Chinese xylographic print. Participants will be invited to engage actively in workshop sessions facilitated by Cynthia Brokaw (Brown University), Devin Fitzgerald (Harvard), and David Helliwell (Bodleian Library).


  • Day one will be dedicated to the comparative study of western bibliographic methods and the practice of the study of Chinese editions.
  • Day two will focus on the major features of printed books from the Song through the Qing.
  • Day three will focus on various rare-book catalogs and the production of accurate catalog entries.
  • Day four will be dedicated to the relationship between the digital text and the print book.


This workshop is free of charge, but participants are responsible for their own travel and accommodations. We invite graduate students and junior scholars with interest in the history of Chinese printing to apply.

Applicants should send a two-page statement of interest describing how this workshop relates to your research and a CV (three pages max) to by January 15, 2017.

The link above will eventually grow into our workshop webpage. Stay tuned love for update.