China’s Mundane Revolution: Cheap Print, Vernacular Knowledge and the Rise of the Common Reader, 1894‒1954

China’s Mundane Revolution is the story of common readers making themselves and becoming practical knowers in a period of monumental epistemic, technological and political change. It started before, endured after, and evolved in the interstices of the Republican, New Culture, Nationalist and Communist Revolutions which have become the major signposts in the history of modern China. It is the stubborn obverse of ongoing efforts on the part of successive regimes to remake ‘the people’ and make new, compliant, global and enlightened citizens. It unfolded at makeshift bookstalls in metropolitan centres and rural towns, between the covers of ‘coarse and slipshod’ daily-use works, and in the life world of factory workers and flower farmers, black smiths and housewives, shop apprentices and rickshaw pullers. It addressed immediate entailments, from curing opium addiction to managing disruptive imported technologies, from treating devastating new diseases to triangulating among Heaven, Nature and Man in grafting both plants and knowledge. While it was attentive to ways of systematically managing the human body, manipulating the natural world, and transforming matter in practically useful ways, it remained adjacent to the new discourse on science (kēxué 科學). Instead, it was governed by its own set of epistemic virtues: pragmatism, efficiency, and verifiability.

Joan Judge is a Professor in the Department of History, York University, Toronto.