Networks of Printing and Power in China and Europe

Printing and Power: the networks of Chen Qi (1186-1256) and Robert Estienne (1503-1559) in comparative perspective

This paper aims to demonstrate the pertinence of micro-historical sources to comparative  frameworks of elite activity, communication, and the development of political institutions. While comparative history has traditionally produced large-scale comparisons of macro-level institutions across world regions, recent advances in the theory and methodology of micro-history have highlighted the need for including prosopographical and regional elements in comparative frameworks.

We conduct two case studies of urban intellectual networks in thirteenth-century Song China and sixteenth-century France, comparing the intellectual output and personal networks of the Parisian printmaker Robert Estienne and of Chen Qi, a publisher in the Southern Song capital Hangzhou. Robert Estienne built his father’s printing business into a formidable European publishing house, publishing more than 500 works in his lifetime and gaining eminence as a scholar of Greek and the New Testament. His differences with the theological faculty of Paris over his critical editions of the bible eventually led him to move his workshop to Geneva, where he became one of the foremost publishers of Protestant theology. Some 300 years earlier, Chen Qi was a prominent member of the “Rivers and Lakes Poets”, a network of scholar-poets active in various urban centres of the Southern Song (1127-1279). In 1227, two years after Chen Qi’s publication of the Rivers and Lakes Collection 江湖集 (Jianghu shiji), its poems were found to be slanderous against the Southern Song Chief Councillor Shi Miyuan. As a result, Chen Qi and a number of other Rivers and Lakes poets suffered demotion and exile, and the printing blocks and printed copies of the collection were ordered to be destroyed. After the death of Shi Miyuan in 1233, the ban on the writings was lifted and Chen Qi was able to return to Hangzhou.

The juxtaposition of the two cases allows us to inquire into the political dimension of their publishing activity and to contextualise these micro-historical narratives within regional histories of institutional development: to what extent were Chen Qi and Robert Estienne subject to political arbitrariness? Was the forced exile and temporary character demolition of Chen Qi, compared to the career-enhancing self-exile of Robert Estienne, the result of a weaker institutionalisation of censorship? What role did personal networks play in the development of political patronage?

Text: CHU Mingkin/ Franz-Julius MORCHE, Institute for Area Studies, Leiden University