Illustration Matters: The Reconfiguration of the Genealogy in Late-Ming China, 1500–1644

Bi, Jichuan. Xin’an Bi shi zu pu: shi qi juan, (China, 1509), Chinese Rare Book Collection.

By Xin Yu

Historians of the Chinese book have attributed to the boom in publishing in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century China to the advancements in printing technology. But the improved capacity on the production end fails to explain why people wanted more books; after all, more books on the market did not guarantee their consumption. By focusing on a growing interest in a particular genre—the family genealogy—this article shows that genealogies became popular not because of technological changes, but due to the structural changes to the genre that made genealogies more useful to a larger number of people. This case reminds us that the relationship between printing technology and cultural/social/political changes might be more complicated that we think. 

Author’s bio:
Xin Yu is a PhD candidate in History at Washington University in St. Louis. His research interests include book history, history of the family, and knowledge production at the grassroots. His dissertation examines the roles of printing and writing in transforming early modern rural China, by focusing on the rise of a village-based textual genre—the family genealogy. He contends that the cultures of writing and printing had already started to penetrate rural China since the late fifteenth century, making a larger impact on the rural populace—both the literate and the illiterate—than on the urban elite. You can find his latest research on his website

Registered attendees shared questions and comments below.

9 replies on “Illustration Matters: The Reconfiguration of the Genealogy in Late-Ming China, 1500–1644”

Thank you for your intriguing talk.
I wish to point at the way in which you position production and consumption against each other. I wonder if the two aspects are not interdependent (and I think that this kind of interaction is also deep-seated in your presentation). Are you familiar with Robert Darnton’s model of communications circuit? Darnton describes the process printed books go through as a communications circuit and sketch out the full circle from thought, to writing, to printed characters, and back. I find this to be present in the interactions among the aspects involved in the transformation of the Chinese genealogy.

Thanks Na’ama! I appreciate your comment that the production and consumption of texts should not be separated. I think that I might need to rephrase this part to make the two appear less independent of one another. But as you mentioned, the interaction between the two is what I would like to emphasize in my paper. I would like to thank you again for bringing Darnton up. His “communications circuit” lays the theoretical foundation for my dissertation, which put the production, circulation, and reception in a loop, as opposed to surveying each part separately.

I appreciated the carefully reasoned nature of this argument, and the evident lack of bias and politicization. At the same time I’m curious what kind of political implications you see in your argument. Because it seems to me that there is a kind of exposing impulse in your project–to show that there’s a certain amount of hollowness or even deceptiveness in the cultural and ideological trappings of these genealogies, which at least in the 1500s were primarily about property disputes rather than about cultural and familial commemoration.

Please correct me if I misunderstand your question. If you were asking whether proprietary functions were more essential to genealogies than ideological missions (such as to cultivate a harmonious relationship among villagers), then the answer is yes. That is the kind of argument I would like to make: when the genealogy changed from an elitist privilege to a widespread practice, all the Confucian language used to justify the compilation of genealogies was used to achieve more practical goals. Thanks Daniel!

Yes, I did understand that about your argument–I guess I was just wondering if you wanted to say more about the political implications of that argument (I’m not saying that that should be done in the paper itself). Because to me it’s a pretty radical, and entirely persuasive, claim–that all this Confucian language was just a sort of cover, or as you say here, a justification, for petty disputes over land.

I am curious to know more about the people who made the woodblock illustrations. Do we know how much they were involved in the design of the illustrations? What did the process of commissioning a woodblock illustration look like at that time? Were genealogies printed on cheap/expensive paper (were these genealogies meant to last for a long time/pass down over generations)?

Thanks Honglan! The process of publishing a genealogy was like this: after genealogy editors finished their texts, they hired professional printing “companies” to put written texts into print. Woodcutters, illustrators, binders, and etc. for the companies went to the lineage’s place, resided there until the project completed. Illustrators were more skillful than woodcutters and paid better. Their roles in genealogical projects varied according to their customers: village-based lineages. In cases where lineages had their own painters, illustrators made illustrations by following handdrawn sketches; in cases where lineages relied solely on professional illustrators, the illustrators might also need to design illustrations on their own.

The quality of paper also varied according to lineages’ wealth. But in the place that I study–Huizhou, the hometown to the wealthiest merchants of the time–most genealogies were printed on expensive paper. But in other places, I have seen many genealogies printed on poor paper. No matter what, most genealogies were produced for passing down to future generations. The real determinant was economic capacity.

Dear Xin Yu, I wondered whether your sources tell you anything about the distribution (=sale?) of these books. Were the books commissioned and paid for by well-to-do family members (or branches of families) who then, after a certain elapse of time, would receive a copy in return for their subscription? (Clearly, that would mean production and distribution outside “the market” understood in the Adam Smith and Karl Marx sense of the term.)

OR was the production of these books carried out in a more dynamic way, initiated “on spec” by people who knew or believed that there was indeed a market for such objects, and who were betting that there would be enough people willing and able to buy the product that they would get a decent return on capital, a return that would more than cover the money that they presumably paid the artisans who produced these books?

Another way of asking the question is as follows: At the time that these books were being produced, did there exist a book market into which they were intended to be inserted? Or did a market for these books only emerge later, as these books presumably came to be seen as valuable, or at least interesting, objets d’art, and became of interest to connoisseurs?

I recently finished a chapter dealing with popular histories (typically of Rural Municipalities and of towns or villages) in rural Western Canada that seem to have been produced mainly on a “subscription” model. I would not claim, in short, that production of books independently of a book market is somehow more backward than production of books for “the market,” although the latter strikes me as more dynamic, thus more “capitalist.” One could go on to raise larger, comparative questions concerning book markets, but my question is long enough already.

I will have to attend “non-synchronously,” alas.

Dear Professor Megill,

I appreciate the meticulous elaboration of your question. The short answer is: Yes, the books were commissioned and paid for by well-to-do family members (or branches of families) who then, after a certain elapse of time, would receive a copy in return for their subscription.

It is intriguing that the production of genealogies in early modern China greatly resembles the story that happened in rural Western Canada. I am very interested in your chapter and looking forward to reading it when it comes out.

Thank you very much! I hope that I can have the opportunity to meet you someday in person.


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