Cogut Institute for the Humanities
Center for the Study of the Early Modern World

2020 Research and Teaching Report: Cynthia Brokaw

Cynthia J. Brokaw has a chapter in press, “Medieval and Early Modern East Asia,” in James Raven (ed.), Oxford Illustrated History of the Book (Oxford: OUP). Her current project "Book Culture in a Hinterland Province: Publishing in Sichuan, 17th-20th Centuries" examines the spread of commercial publishing and Chinese book culture to the southwestern borderland of China Proper during the Qing empire. This project has several goals. First, it maps the transmission of printing technologies and textual knowledge from the established publishing centers in the southeast coastal areas to the distant southwest. Second, it expands our understanding of the structure of publishing businesses and the variety in production forms in the late imperial period; and of the relationship between the older forms of printing and publishing (woodblock and movable type) and the modern printing technologies (lithography and letter-press) introduced in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Third, by analyzing the range of texts published (and the reading publics they attracted), it allows us to draw conclusions about the spread of literacy and the role that print had in cultural integration and the forging of a shared Chinese identity.

Prof. Brokaw taught two early modern history courses in 2019-20. Last fall, “Knowledge and Power: China's Examination Hell” investigated the rigorous system of examinations used to select government officials in imperial China, its profound impact, for better or worse, on Chinese society and government in the early modern period, and the role that its successor “examination hell” – the gaokao or university entrance examination—plays in society today.

“The History of the Book in the Early Modern World,” taught in the spring, examined how the production and dissemination of texts influenced conceptions and categorization of knowledge, reading practices, social access to knowledge, the development of political formations, etc. We first read some of the foundational works in the field, largely the work of European book historians. The remainder of the course investigated – through the reading of monographs on different book cultures and hands-on examination of books as material objects – the impact that books (especially print books) had on Western Europe, the Islamic world, and East Asian empires in the early modern period.