The Cost of a Manchu Dictionary in the Guangxu Period

The Cost of a Manchu Dictionary in the Guangxu Period

Mårten Söderblom Saarela, Princeton University

Lacking good information on print runs, prices, and distribution channels, it is difficult today to estimate how widely Manchu dictionaries circulated in the Qing (1644–1911) period. Frequent reprints and republications of certain titles indicate that there was considerable demand for Manchu dictionaries at least in some periods and places.

During the height of Manchu publishing in the 18th century, the most important printer-publishers of Manchu literature were the Imperial Printing Office at the Hall of Military Glory (Wuying dian 武英殿), situated within the Forbidden City, and the commercial publishers in the civilian Outer City of Beijing some distance to the south. I have so far been unable to find prices or production costs for any Manchu dictionaries published by any of these printers. The lack of sources forces us to look elsewhere for this kind of information.

What follows is a brief report on a source that does give us information regarding the price of a Manchu dictionary in the last years of the Qing, printed by an institution very different from either the imperial palace or the commercial printer-publishers of the capital. On my way there, I will use the very fact that Manchu dictionaries were printed and published at this late date as an excuse to muse on the historical assessment of the Guangxu period (1875–1908).

A Guangxu Renaissance?

As is the case in many other areas of Qing history, sources are much more abundant for the latter half of the 19th century than for the preceding centuries. In some areas, this seems to be the result of renewed efforts at printing and publishing as state and society recovered from years of civil war. Mary Wright wrote a long time ago about the Tongzhi Restoration (Tongzhi zhongxing 同治中興) of 1862–74, the period following the mid-19th-century wars. [1]   I have for some time suspected that we need a sequel to this book, perhaps titled the “Guangxu Renaissance” (Guangxu fuxing 光緒復興), which would study the new cultural projects of a dynasty that continued, after all, to “aspire to an eternal heavenly mandate” (qi tian yong ming 祈天永命).[2]

At the very least, a look at government-sponsored printing of basic reference works in the fields of statecraft, history, and language would seem to support the idea of the Guangxu reign as a period of dynastic cultural productivity. A recent survey and illustrated catalogue of court-sponsored multilingual dictionaries published by the Palace Museum in Beijing distinguishes three main periods of dictionary production: the Kangxi (r. 1661–1722), Qianlong (r. 1735–96), and Guangxu reigns. That Guangxu is here allowed to rub shoulders with the great rulers of the High Qing would indicate that an acknowledgment of the period’s importance is perhaps already entering the historiographical mainstream.

Although the editors of this volume, titled Tongwen zhi sheng: Qinggong cang minzu yuwen cidian 《同文之盛: 清宫藏民族语文辞典》,  give us photographs of a Mongolian dictionary beautifully bound in imperial yellow, printed at the palace in 1897, they still write that in the Guangxu period, “the government was incapable of developing culture,” and that “without governmental or economic support, the compilation of Manchu and Mongolian dictionaries rapidly declined and came to an end along with the Qing dynasty.” [3]  But there was governmental and economic support, as I hope the following example will illustrate. The government reprinted historical, administrative, and linguistic reference works, and had the “eternal heavenly mandate” endured, new compilations would surely have followed.

The Jiangsu Book Bureau and Book Prices

At the height of the Tongzhi restoration, in 1868, provincial authorities in the lower Yangzi established in Suzhou an agency for printing and publishing: the Jiangsu Book Bureau (Jiangsu shuju 江蘇書局). Before long, they were carving new blocks based on good editions to reissue standard historical and classicist works, which they then sold to merchants or similar regional agencies in other provinces for retail. Included among the printed works were dictionaries of non-Chinese terms in the dynastic histories of the Jin, Liao, and Yuan dynasties, which had been commissioned nearly a century earlier by the Qianlong emperor in 1775[4] and first printed in 1824.[5]  In the dictionaries, such as Qinding Liaoshi yujie 《欽定遼史語解》 (Imperially authorized explanations of phrases from the Liao History), printed at the Jiangsu Book Bureau in 1878 (pictured), the headwords were glossed using the Manchu script, which it was clearly assumed the reader would know.

In 1893, the imperial government judged the price of books to be too high at the Jiangsu Book Bureau, and thus ordered a reassessment of the production costs. (Perhaps the government lowered the price of the books because they were priced above what consumers were willing to pay for, among other things, a historical Manchu dictionary?)  The result was a ten percent price reduction. A new price list was printed, which has survived and gives valuable information on the price of certain kinds of Manchu dictionaries in the late Qing. [6]

According to the price list, the historical dictionaries discussed above, comprising ten volumes per dynastic history (Liao, Jin, and Yuan), or thirty volumes in total, were offered in two editions. The editions differed in the type of paper used, and were sold in bound (zhuang 裝) or unbound (bu zhuang 不裝) versions. The cheapest version, printed on thin Sichuanese paper (sailian zhi 賽連紙) without binding, sold for 1,062 wen 文 in government-issued copper cash for a ten-volume work, including the glosses for one of the three dynastic histories in question. For an unbound copy on more expensive Fujianese bamboo paper (lianshi zhi 連史紙), the buying merchant or book bureau had to pay 1,242 wen for ten volumes. The bound options sold for 1,206 or 1,386 wen, respectively, depending on the type of paper.[7]

In other words, a bound copy of a ready-to-use dictionary sold for approx. 1.2–1.4 ounces of silver, if we forego strict economic accuracy and assume a correspondence of 1,000 cash to one ounce of silver.

The items in the price list were not intended to be sold directly to the reader, but to merchants or agents who would bind and package them further, accumulating costs and thereby increasing the price. The prices in the list therefore cannot be taken as representative of the dictionary’s retail price. However, they can potentially serve as a point of comparison with books from other publishers in the late Qing, and help us establish what a reader would have had to pay at this time to get his hands on a Manchu dictionary.

Were Dictionaries Expensive?

Another question that the survey of the price of these dictionaries does not answer is how the cost of a dictionary compared to that of other consumer goods—including books printed lithographically on imported paper—and to income levels. From Christopher Reed’s research on the establishment of lithographic printing in Shanghai—just a short trip to the east of Suzhou—we know that in the last decades of the 19th century, woodblock printing was becoming increasingly unprofitable, as even Confucian books were being published more cheaply using Western machinery. [8]  Although the new Shanghai publishers did not release Manchu dictionaries, the lower prices of the other books they published might have made the Jiangsu Book Bureau’s dictionaries seem overpriced.

Research on income levels in the late Qing also seems to confirm that the Jiangsu Book Bureau’s dictionaries were comparatively expensive. According to Chang Chung-li, the income of a member of the Chinese gentry in the late Qing would have hovered around 90 ounces of silver per annum, and that of a commoner around 5.7 ounces.[9]  If for the sake of argument we assume that a consumer would have been able to buy the dictionary at wholesale price, 1.2–1.4 ounces of silver would have felt like a lot to pay for the majority of the population; even for the average bannerman, who could count on a monthly income of 3 taels, to spend one-half of that sum on a single set of books would certainly have entailed some advance planning and saving.



[1] Mary C. Wright, The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism: The T’ung-chih Restoration, 1862–1874 (1957; Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962).

[2] Qing shilu 清實錄 (Veritable records of the Qing), Qianlong 47 (1782), 4th month, first part, 465-2 (Hanji dianzi wenxian ziliaoku, http://hanchi.ihp.sinica.edu.tw/).

[3] Gugong bowuyuan 故宫博物院, ed., Tongwen zhi sheng: Qinggong cang minzu yuwen cidian 《同文之盛: 清宫藏民族语文辞典》 (Standardizing the written language: Dictionaries of different ethnic languages from the Qing palace) (Beijing: Zijincheng chubanshe, 2009), 138.

[4] Qing shilu, Qianlong 40 (1775), 7th month, second part, 166-2.

[5] Gugong bowuyuan, Tongwen zhi sheng, 128–29.

[6] Lai Xinxia 来新夏, ed., Qingdai mulu tiyao 《清代目錄提要》 (Précis on bibliographies of the Qing period) (Jinan: Qi-Lu shushe, 1997), 366–7.

[7] Jiangsu Shuju chongding heshi jiamu 《江蘇書局重訂核實價目》 (List of assessed and rectified prices at the Jiangsu Book Bureau) (Suzhou: Jiangsu Shuju, 1893), shi bu:3b.

[8] Christopher A. Reed, Gutenberg in Shanghai: Chinese Print Capitalism, 1876–1937 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004), 98.

[9] Chung-li Chang, The Income of the Chinese Gentry (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962), 328.


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