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China's Mundane Revolution: Cheap Print, Vernacular Knowledge, and the Common Reader in China's Long Republic, 1895–1955

China's Mundane Revolution: Cheap Print, Vernacular Knowledge, and the Common Reader in China's Long Republic, 1895–1955

Principal Investigator: Joan Judge, Department of History, York University
Funding: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada

Joan Judge’s current book-length research project—China’s Mundane Revolution: Cheap Print, Vernacular Knowledge, and Common Reading in the Long Republic, 1894–1955—elucidates the historical value of intellectual detritus. It posits that the books an age discards as slipshod and unscientific, and the readers it disparages as superstitious and ignorant, comprise the broad epistemic terrain from which fundamental historical change is actualized. The premise of this study of China’s “mundane revolution” is that what is currently known about China’s iconic twentieth-century revolutions (1911, 1919, 1927, 1949) does not explain enough. Shifting attention from innovation to ingenuity, from “knowledge what” to “knowledge how,” from the momentous to the mundane—without losing sight of the momentous—it exposes the limitations of China’s these epochal revolutions, the knowledge regimes they erected, and the iterations of mass politics that they engendered.

The project asks how minimally educated, financially strapped individuals found ways to navigate the crises, flux and new global openness of the era. How did understandings of the human body shared by rickshaw pullers and tailors meet the challenges of new addictions and the introduction of new disease concepts? How did shop apprentices and workers respond to the wonders and perils of foreign things? How did the old technologies on which ostensors and farmers relied align with the new? How did housewives and office workers adjust to a series of outward-looking regimes that expected them to calculate time differently, weigh things differently, dress differently, and write differently? In short, how did common know-how alter China’s knowledge culture via the quotidian byways of historic change? How was this knowledge produced, disseminated, and acquired?

In order to answer these questions, the study examines the interactions among three key components of China’s mundane transformations in the Long Republic: cheap books as objects, vernacular knowledge as meaning, and common reading as cultural practice. This dynamic interactive thread runs through the projected book which will be divided into two parts. The three chapters of Part I will elucidate the macro-phenomena of the study: “Common Readers,” “The Commoners’ Corpus,” and “How to Get a Book.” Six micro “how-to” chapters in Part II will use specific problems faced by particular readers as entry points into broader realms of knowledge: “How to Cure an Opium Addiction,” “How to Avoid an Electric Shock,” “How to Prevent Cholera Contagion,” “How to Hybridize a Plant,” “How to Track a Pregnancy,” and “How to Recognize a Counterfeit Coin.”

Joan Judge is a member of the Royal Society of Canada and a Professor in the Department of History at York University in Toronto, Canada. She is the author of Republican Lens: Gender, Visuality, and Experience in the Early Chinese Periodical Press (University of California Press, 2015), The Precious Raft of History: The Past, the West, and the Woman Question in China (Stanford University Press, 2008), Print and Politics: ‘Shibao’ and the Culture of Reform in Late Qing China (Stanford University Press, 1996), and co-editor of Women Warriors and National Heroes: Global Histories (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), Women and the Periodical Press in China’s Global Twentieth Century: A Space of Their Own? (Cambridge University Press, 2018), and Beyond Exemplar Tales: Women’s Biography in Chinese History (University of California Press, 2011).

Project Activities


“Publishing for Daily Life in Early Modern East Asia” (with Cynthia Brokaw). Lingua Franca: The History of the Book in Translation 6 (2020), 170 pp.


“The Other Vernacular: Commoner Knowledge Culture Circa 1919.” Special Issue “May Fourth and Translation.” Translating Wor(l)ds 4 (December 2020), 1-22.

“Kyōdai Jinbunken de no kenkyū seikatsu o furikaette” 京大人文研での研究生活を振り返って(Reflections on scholarly life at the Institute for Research in Humanities, Kyoto University). Jinbun 人文67 (2020), 9-15.

“Science for the Chinese Common Reader? Myriad Treasures and New Knowledge at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” Science in Context 30:4 (Winter 2017), 359-83.


“Twentieth-Century Vernacular Encylopedias,” in Literary Information in China: A History, ed.

Jack W. Chen, Anatoly Detwyler, Xiao Liu, Christopher Nugent, and Bruce Rusk (NY: Columbia University Press, forthcoming).

“In Search of the Chinese Common Reader: Vernacular Knowledge in the Age of New Media,”

in Edinburgh History of Reading: Volume 2: Common and Subversive Readers, ed. Jonathan Rose and Mary Hammond (Edinburgh University Press, 2020), 218-37.

“Myriad Treasures and One Hundred Sciences: Vernacular Chinese and Encyclopedic Japanese Knowledge at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,” in Reconsidering the Sinosphere: Cultural Transmissions and Transformations, ed. Qian Nanxiu, Richard J. Smith, and Zhang Bowei (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2020), 329-369.


Republican Lens: Gender, Visuality, and Experience in the Early Chinese Periodical Press Roundtable and Launch
Eugenia Lean (Columbia University), Ann (Rusty) Shteir (York University), Bernard Lightman (York University), Yi (Evie) Gu (University of Toronto, Scarborough), Doris Sung (York University)
Thursday, 3 March 2016

Human Kinds, Animals and Global Geography in Early Modern China
Yuming He (University of California, Davis)
Thursday, 3 November 2016

Constructing Citizens: Textbooks, c. 1900-1937
Peter Zarrow (University of Connecticut)
Thursday, 13 November 2014

How did Chinese Gynecology become Korean? A Comparative Case Study of “Women’s Diseases” in Heo Jun’s Precious Mirror of Eastern Medicine (Dongui bogam, 1613)
Yi-Li Wu (EASTmedicine Research Cluster, University of Westminster)
Thursday, 12 February 2014

Book Culture in Late Imperial China
Cynthia Brokaw (Brown University)
Thursday, 14 November 2013