Reading Note: Scribal Culture in the Edo Period (Kornicki)

My personal reading notes are usually too sketchy and poorly-written to be made public, but occasionally I write more detailed summaries for works that I consider particularly important, such as this excellent overview by Peter Kornicki on Japanese manuscript culture of the Edo period. Reproduced below is my reading note on the article, with minimal revisions based on my original notes.


Peter F. Kornicki, “Manuscript, Not Print: Scribal Culture in the Edo Period,” Journal of Japanese Studies 32.1 (2006): 23-52.

This article seeks to correct the usual scholarly characterization of Japan’s Edo period (1600-1868) as a “print culture,” (shuppan bunka 出版文化), a perspective which overlooks the continued circulation of many manuscript books. Kornicki sees this misconception as having arisen from the fact that most previous scholarship had relied on collections of large university libraries and museums that hold very few manuscripts, whereas only recently did local archives, with their larger manuscript collections, become widely available to researchers.

Kornicki classifies Edo-period manuscript into “private” and “public” types, moving on to list and explain the forms of texts that belonged to each category (for Kornicki’s definition of each type, see p. 27). Private manuscripts included financial and legal documents preserved for future reference, “accounts of journeys, personal poetry collections, records of music performances… commonplace books or notebooks filled with lengthy extracts copied out for future reference,” and so on (28). Private manuscripts might have been produced for reasons of religious devotion, as calligraphic works art, or to reproduce hard-to-acquire books and banned books.

Public manuscripts might have included “books of limited local interest, news, and illicit books” (33). The last category would have included, among others, the important genre of jitsuroku 実録, or semi-fictional accounts of political and sensational events. These public manuscripts could be produced for “the preservation and transmission of knowledge or texts, the restriction of access to texts, a response to purely local needs and interests, and the evasion of censorship” (33). Kornicki ends this section by providing several examples of the types of manuscripts found in smaller local collections. There is also a case study of the distribution of extant copies of the jitsuroku text Keian taiheiki 慶安太平記, which did not become printed until the early Meiji period.

The conclusion discusses several points not directly addressed in the main text. Kornicki’s ultimate conclusion is that Edo Japan had a continued and possibly ever more vibrant manuscript culture that makes it insufficient to characterize this period as a “print culture.” I think his evidence is very convincing.

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Reading Note: An Introduction to Research in Chinese History (Tonami et al.)

Tonami Mamoru 砺波護, Kishimoto Mio 岸本美緒, and Sugiyama Masaaki 杉山正明 (eds.) Chūgoku rekishi kenkyū nyūmon 中国歴史研究入門. Nagoya: Nagoya daigaku shuppankai, 2006. (View on Webcat Plus)

If you ever need to get a quick overview of Japanese scholarship on a particular period of Chinese history, this is the book to go to. It divides the entirety of Chinese history into eleven chronological chapters of thirty pages or less (plus one thematic chapter on China in the world and two appendixes on reference works). Each chapter gives a concise overview of past scholarship, major sources, and relevant reference works. Each chapter is written by several specialists of the period, with a total of twenty-nine contributors for the whole book. The structure and emphasis differ quite a bit depending on the chapter, but overall it is very easy to find a particular subsection of interest, making the book a great reference work.

Based on my quick survey of the Ming and Qing chapters, the sections on sources and reference works may not be the most useful for non-Japanese scholars, since there are other Chinese and English guides that are more detailed and comprehensive. The reviews of past scholarship, on the other hand, are great – unless someone has written a review article on a particular period, these are probably the most concise summaries of Japanese scholarship that we will ever be able to find. The book also incorporates major Chinese and English language scholarship, which is a plus.

In all, this book should provide a convenient supplement to the more detailed but somewhat dated guide by Yamane Yukio 山根幸夫, Chugokushi kenkyu nyumon 中国史研究入門 (1983; Chinese translation available through 社会科学文献出版社, 2000).