Publication Title

Manuscript Cultures

Document Type


Department or Program

Asian Studies

Publication Date



In the 19th century, a flourishing literature of entertainment circulated through the handwritten medium in the urban center of Beijing. Thousands of manuscripts collected in the area in the early 20th century trace their origins to scribal publishers which specialized in the handwritten production of stories and songs, nourished by the vibrant musical culture of the capital and competing with printed librettos in the urban book market. This article takes a close look at Baiben Zhang (“Mr. Zhang of the hundred volumes”), the most prominent of these venues, and its operational model from branding and pricing to sales and distribution. With products spanning the range of northern performance genres and titles numbering at least in the hundreds, the success of Baiben Zhang calls to attention important channels of commercial manuscript production and distribution in the late Qing. The article concludes with questions on the distinctness of Beijing as a locale, the circulation of Chinese popular literature in the urban setting, and the factors behind the continuity of scribal operations in an age perceived to be dominated by print.

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