Cynthia J. Brokaw Chen Family Professor of China Studies, Professor of History

Cynthia Brokaw received her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1984. A specialist in late imperial Chinese history (ca. 1400 – 1900), she taught at Vanderbilt University, the University of Oregon, and the Ohio State University before coming to Brown in 2009. Her first work, The Ledgers of Merit and Demerit: Social Change and Moral Order in Late Imperial China, examined the role of popular religious belief in the formation of social ideology. Her current research focus is the history of the book in China. Commerce in Culture: The Sibao Book Trade in the Qing and Republican Periods, based on archival and field work in China, is a study of a rural book publishing industry active in distributing popular texts throughout south China. She is now engaged in research on the role that print culture played in the re-integration of Sichuan province into the Chinese political and cultural mainstream over the course of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

Brown Affiliations

Research Areas

scholarly work


“Regional Publishing and Late Imperial Scholarship: The Zunjing shuyuan  尊經書院 of Chengdu and Scholarly Publication in Late-Qing Sichuan,” in Imprimer autrement: Le livre non commercial dans la Chine impériale, edited by Michela Bussotti and Jean-Pierre Drège (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 2014).

“The History of the Book in East Asia,” with Peter Kornicki, in The History of the Book in East Asia, edited with Peter Kornicki (Franham, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013). 

From Woodblocks to the Internet: Chinese Publishing and Print Culture in Transition, edited with Christopher A. Reed (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2010).

Commerce in Culture: The Sibao Book Trade in the Qing and Republican Periods (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2007). Chinese translation:《文化贸易:清代至民国时期四保的书籍交易》(Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, forthcoming 2014).

Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China, edited with Kai-wing Chow (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005).

The Ledgers of Merit and Demerit: Social Change and Moral Order in Late Imperial China (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).  Chinese translation: 《功过格:中華帝囯晚期的社会変迁与道德秩序》(Hangzhou: Zhejiang renmin chubanshe, 1999).

research overview

Cynthia Brokaw researches the history of woodblock publishing and the history of the book in late imperial China. She is most interested how the textual knowledge was transmitted to non-elites over the course of the late Ming and Qing dynasties and what the political, social, and cultural repercussions of that knowledge transmission were.  To that end, she studies the increase and diffusion of commercial publishing operations; the simultaneous development of networks of bookselling; and the nature of the book culture that was spread through these networks over the course of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries.

research statement

Cynthia Brokaw focuses her research on the history of the book in China from the late sixteenth century through the early twentieth century—that is, from the beginnings of the great boom in woodblock publishing that marked the late Ming through the Qing dynasty into the early twentieth century, when woodblock publishing was in decline. Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China (University of California Press, 2005), a volume of essays she co-edited with Kai-wing Chow, was one of the first works in English to explore this relatively new field within Chinese studies. Commerce in Culture: The Sibao Book Trade in the Qing and Republican Periods (Harvard University Asia Center, 2007) is a study of an important regional publishing industry, centered in the hinterland of southeastern China, and its role on the spread of book culture throughout south China from the late seventeenth through the early twentieth centuries. Based on archival work and extensive field work in the two villages that formed the core of this industry, this work examines the text-production process in Sibao, traces the networks of itinerant book-selling and bookstores through which Sibao texts were distributed, and describes the wide range of texts—primers and textbooks, ritual handbooks, medical manuals, fortune-telling guides, poetry collections, novels, and so forth—that these rural publishers produced. Through the dissemination of these books, the Sibao publisher-booksellers were acting as agents of cultural integration, disseminating the core texts of Chinese culture to poor county seats, interior market towns, and isolated peasant villages.

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.

funded research