Timing the Textbook: Capitalism, Development, and Western Knowledge in the Nineteenth-Century

Circa 1835, following a survey of recent Dutch publications in shogunal collections, the Japanese physician Koseki San’ei (1787–1839) concluded that among the strengths of new European approaches to education, a proactive attitude toward the power of cheap pedagogical print was paramount. European countries, Koseki declared, “produce affordable and easy-to-understand books on all arts and sciences, give them to impoverished scholars, and by doing so verse them in the arts and sciences.” “It is through this,” he maintained, “that they foster talent.”[1]


Blog Series: Learning by the Book

Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #lbtb18 or on this blog with a post of your own. Tweet or email us links to related discussions. Read more posts in this series, and check out the conference website.


Koseki’s words were no stray observation. Rather, they marked an attitude among Japanese scholars, whose seeds were evident as early as the latter 1810s and whose fruits would achieve full blossom during the second half of the century. By the 1870s, the unlicensed reprinting and translation of cheap elementary pedagogical texts from the West had come to occupy a central share of Japan’s print market, finding sponsorship at the highest levels of government, and causing no end of frustration for publishers such as Longman’s and Macmillan’s, whose entreaties to the Foreign Office about Japanese piracy proved impotent.

The affinity of Japanese scholars for European-language cheap pedagogical print has been the object of my attention for some time. In various venues, I have attempted to situate this phenomenon within a broader transnational scope, demonstrating how networks for the circulation of cheap pedagogical print spanning India, Indonesia, and China supplied and influenced efforts in Japan. At the intersection of imperial expansion and print capitalism (through projects of colonial education and missionary translation as well as the creation of new indigenous publishing houses), these networks elevated cheap pedagogical print into a global condition of learning in the nineteenth century.

Shifting away from networks of circulation, my presentation at Princeton this summer attempts to outline a deeper set of structural analogies in the nineteenth-century world that supported this conjuncture between imagined audiences of affordable, easy-to-read works in the “West” and literati elites in Japan. Cheap pedagogical print’s global popularity, I suggest, lay in the seeming solution it offered to new problems of time.

Time, to be sure, had long figured in how textbooks and other learning aids were understood: as so many remedies to ars longa, vita brevis. It was over the course of the eighteenth century, however, that a vocabulary of temporal thrift began to take on a pronounced role in both Western European and Japanese vernacular print markets. As part of their very titles, a rising tide of books promised to impart knowledge in “peu de temps,” in a “manière prompte,” “in no time,” “in a few minutes,” or to provide “fast routes” and “shortcuts”—in Japanese, hayamichi, chikamichi, shōkei. Yet it would be a mistake to perceive any direct continuity between early modern trends and the rationale of temporal thrift that came to dominate cheap pedagogical print starting in the 1830s. The subjects covered by these eighteenth-century texts were, first of all, relatively limited. English and French works whose titles invoked temporal thrift overwhelmingly offered instruction in foreign languages, commercial arithmetic, and the mastery of musical instruments. Japanese works also offered instruction in arithmetic, while adding calligraphy and everyday medical advice. More importantly, as several of these subjects already suggest, such eighteenth-century texts still adhered to a broader early modern conception of recreational time, wherein learning was pursued during moments of leisure, rather than in the course of professional life.

For the volumes of cheap pedagogical print that swept the world in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, such a distinction had all but collapsed. An obsession with speed and the techniques for its control, as historians have noted, was a hallmark of the age—an age that would witness the pioneering of psychological research on the “rapidity of learning,” in turn giving rise to the first quantitative visualizations of “learning curves.” But behind general valuations of speed lay a far more specific and pressing distinction. As articulated by new publishers such as Charles Knight, temporal thrift no longer had as its goal the mere service of recreational study. It functioned, instead, to resolve a new tension time within the capitalist labor market.

Summarized neatly in the pages of the Working Man’s Companion, which began serialization in 1831, the logic of cheap pedagogical print as a remedy to dilemmas of capitalist labor functioned as follows. New machines, new inventions and production processes, it was observed, were producing constant fluctuations in the labor market, rendering employment irregular for those once accustomed to exercising a single trade across their lifetimes. Workers trapped in a constant “state of change” could, however, ultimately “adapt themselves to these fluctuations,” were society only to provide them access to knowledge “extensively, quickly, [and] cheaply.”[2] To acquire new knowledge was “to acquire the readiness of shifting their occupation”—to “strike out new sources of industry” when one’s old sources had been rendered obsolete and thereby to affect “salutary changes in employment.”[3] This, then, was the significance of temporal thrift for cheap pedagogical print: its capacity to enable constant learning that matched the pace of the market’s constant fluctuations.

With this transformation came a repositioning of learning in the average life course, best symbolized by the coining of the term “opsimath” or “late learner.” The educational demands of life under capitalism entailed “the necessity of acquiring an acquaintance sometimes with the most elementary principles of [an] art, at a period of life when &#91one’s] habits were already formed, and a certain degree of aversion contracted for what we may call the discipline of apprenticeship in the rudiments of any sort of profession.”[4] Nineteenth-century publishing houses latched on to the figure of the opsimath, declaring that there was “no prejudice more false and fatal” than the view that “a man’s education ends when he leaves school.”[5] Readers were urged to “become schoolboys, as it were, in their manhood.”[6] Care for the opsimath encouraged works that were not only short and written in accessible language but that also minimized any assumptions of prior learning, emphasizing “sound practical acquaintance” over theoretical underpinnings. The goal was to convey knowledge to “grown-up persons who have no time for a more extended study of [a] science.”[7]

Cheap pedagogical print was thus the promise, for an age that felt itself always late in learning, that it was never too late. This promise resonated deeply, albeit for wholly separate reasons, with a new class of Japanese scholars who, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, were turning to the study of the Western arts and sciences. Maeno Ryōtaku (1723–1803) bemoaned “all the books on natural philosophy” that he would never read because he had “beg[un] his studies [of Western knowledge] late in life.”[8] Ōtsuki Gentaku (1757–1827) expressed his regrets as follows: “Nothing would compare with learning Dutch well and translating [Dutch] books … but I am too old.”[9]

More than isolated biographical disclosures, these complaints referred specifically to socio-institutional structures of the typical life course of scholars in Tokugawa Japan. Scholarly status remained rooted in the performance of fluency in classical Chinese discourses, and it was expected that the early decades of one’s life would be spent first mastering the Four Books and Six Classics.[10] The consequence, however, was that those who later directed their attention to the study of European languages did so only at a significantly more advanced age—for Ryōtaku’s generation, as late as in their forties or fifties. Such circumstances fueled doubt among many as to whether studying Western texts could ever yield a significant body of knowledge.[11]

It therefore fell upon proponents of Western Learning to demonstrate the contrary: Western knowledge could be acquired despite a late start. It was here that cheap pedagogical print proved its utility. Unlike Chinese texts, proponents argued, good comprehension of Western texts did not require the strenuous mastery of a large canon, nor burdensome philological and philosophical analyses. Writing in his Treasury of Dutch Learning (1835), Udagawa Yōan (1798–1846) maintained that an acquaintance with basic Dutch grammar and orthography, the Gregorian calendar, and world geography was all the preparation required to understand most Dutch books.[12] Yanagawa Shunsan (1832–70) and his contemporary Kano Ryōmin (dates unknown) stressed that the language of Western texts was simple, direct, and easily assimilable.[13] With just Webster’s Spelling Book, Charles Baker’s Circle of Knowledge, and Sarah Cornell’s Primary Geography, Shunsan contended in his Convenient Overview of Western Learning (1866), the entire realm of Western knowledge stood open.[14]

The vision of Western Learning articulated by these scholars was thus intimately shaped by a world of cheap pedagogical print—print designed for the quick acquisition of knowledge adapted to the demands of the new labor market’s temporality. The pressures of temporal thrift emerging under the transition to industrial capitalism can therefore be understood as generating broader conjunctures for disparate groups negotiating their own dilemmas of time and learning. More specifically, the temporal thrift of cheap pedagogical print may have helped actors around the world legitimate their study of so-called “Western knowledge” in the face of existing indigenous knowledge traditions.

The manner in which cheap pedagogical print’s appeal to time thrift proved conducive in this arena becomes ever more apparent when we track the transformations of 1870s Japan. As stadial theories of civilization began to take hold among Japanese thinkers, debates arose as to the “lateness” of Japan’s civilizational development in comparison to Western Europe’s. Commercial publishers as well as the new Meiji government took to the unlicensed reprinting and translation of European-language cheap pedagogical print as part of their policies of “civilization and enlightenment” that would raise Japan to the shoulders of the Western powers. If cheap pedagogical print had once been the solution to changing career paths in an ever-fluctuating marketplace, it now served, for Japan, as the solution to changing civilizations in an ever-fluctuating world of nations. In this sense, cheap pedagogical print helped sustain hopes that Japanese society might rapidly modernize and acquire a competitive edge, with little need for fundamentally radical alterations. One had to learn; one always started a bit behind. But with the right kind of books, it was never too late.

Hansun Hsiung is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, Germany.


  1. Koseki San’ei, Chūjinsho : Yōgakusha kōhonshū, ed. Satō Shōsuke (Nara: Tenri Daigaku Shuppanbu, 1986), 396.  ↩
  2. The Working-Man’s Companion: The Results of Machinery, namely, Cheap Production and Increased Employment, 2nd ed. (London: Charles Knight, 1831), 9, 194, 196.  ↩
  3. Ibid., 195–96.  ↩
  4. [George Craik], The Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties, 2 vols. (London: Charles Knight, 1830–31), 60.  ↩
  5. Armand Colin, quoted in Caroline Duroselle, “La Libraire Armand Colin (1870–1939)” (D.E.A. thesis, Université de Paris X, 1991), 57.  ↩
  6. [Craik], Pursuit of Knowledge, 61.  ↩
  7. J. Beete Jukes, The School Manual of Geology, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1876), vii (from preface to 1863 first edition).  ↩
  8. Maeno Ryōtaku, Kanrei higen Private Words on Capturing the Infinite with the Finite, in Nihon shisō taikei, vol. 64, ed. Numata Jirō, Matsumura Akira, and Satō Shōsuke (Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 1976), 129.  ↩
  9. Ōtsuki Gentaku, Preface, in Sugita Genpaku, Oranda iji mondō Catechism on Subjects Related to Dutch Medicine, in Nihon shisō taikei, vol. 64, 183.  ↩
  10. Hirose Kyokusō , Kyūkei sōdō zuihitsu (1855–57), in Hyakka zuihitsu, vol. 1 (Tokyo: Kokusho kankōkai, 1917), 110.  ↩
  11. See, for instance, Matsudaira Sadanobu, Taikan Zakki  (ca. 1790), in Zoku Nihon zuihitsu taisei, vol. 6 (Tokyo: Yoshikawa kōbunkan, 1980), 72.  ↩
  12. Udagawa Yōan, Rangaku chōhōki Treasury of Dutch Learning.  ↩
  13. Shōtō Kano , Rangaku hitori annai (Edo: Izumiya Hanbei; Izumiya Kichibe; Yamadaya Sasuk, 1856), 1a–1b; Yanagawa Shunsan, Yōgaku shishin (Edo: Janagawa Sunzao, 1857), 2b–3a.  ↩
  14. Yanagawa Shunsan, Yōgaku shishin. Eigaku-bu (Edo: Yamatoya Kichibei, 1867), 19a.  ↩
Suggested citation: Hansun Hsiung, “Timing the Textbook: Capitalism, Development, and Western Knowledge in the Nineteenth-Century,” History of Knowledge, May 23, 2018, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/05/23/timing-the-textbook-capitalism-development-and-western-knowledge-in-the-nineteenth-century/.