Affordable Civilization: Education Reform, Textbook Piracy, and the Question of ‘New Knowledge’ in Modern China

Beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, as the intensified Western aggressions expedited the Qing Empire’s decline, Chinese sociocultural elites started to question the value and relevance of their traditional knowledge system. Believing knowledge to be the secret behind the rise of the Western powers, these elites avidly consumed so-called New Learning (xinxue), that is, general, mostly Western knowledge that was new and foreign for China.1 Importing, translating, and reading books containing Western knowledge were deemed urgent tasks, crucial to the survival of China. As the renowned reformer Liang Qichao (1873–1929) put it, “if a nation wants to strengthen itself, it should translate more Western books; if a student wants to stand on his own feet, he should read more Western books.”2

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The demand for such books expanded drastically in China after the Qing state launched a top-down, full-scale education reform in 1905. Following the recent global trend of mass schooling and general education, it established a modern school system. The centuries-old civil service examination system was abolished for good. Instead of the traditional Confucian canons, Chinese students enrolling in these new schools would be exposed to a new set of staple subjects that students around the world were also learning: English, mathematics, sciences, geography, and world history. As Western and thus “new” knowledge emerged as the new intellectual orthodoxy, China transformed from a long-time knowledge exporter in East Asia into a client of an increasingly Anglo American–centered knowledge order.

Between 1902 and 1909, the number of Chinese students enrolling in schools at various levels increased from 7,000 to 1.6 million. After the Qing were overthrown in the 1911 Revolution, that number continued to grow because modern education remained a priority in the new Republic of China’s state-building agenda.3 The expanding modern education sector in China created an unprecedented demand for teaching materials and facilitated a thriving textbook market there. The problem? The Chinese state and private publishers often did not have sufficient capacity to produce original textbooks for this new standard curriculum. Many relied on imported textbooks in a foreign language, especially English, for the time being.

Noticing such demand, several leading publishers in the English-speaking world started to explore the Chinese market. Companies such as Longman’s and Macmillan’s in Britain and Ginn & Co. in the United States had been expanding their international operations by targeting newly established nation-states as well as old empires launching modern state-building projects. Macmillan, for example, established an extensive publishing and distribution network throughout Britain’s formal and informal empire. Since 1900, Ginn & Co. had also expanded business in places that were under American influence such as the Philippines, Haiti, Cuba, and elsewhere in Latin America. While such expansion was often presented by these firms as some sort of civilizing mission, the goal was economic profit. China, a massive country that had just launched a major education reform effort, had great potential in this regard. As George Plimpton, the general manager of Ginn & Co., once optimistically estimated in 1911, since “there must be millions of students studying English in China,” the company’s popular Prince’s Grammar should easily bring enough profit from this new market to give the partners “some jelly to put between our bread.”4

Things were not quite so easy, however. Textbook orders from China grew steadily, but foreign publishers quickly encountered a harsh challenge: local piracy. Although it was not uncommon to use textbooks in a foreign language on more specialized subjects in Chinese high schools and colleges, the original copies imported from New York and London were deemed too expensive for most Chinese readers. To meet the soaring demand for “Western knowledge” textbooks, Chinese publishers often took a shortcut by translating, reprinting, or plagiarizing the latest textbooks from Japan, Great Britain, and the United States. These cheap reprints and unauthorized translations were sold for between four-fifths and one-third of the price of their counterparts from overseas. Consequently, leading Japanese textbook providers such as Hakubunkan and Fuzanbō decided to withdraw from the Chinese market, having been overwhelmed by the local pirates.

Frontispiece and title page of P. V. N. Myers’s General History, revised edition, 1906. First published by Ginn & Co. in 1889, it was a popular textbook for American college and high school students. In 1911, Ginn & Co. filed the first Sino–American copyright infringement lawsuit against Commercial Press for pirating this book. Image source: Internet Archive.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, several American and British textbook publishers tried to protect their profit in China by filing copyright infringement lawsuits; however, they lost in most cases, owing to a fundamental flaw in the only applicable legal clause at the time.5 Article XI of the Renewed Sino-American Treaty of Commercial and Navigation of 1903 was a vehicle of the foreign powers to bring China into the emerging international copyright regime. Intriguingly, however, this clause only recognized and protected the foreign copyright of books “especially prepared for the use and education of the Chinese people.”6 It is not entirely clear whether the treaty commissioners had assumed the Chinese would and could consume only literary and artistic works tailor-made for them. Or perhaps the authors of the treaty intentionally allowed the Chinese to freely translate and reproduce general knowledge from the West in order to enhance the “awakening of China” and increase American cultural influence there, as the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program did.7 In any case, this clause created a loophole for the Chinese to legitimately make unauthorized reprints of almost any foreign book prepared for readers in its home country.

Cover page of the Commercial Press’s 1911 catalog of reprinted foreign books, which included a statement that it had been approved by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Education. Source: 893.544; Box 10237; Decimal Files 1910–1929; Department of State Central Files (RG 59); National Archives College Park.

Meanwhile, Chinese publishers and their lawyers used the discourses of an “awakening of China” and a “civilization mission” to justify their reprinting operations in a very different way. They presented themselves as almost Prometheus-like figures, breaking the rules to enlighten their people. For instance, in the 1911 Ginn & Co. v. Commercial Press case, Commercial Press’s attorney Alexander Ting (Ting Rong, 1880–1957) argued that its reprinting of Ginn & Co.’s General History was a noble and patriotic act for the greater good of the Chinese nation. Ting, a young Chinese lawyer who had received his legal training in England, stated that Commercial Press, a leading textbook publisher in China, had been providing “excellent works” to schools across the nation at “moderate prices” because they had a “public-spirited concern for the advancement of education in China.”8 Their legal reprinting of Western textbooks was helping the Chinese to gain access to Western knowledge more affordably so that China could develop itself. If English-speaking countries regarded themselves as fair and civilized, they should show their generosity and sympathy toward this underdeveloped country instead of harshly accusing Commercial Press of piracy. 9

Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, the Republic of China’s government and the Shanghai Booksellers’ Guild repeatedly made similar arguments to justify why China, as a “late-comer” trying to catch up and as a “yet-to-become civilized” society, was resisting foreign pressure to join the Berne Convention. China refused to renegotiate Article XI of the 1903 Sino-American Treaty for the same reason.

1940 catalog of English-language textbooks by Far Eastern Book Co. It states that Far Eastern is “The Biggest Re-printed Book firm in China.” Source: AUC90/10, Allen & Unwin Company Records, University of Reading.

What happened in China in the early twentieth century was by no means unique. Japanese thinkers in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century, as Hansun Hsiung has shown, shared a similar mentality. In fact, many sociocultural elites in developing societies still believe that faster and larger-scale piracy of the latest Western books (and machines and other technologies) will effectively narrow the gap between them and the developed world and enhance their ability to compete with the leading powers.

In my presentation, I will discuss in more detail the significance of these developments. Although the Chinese piracy of foreign textbooks provided a cheap alternative for domestic consumption, their production was far from amounting to the acts of resistance that many publishers claimed. In fact, it was precisely in the process of such piracy that “Western knowledge” was turned into the new “standard” knowledge around the world. Chinese publishers’ piracy reinforced the domination of the knowledge they sold and created a never-ending cycle of pirating the latest “Western” works in order to catch up with the “West.”

Fei Hsien Wang is an assistant professor in the Department of History, Indiana University Bloomington. She is also a research associate at the Centre for History and Economics, University of Cambridge.

  1. On the complicated cultural exchange that occurred as New Learning knowledge emerged, see Michael Lackner and Natascha Viltinghoff, eds., Mapping Meanings: The Field of New Learning in Late Qing China (Leiden: Brill, 2004); Michael Lackner, Iwo Amelung, and Joachim Kurtz, eds., New Terms for New Ideas: Western Knowledge and Lexical Change in Late Imperial China (Leiden: Brill, 2001); and the WSC-Databases, ↩︎
  2. Liang Qichao, Xixue shumu biao [An annotated bibliography of “New Learning” books], 1b. ↩︎
  3. Wang Di, “Qingmo xinzheng yu jindai xuetang de xingqi” [Late Qing political reform and the rise of modern schooling&93;, Jindaishi yanjiu &91;Modern History] 3 (1987): 255. ↩︎
  4. “George A. Plimpton to C.H. Thurber,” September 26, 1911, George A. Plimpton Papers, box 22, folder 17. ↩︎
  5. William Alford, To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense: Intellectual Property Law in Chinese Civilization (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 42–43. See also Wu Lin-Chun, “Qingmo Minchu Zhong-Mei banquan zhi zheng” [Chinese-U.S. Copyright Disputes in Late Qing and Early Republican China], Guoli Zhengzhi Daxue Lishi Xuebao [National Chengchi University Journal of History] 38 (November 2012): 97–136. ↩︎
  6. “The Renewed Sino-American Treaty of Commercial and Navigation of 1903,” reprinted in Treaties and Agreements with and Concerning China, 1894–1919, ed. J. MacMurray (New York: Oxford University Press), 1921. For a discussion of this clause, see Alford, To Steal a Book, 36–46. ↩︎
  7. The American Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program was initiated by the Theodore Roosevelt administration in 1907 to enable Chinese students to study in the United States. It was founded by the indemnity the Americans received from China after the Boxer Rebellion. For a discussion of this scholarship scheme, see Teresa Brawner Bevis, A History of Higher Education Exchange: China and America (New York, Routledge, 2014), 79–94. ↩︎
  8. “Ding Feizhang lüshi bianhu ci” [Statements by Attorney Ting Rong], in Zhongding fanyin waiguo shuji banquan jiaoshe ando [Documentation of copyright disputes regarding reprinting foreign books, updated edition], Shanghai Municipal Archives S313-1-138. ↩︎
  9. Ibid. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Fei-Hsien Wang, “Affordable Civilization: Education Reform, Textbook Piracy, and the Question of ‘New Knowledge’ in Modern China,” History of Knowledge, May 21, 2019,