Chinese common readers were not immune from the profound epistemic flux that defined the early twentieth-century Chinese intellectual field. While officials and social elites viewed these subliterate readers as an ignorant mass in need of cultural awakening and political tutelage, this paper argues for the efficacy and dynamism of the vernacular knowledge that circulated in commoner communities. Responsive to the common readers’ practical needs, this knowledge was also attuned to the demands of China’s increasingly global Republic.
The paper attempts to excavate this poorly understood knowledge culture from the interstices of a historical archive focused on elite projects of awakening and tutelage. Contrasting the model reader at the center of these projects with actual readers, it focuses on three aspects of vernacular knowledge. First, the physical form it took in cheap, soft-bound books produced by commercial publishers with vast inventories that in turns inspired and mimicked the hard-bound tomes put out by mainstream publishing houses. Second, the epistemic register of this knowledge which drew on familiar modalities—and recently imported methods—in offering readers guidance on urgent problems from opium addiction to cholera prevention. Third, the physical spaces where this knowledge was consumed: street-side bookstalls with flexible rental arrangements and an easy sociability, both of which were unmatched in rule-bound public reading rooms and government-regulated “mass” libraries. The paper ultimately reflects on the relationship between common reading and mass politics, or more precisely, between elite disdain for common reading and the failure of mass politics in China’s long Republic.