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Tensions between Gentry and Merchant Culture: Reconsidering Images and Texts in Qing Period Advertisements

Taiwan Studies Lecture by Wu Jen-Shu, Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica

Tuesday, March 29, 2016
3:00 PM - 5:00 PM
Charles E. Young Research Library Presentation Room

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In general, Qing period advertisements on wrapping papers and on posters were largely textual. Apart from a steady rise in literacy, this also symbolizes the intensification of commercial competition. With plagiarism and imitation becoming rampant in the urban centers of the commercially and culturally affluent Jiangnan region in particular, merchants and producers increasingly depended on conveying the authenticity of their goods and high repute to potential buyers. At the same time, the textual bent of advertisements clashed with the cultural ideals of many gentry, who as part of the literary elite were dedicated to the lofty values espoused by Societies for Cherishing Written Characters (Xizihui, 惜字會) and objected to such usage of sacred script as blasphemy: following the popularity of the Daoist Deity of Literature, Wenchang Dijun (文昌帝君) and the adoption of religious practices espousing literacy and official careers among the gentry, these associations emerged during the Qing dynasty and rose to prominence in the Jiangnan region. It was against this background that tensions between the profit-oriented merchant culture and examination-focused gentry ideals rose, with the explosion of advertisements resulting from the commercial and industrial growth after the opening of treaty ports further exacerbating the situation. However, as morality books (shanshu, 善書) and dramas came to promote the concept of “cherishing Written Characters” (xizi) among the lower orders of society, the content of these exhortations shifted focus from examination success towards material wealth and personal well-being, thereby gradually incorporating the same merchant culture that had hitherto been castigated as morally corrupt.

The UCLA Taiwan Studies Lectureship is a joint program of the UCLA Asia Institute and the Dean of Humanities and is made possible with funding from the Department of International and Cross-Strait Education, Ministry of Education, Taiwan, represented by the Education Division, Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles.

Sponsor(s): Center for Chinese Studies, Asia Pacific Center, UCLA Dean of Humanities, Taipei Economic and Cultural Organization in Los Angeles