“Pirates and Publishers: A Social History of Copyright in Modern China” by Fei Hsien Wang


More than a decade ago, when my wife and I first published a pocket-sized English translation of the Chinese almanac for the launch of New York’s Museum of Chinese in America, we reached out to a prominent Hong Kong publisher who held the rights. He immediately insisted on meeting us, partly intrigued that such a vernacular publication was worthy of museum interest, but mostly because he was curious about who would willingly pay for his content.

The almanac’s content, I soon learned, was long a matter of contention. The historian Richard J Smith has traced the annual document’s colorful roots in the nation’s imperial calendar, which delineated weeks and months for the nation but offered daily divinations for the emperor alone. For centuries the imperial court played whack-a-mole with renegade geomancers publishing their own readings until the early Qing court gave in and began selling a certified public version, each official document threatening unauthorized reproduction with decapitation. The result—familiar to anyone who’s ever chuckled at the FBI warnings still left in pirate DVDs—was a fresh crop of bootleg copies, each with the imperial threat reprinted in full.


Pirates and Publishers: A Social History of Copyright in Modern China, Fei-Hsien Wang (Princeton University Press, October 2019)
Pirates and Publishers: A Social History of Copyright in Modern China, Fei-Hsien Wang (Princeton University Press, October 2019)

Stories like this make a suitable prologue for Fei-Hsien Wang’s Pirates and Publishers, a Social History of Copyright in Modern China, essentially a 300-page debunking of the myth that copyright was an entirely foreign concept foisted on China by foreign powers. The actual story is significantly more complicated, reflecting the country’s troubled history at large, but understanding China’s present state of intellectual property requires a grasp of two perennial truths: first, that copyright—and its darker cousin, censorship—has long been a web of mutual convenience between the state and commercial publishers; and second, that the history of publishing in China is, in fact, the history of piracy in China.

Wang starts by laying bare the oft-repeated maxim that the Chinese have no word for “copyright”. In fact, now there are two: zhuzuoquan (literally, “author’s right”) and banquan (“the right to printing blocks”). And therein lies the problem: zhuzuoquan is the popular term in legislation, but banquan turns up in any contract between writers and publishers regarding specific fees per number of reproductions, which essentially means that laws established to protect authors’ rights get diluted when others enter the field with their own means of production.

On some levels, the claim of “copyright as foreign concept” does have some validity, since China’s early legal groundwork began largely as a result of interacting with other nations. Qing copyright law in 1911 borrowed heavily from Japan’s legislation of 1899 (including the term term itself), the result of lobbying by Fukuzawa Yukichi, a polymath public intellectual who advocated reforms along the lines of the “modern, civilized” West both on philosophical grounds (France’s laws were the preferred model) and technological advances (movable type rendered any laws concerning woodblocks obsolete). Fukuzawa was responsible even for the word itself, combining the pre-existing Japanese words for “licence” and “owning printing blocks.”

Fukuzawa’s foundations also proved prescient in China, particularly with imperial exams being replaced by a more forward-looking knowledge economy. But then things got muddled. Revisions to Qing law under the new Republic were barely enforced during the civil war and (ironically) Japanese occupation. After 1949, copyright was ignored entirely in the collectivist mentality of the People’s Republic. Not until 1990, in fact, when China was campaigning to join the World Trade Organization and the Berne Convention (a reciprocal copyright treaty dating from 1886), did the country take the matter seriously enough to generate proper legislation regarding intellectual property.


Which is not to say that authors and publishers had no recourse. After methodically laying out how China’s laws came into being, Wang shifts gears with an entertaining litany of authors and publishers taking matters into their own hands. Between 1905 and 1906, booksellers in Shanghai (then China’s undisputed publishing center) formed not one but two civic organizations—the Shanghai Booksellers Guild and the Shanghai Book Trade Association—to combat unauthorized publication. Members would regularly patrol the marketplace, sometimes employing undercover operatives and private detectives (particularly in situations outside of Shanghai). Ideally, disputes were settled among the bookstores themselves without involving the police, with the Guild’s anti-piracy force often conducting its own raids of pirated stash.

Sometimes, though, a higher authority was needed. Given the government’s general ambivalence in defending writers’ rights, the quickest way to get official attention was by harnessing the state’s long-held obsession with information control—an uneasy alliance of publisher and censor that pleased both sides only when pirated goods were ideologically provocative.

A more delicate situation by far—familiar even in Fukuzawa’s Japan—was when the biggest publisher of pirate editions turned out to be the government itself. Commercial publishers under the Nationalist regime found themselves competing with state-owned enterprises offering Chinese readers cheap knock-offs of translated foreign writings. After 1949, state-owned publishers found themselves on the other side, victims of the old argument that cheap (and sometimes free) editions served the greater interests of the people.

With all private property—physical or intellectual—becoming anathema after 1949, the only card left for publishers to play was one of quality control. Here, even the Communist Party half-heartedly embraced, if not full copyright protection, at least a spirit of “reprinting with permission.” Recounting such an announcement by the Xinhua Bookstore and Liberation Publishing, Wang writes:


When these two party-owned publishing enterprises addressed their concerns about recent “free reprints” of their titles by “other publishers,” what they worried about were the flaws and mistakes [typos, missing sentences, unreasonably tiny fonts] rather than violation of copyright.


Rather than prosecute the pirates, she continues, the Propaganda Department helped them with printing hardware and access to content, recruiting them to the Communist cause. Compared with the Guild’s often unscrupulous measures in the 1930s, the CCP’s handling of the piracy “was relatively gentle, if not kind.”


Regarding copyright and intellectual property, Wang’s book doesn’t exactly tell us where we are today, nor does put modern China in context either with dynastic China or with modern developments in the rest of the world. The argument—which dates from shortly after the 1900 Boxer Rebellion—that copyright legislation is necessary to “lift China into the league of modern nations” overlooks the lack of unanimity among several of those nations, or indeed, how long modern definitions took to emerge. Charles Dickens, in the mid-1800s, loudly bemoaned his lost income from the United States (though, to be fair, Poe and Longfellow weren’t protected in England during their lifetimes, either).

But those accounts can be found elsewhere. What Wang does offer, through both standard resources and a unique cross-referencing of Booksellers Guild records with the Shanghai Municipal Archives, is forgotten slice of China’s economic and cultural history, largely presented here—at least by the standards of copyright law—as a rollicking read.

Ken Smith is an award-winning critic and journalist. He covers music and cultural developments on five continents for a wide range of media.