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China’s publishing industry under Mao was one of the 20th century’s great media behemoths, providing books for between 20 and 25 per cent of the world’s population. Directed from a Beijing, a network of dozens of publishing houses churned out works in every conceivable genre to nourish an increasingly literate and politicized citizenry.


Compared to topics of traditional concern for Western book history, understanding of this system is still in its infancy, but the availability of new publishing archives and a growing appreciation of the need to preserve modern Chinese books offers opportunities to remedy this deficit. Focusing on the early 1970s – a period of resurgence after the contractions of the early Cultural Revolution - this talk examines the ways in which the requirements of Maoist politics spurred extraordinary changes in China’s print culture and how publishing cadres navigated the complex, and at times contradictory, interactions between politics and print under socialism. It concludes with attempts to move on from Mao after his death, drawing on the speaker’s newly published research on the physical destruction of books in the late 1970s.

Dr Matt Wills came to Peter Harrington from the University of California, San Diego, where he recently finished a PhD in History, specialising in the history of the book in China. Matt spent much of his graduate school career assembling a sizeable collection of modern Chinese propaganda which won both the National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest in 2019 and the inaugural California Young Book Collector’s Prize. He has also published in the Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America.

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