Writing

Expanding Empires & Communications: An Unofficial Sequel to Harold Innis's Work

Let me first begin by stating that this paper is by no means to be taken as a completed, stand- alone examination of communication through empires. To truly compose a sequel to Harold Adams Innis's piece, "Empire & Communications"1, would require one to actually complete a full length book. Given the limited length required for this work, we can designate it as to being a brief sampling of what a continuation of Innis's work could potentially (perhaps in the future) look like. An appetizer before the meal, if you will. But, dare not, by any means, assume this writing to be nothing more than bones with no meat. To cover a number of empires would easily exceed the limitations of this paper; but to narrow our observing eyes to one of massive size and history, we can get a delicious taste of potential for a great book. This paper, which you hold in your hands, will act as your guide into China; a nation that has rejoiced in the beauty of reading and writing for centuries; from its days of writing on bones, through wood block printing, into today; and ending on a brief observation of the 21st century (the whole of it, not just China), as Harold Innis did of the 20th century.

"As early as the sixteenth century BCE, in the Shang Dynasty, when there was hardly any writing, not to mention writing technology, in other parts of the world, the Chinese were using turtle shells and other animal bones for inscriptions."2 Gu, 2009

Oracle bones, the starting point of writing in ancient China, are exactly what one might think they are. That is to say, these were turtle shells and animal bones in which a diviner would write a question regarding the future, heat said bone until it cracked, and use their holy powers to interpret the cracks in the bone for their answer.3 I'm not joking. Take a moment to understand the power religion and mysticism had in this time period, look up a picture of an oracle bone, gaze at it in wonder, perhaps even ponder for a moment if the readings were ever accurate, and then we'll continue. A quote to stir the imagination, describing the "history" of how writing came to be in China:

"Cangjie, according to one legend, saw a divine being whose face had unusual features which looked like a picture of writings. In imitation of his image, Cangjie created the earliest written characters. After that, certain ancient accounts go on to say, millet rained from heaven and the spirits howled every night to lament the leakage of the divine secret of writing. Another story says that Cangjie saw the footprints of birds and beasts, which inspired him to create written characters."4 Welleslian International, 1997

Magic, mysticism, and otherworldly wonders aside; we can observe a bit from these oracle bones, and see the future unfold with our own eyes. To create an entire writing system, for the sake of aiding the emperor with all of his questions, is a marvel in itself. This is the official starting point for written communication in Chinese history. It would continue this way for a few more centuries, even after the development of the woodblock printing system during the Song Dynasty. It was not until moveable type during the Ming Dynasty that writing became "essential to respectability" in China.5

Yes, while it is quite true there was something of a renaissance of literature and art during the Song Dynasty, it was very short lived. The improvement in printing technology during the Ming Dynasty allowed for massive printing of many works; classic works from the Song Dynasty being the most popular.6 The people in this time seemed so obsessed with reading, borrowing, and owning books; any subject was fair game. Fiction, history, philosophy (especially Confucius), geomancy, ; whatever they could get their hands on it seems. Reading represented enlightenment, and regarded an essential in this society; to not read implied a lack of intelligence.

Going back to early writing, compare this state of mind to that of the Shang Dynasty (oracle bones & bronze inscriptions); in which reading meant power. We return to our friend, Baotong Gu, in his work "From Oracle Bones to Computers"; who briefly paints the image for us at the end of Chapter 4, on page 116.

"With oracle inscriptions, access to the writing medium seemed non-exclusive as tortoise shells and animal bones were obviously readily available to the ordinary people, but the use of the medium was limited mostly to the ruling class. In the invention and use of bronze inscriptions, access to the written communication medium was extremely exclusive and almost totally limited to the rulers and the aristocrats. This exclusive access resulted in the use of bronze inscriptions as the means to communicate with the God and ultimately interpret the God's will to legitimize the rulers' reign"7 Gu, 2009.

It is easily understood from this statement by Mr. Gu that bronze was not a readily available to the public metal. In fact, it was a commodity, enjoyed only by the ruling class and the ultra rich aristocrats. In this, the emperor controlled the flow of information to his people. Through bronze, he could speak to God. He alone had God's ear, and he was not quite generous to share it with the common people. Gu also speaks of emperors using this control as a means of keeping track of money and slaves. This bares resemblance to the European and African empires Harold Innis speaks; in which only royalty and the chosen elite were permitted to read, as a means of keeping the minds of the peasants numb. Think on Egypt, in which the Pharaoh had the people at large at his gracious mercy, as his educated elite could predict the flooding of the rivers, when to harvest, etc.; a gift that those not living in the palace had absolutely no access to.8

We move back up to the Song Dynasty, where print had reached an almost magic moment in time, and right back into the Ming Dynasty. How one could better understand these two defining moments in writing history could be compared quite reasonably to the Renaissance Period and the Age of Enlightenment, back over in Europe during the 14th and 18th centuries, respectably.9 10

"The evolution from traditional Chinese woodblock printing (xylography) to Western-style mechanized printing is an important part of that story as is the transformation of traditional Chinese print culture and commerce into modern Chinese print."11 Reed, 2004.

We will now cross the threshold of the Golden Age of printing in China, into 19th and early 20th century; in which the ways of the Western devil began to cross over into Chinese culture; mixing the traditional with the modern; changing China forever. It is in this time frame that woodblock printing went from revolutionary to novelty from the past. It is, as Christoper A. Reed will have us to believe to be the birth (or "ground zero", whichever analogy you prefer) of Chinese capitalism. I'll apologize in advance if this section becomes a bit too quote heavy, but I feel it is important for the reader to absorb these words as well as my own, to feel as connected to this study on communication and history as I do.

"Books are the most valuable treasure in the world. For it is in books that we find discriminated the good and the bad in human nature and the strong and weak points in the ways of the world. In this world of ours, it takes well-read men to 'cultivate their persons' and consequently to 'govern rightly their states'"12 Congtian, 1812.

By the end of the 18th Century, going into the 19th , it was well-established the system of bookstores in China, particularly Beijing and Shanghai.13 It was the natural next stage of printed books, as it was in Europe, after the marvel and awe in reading for the sake of reading slowly deteriorated into a trading system in which one traded money for the knowledge found in books. Bibliophiles were now having their need to read and own books easily catered to, as the technology had made it even easier to obtain books than ever before; and it would only be natural that business-savvy men with visions of profiting on this once culture-driven joy to come along to be the ones that would meet the demand by building bookstores. One could argue that it was a win/win for both the buyer and the seller. In the newly capitalist views of 19th century China, bookstore owners felt they were performing something of a service for the public by having these books readily available, and deserved payment for said services.

"With regard to trading books with people, we did not calculate profits too closely. If the books that others received from us were valuable, we would take ten taels (ounces of silver) and only sell them for a small amount over that. If the books we got were less valuable, we would sell them for only a little more. We took a long-term view and in this way earned more. We sought profit, and made a living. We liked profit but also let those who bought books get their profit, too. Who is not like us in desiring profit? If we had concentrated only on profit, then goods would not have circulated, and this would have been the same as losing profit."14 Demao, Unknown Year

To me, if there ever was a statement that single-handedly represented the term "print capitalism"15, a term coined by a Mr. Benedict Anderson in his work, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, it would be the above eulogy from Li Demao. At every turn, at any time, if the question of what print capitalism meant, that is the quote to present to the person asking this question. We have gone from print control, to print culture, to print capitalism in but a brief examination of history in Chinese communication; and the evolutionary results to a modern China are astounding.

Accepting Gutenberg in China opened the door to other Western technology. At first, but a crack. Then, fully open. It took a bit going into the late 1970's, going into the 1980's, for China to accept and adapt computer technology16; thirty or so years after the Western world began their own exploration into what would become the height of 20th century technology; in which they began with the import of 500 microcomputers 1979.17 The experimentation period would travel through the 1980's into full infatuation by the 1990's. In fact, by the 90's, China was relying less and less on the import of Western computers, and had begun mass-production of their own.18 they took to the internet, and continued right where print capitalism left off. They have yet to ever return to anything resembling print culture, that is to say, reading and writing for the sake of knowledge and joy. Of course, neither have we.

What Harold Adams Innis may or may not have expected, or even accepted, was a world connected through computers starting only three decades after his death, and exploding into an information-overload epicenter of communication, overwhelming white noise, and cat pictures going into the 21st century. In the height of the Age of Information19, into the Second Age of the Web20, for the first time, the human race at last could potentially have too much access to information. What a blasphemous statement, I know! Yet, here we are! The World Wide Web, the Information Super Highway (I always loved this stupid term), the Series of Tubes (internet joke), could perhaps be seen as the virtual Library of Alexandria of Ancient Egypt.21 But in doing so, it is so easy to become lost, overwhelmed, even numb to the availability of information on the Internet.

Stepping away from, but still including, the Internet; we examine the instantaneousness of cell phone technology. Here we arrive at potentially the final destination of the transmission model of communication.22 Telephones permitted immediate communication. Cell phones permitted immediate communication ON THE GO! Anywhere, at anytime, even from a public bathroom, sitting on the toilet, we have our friends and family instantly reachable. If we have smart phones, which slowly but surely all of us will some day, we have full access to the entirety of the Internet's endless barrage of information at the tap of our fingers. I'm not even sure some of us even read information for the joy of knowledge anymore, so much that they read to drink in the information wildly, like mad drunks who have stumbled into a brewery, and need it all in their system.

This is not to say, despite what the technophobic luddite Baby Boomers might sincerely and incorrectly believe, that we have zero interest in learning, so much as we are interested in entertaining our short attention spans. We most certainly do that as well. I won't deny that statement. But to summarize the early 21st century as entirely that, is absolutely insane. I strongly feel, in the writing of the conclusion to this work, that we, the human race, in our conquest to become all-knowing, information-absorbing creatures, have finally been granted our wish. And at this point in time, it has been too overwhelming for our psyche to properly handle. We use these so-called mind distracters, such as YouTube, as a means to balance our brains from exploding from the endless walls of text we can hungrily devour in what feels like the blink of an eye, but is really hours at a time. We absolutely do not completely know what to do with ourselves in all of this available information and instant communication.

Perhaps we will eventually find a real balance, not social media, and we will return to the mindset of the Ming Dynasty; in which a new age of book reading will come about. I dream of a Reading Revival Renaissance someday, eventually. I do predict, right here, in this paper, that this day will eventually come about. I see the slow rise of frustration with a lack of intelligent culture, expressed by other lovers of the printed word. These numbers seem to increase each year. And quite frankly, I am really hoping to observe the full-blown return to sense in my own life. The internet will still be a thing, but we will eventually stop abusing it, and find a far superior grasp on its vast power. To put it simple, I wish to see the day when we control the internet, and the internet no longer controls us.

"The doors of perception can't be wide open or we would go insane"23 Huxley, 1954


  1. "Empire & Communications" Innis, Harold Adams. 1950.
  2. "From Oracle Bones to Computers" Pg. 5. Gu, Baotong. 2009.
  3. "Oracle Bones" Wikipedia Article. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oracle_bone
  4. "Chinese Language" Welleslian International. 1997.
  5. "Book History in Premodern China" Brokaw, Cynthia. Originally published in Book History Vol. 10, 2007. Pg. 254
  6. "Printing in the Ming Dynasty" Chinese Archaic Jade. 2006. http://www.archaic-jade.com/printing/engcp18.htm
  7. "From Oracle Bones to Computers" Pg. 116. Gu, Baotong. 2009.
  8. "Empire & Communications" Pg. 13. Innis, Harold Adams. 1950.
  9. "The Renaissance" Wikipedia Article. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Renaissance
  10. "Age of Enlightenment" Wikipedia Article. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment
  11. "Gutenberg in Shanghai" Pg. 4. Reed, Christopher A. 2004.
  12. "Cangshu jiyao" Congtian, Sun. Posthumously published in 1812. Translated "Bookman's Manual" Fang, Achilles 1951
  13. "Gutenberg in Shanghai" Pg. 8. Reed, Christoper A. 2004.
  14. Eulogy of Li Demao, Originally Published in Unknown Year. Published in "Shisen, Historical and Geographic Studies in Kansai University" Yuichi, Ichinose. 1988.
  15. " Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism" Anderson, Benedict. 1991.
  16. "From Oracle Bones to Computers" Pg. 179. Gu, Baotong. 2009.
  17. "Impact of Science on Society" Issue 146, Pg. 189-192. Liu, Fengquiao. 1987.
  18. "The Emerging Market of China's Computer Industry" Zhang, J.X., and Wang, Y. 1995.
  19. "Information Age" Wikipedia Article. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_Age
  20. "Web 2.0" Wikipedia Article. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_2.0
  21. "Library of Alexandria" Wikipedia Article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_of_Alexandria
  22. "Communication as Culture" Carey, James. 1989.
  23. "The Doors of Perception" Huxley, Aldous. 1954.



< back to writing