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The Curious Assassination of China’s First Publisher

Murder, conspiracy, nationalism, and the violent history of Chinese publishing

05·03·2017

On January 10, 1914, Xia Ruifang (夏瑞芳), director of Shanghai’s Commercial Press, was shot by a waiting assassin as he exited his company’s main retail store on Henan Road at 5 p.m. He died at the hospital, aged 43, and his murderer’s identity is one of the unsolved mysteries of the Republic of China. Unlike other episodes of sudden death and serial violence splashed across Shanghai’s sordid early history—the suicides of starlets, gang-related crime sprees—the death of the director of what was then China’s biggest publishing company, which was an interest in all print matter from dictionaries to magazines to Bible translations, was surprisingly devoid of gruesome mise-en-scène and salacious detail.

However, in 1991, The Commercial Press published The Chronicles of Zhang Yuanji, a two-volume biography of the renowned literati and Xia’s successor. Said to have been based on the writings of Zhang himself, the book also definitely accused Republican revolutionary Chen Qimei (陈其美) of the crime. This electrified conspiracy theorists for whom, until then, the most likely culprits had been the Japanese, a belief supported by circumstantial evidence and a large helping of patriotic history.

While The Commercial Press gets no credit for being either the first printing firm in China or the first to print foreign languages and Western subject matter, it holds fast to its reputation as China’s first “modern” publishing company. Though China invented wooden movable type in the 11th century, its transition to consumer-oriented, industrialized printing practices was first enabled by the introduction of mechanized “Gutenberg” print presses by Western missionaries, which Chinese printers used to turn the country’s existing literary culture to a ready market.

The Commercial Press was founded in 1897 by 26-year-old Xia, a humbly educated typesetter at a British-run newspaper, after quitting his job due to mistreatment and roping in three associates. It started as a firm that printed advertising leaflets. In 1898, it published a Chinese translation of an English language primer made for Indian students, which sold 3,000 copies in its first week. The profits allowed the firm to import advanced printing presses from Japan, an advanced printing industry that was inspirational to early Chinese printers and acted as a point of transfer for both Western technology and concepts. Even the term “printing firm” (印书馆), which The Commercial Press used in its Chinese name, was taken from the Japanese translation of the Western term.

When three directors of Kinkōdō, Tokyo’s pre-eminent textbook publisher, were exiled to Shanghai following a national scandal in 1902, the pragmatic Xia approached them with a proposed joint venture. They invested the equivalent of 100,000 RMB into The Commercial Press. The expertise of these new partners made The Commercial Press the undisputed leader of China’s textbook market, but in 1914, just four days before his death, Xia bought out his Japanese investors, possibly influenced by nationalistic sentiments. On the day of his death, Shanghai’s Shenbao newspaper ran a notice that The Commercial Press “was a firm entirely funded and run by countrymen and has already bought back all shares from foreigners”; in popular retellings, Xia might have just put down that very paper before he stepped out to Henan Road to meet his end.

It was a satisfactory conclusion to the case: either the Japanese partners assassinated Xia in revenge, or the less popular, ironic version that it was done by nationalists or rival publishers who resented him for collaborating in the first place. There’s even a third version, found only in a San Diego newspaper story about Xia’s American descendants, who heard it was his printing of the Bible that stirred up nationalistic ire. These interpretations fit nicely with the mythology of modernization in the Republic of China, inherited from well-intentioned but unsuccessful reformers of the Qing dynasty (1616 – 1911), which sought to strengthen Chinese culture by adapting the best of what Western powers had to offer. Xia was educated by missionaries, operated a publishing firm with an English name, and published “useful,” Western-influenced “New Style” books in the International Concession—but he turned out to have done so for China’s sake all along.

But the accusation of Chen Qimei in the early 90s opened up new avenues, for Chen was a cohort of Sun Yat-sen, and the revelation of his potential involvement dovetailed with revisionist pop culture views on the political landscape of the Republic. In the same era that TV dramas and other popular media were expanding from politically safe ancient wuxia settings into the chaotic interbellum of the Opium Wars and the Japanese invasion, China and Shanghai especially took on characteristics of the jianghu, a decadent but dangerous underworld where conspiracy and assassination were matters of course. Aside from Xia, Chen is suspected in the deaths of Song Jiaoren (宋教仁), a revolutionary who was shot at a railroad station after leading the Nationalist Party to victory in the 1913 elections, and Zhejiang governor Tao Chengzhang (陶成章); then in 1916, Chen was himself assassinated at the possible behest of Yuan Shikai (袁世凯), president of China and persistent rival of the Nationalist Party.

Though the legacy of Sun, the “nation’s father,” has remained largely unsullied in spite of Chen’s exploits, there has been a moderated view in pop culture of the difficulty of nation-building and revolution—full of hard decisions, shaky alliances, and perhaps wrong turns. The character of the victim, Xia, has also seen revision. According The Chronicles, Xia made an enemy of Chen because he “wanted to protect the interests of the business world, and once led businessmen to prevent Shanghai military governor Chen Qimei from stationing troops in Zhabei,” the district where the Commercial Press was located. Xia’s associate Bao Tianxiao (包天笑) also wrote of Xia’s willingness to exploit political loopholes to make a buck: When Bao objected to publishing the banned writings of a martyred Qing reformer in the Press’s early days, Xia replied, “Who cares? We’re in a treaty port…what we’ll do, though, is on the back page where the copyright should go, we won’t print the name and address of the printer.”

Though The Commercial Press itself still puts forth the Japanese explanation, pop culture now attributes Xia’s death to Chen’s web of intrigue. It’s an appealing theory that transforms Xia from a patriotic and tragic hero of a correct narrative of anti-imperialism to a trickster archetype, blended with the other enterprising and at times ruthless individuals in the modern public’s imagination of the Republican Shanghai jianghu. Xia himself might even be pleased with the interpretation, for as the patron of a new generation of Chinese educators and reformers, his reputation in life was always founded on the way that his business acumen and ambition created synergy with the literary knowledge and intellectualism of old literati associates like Zhang.

It was certainly a business formula that served The Commercial Press well; already worth 500,000 USD by the time of Xia’s assassination, the tragedy made barely a blip in its rise to become the most influential Chinese publishing company of all time. In 1953 it published the first Xinhua Dictionary, now the definitive guide to modern Chinese language. In 2006, it published The World of Chinese.


“The Curious Assassination of China’s First Publisher” is a story from our issue, “Fantasy”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store

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