Murder, conspiracy, nationalism, and the violent history of Chinese publishing
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 Curious Assassination of China’s First Publisher is a story from our issue, “Wildest Fantasy.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.