East Asian Manuscript and Print as Harbingers of the Digital Future

Digital media is transforming our daily lives while also shifting the terrain of East Asia Studies. Today, as education moves toward online platforms and newspapers are replaced by blogs, we are experiencing a change not unlike the one faced by our counterparts in medieval East Asia when print took hold amid a strong and enduring culture of manuscripts. Lacking a central authority, today we produce, edit, and distribute online texts that in their fluidity recall the hand-copied productions of our predecessors. At the same time, the printed book, particularly the printed codex, presaged some fundamental revolutions brought about by the internetbased “hypermedia”: an expandable network of sharing and distributing information stored in and transmitted through a specific medium.

The invention of print technology in seventh to eighth-century China and its gradual emergence in other parts of the world brought new access to texts and reading practices, while manuscripts continued to be an important medium of transmission in East Asian religion, art, and literature. The challenges brought by new and competing technologies in medieval Asia can be paralleled with current concerns about the place of digital media in our lives. The explosion of electronic technology has given rise to anxieties—about, for example, the ways genuine “learning” is to be understood in the internet age and pre-existing media of knowledge (such as books) are received—that are not so different from the ones confronted with the emergence of printing in East Asia.

Although the histories of manuscript and print technologies in China, Korea, and Japan have much to teach us, no scholarly effort has yet been made to consider the impact of manuscript and print cultures in East Asia and how such examples may act as harbingers for developments in the digital age. We will build on the work of cultural historians, researchers of religious history, art historians, and literary scholars in considering the larger implications of East Asian historical reading and writing practices on our understanding of the present. The focus on writing and material culture complements new work being done on script in Asia and the spread of classical Chinese (or Literary Sinitic) as a shared language within premodern East Asian religious and literary cultures.

While considering reading, writing, and media today alongside Asian traditions of the past, we will also look ahead toward ways of preserving and transmitting the past, including demonstrations of digitization in the fields of education, library studies, journalism, history, literature, and religion. The roundtable will bring scholars, curators, librarians, community leaders, and policymakers into conversation to examine an array of approaches and technologies.

Please visit the event website for full information.