Selected Modern Chinese Essays: The Commercial Press and I

◎ Ye Shengtao

If I’m asked what profession I’ve been following, I say l’ve been a teacher and editor with a much longer experience in editing than teaching. Now, because of my failing eyesight, I even have difficulty in identifying Chinese characters. Nevertheless occasionally I’m still called upon to revise some short articles. Unable to see the manuscripts well, I have to rely on someone to read them out for me.

It was not until I entered The Commercial Press that I learned how to go about editorial work. I remember how I bungled the job when I did proofreading for the first time. It happened that I read the proof sheet without checking it against the original text. Consequently I missed out a whole paragraph in proof. A full-time proofreader discovered it and sent the proof back to me with a comment scribbled in red ink about my mistake. I felt deeply embarrassed. I then realized that it was no easy job to be an editor and that I had to be very careful and train on the job earnestly.

I entered The Commercial Press in the spring of 1923 on the recommendation of Zhu Jingnong, who was then in charge of the Chinese as well as History and Geography Section under the Editing and Translating Department. At the Chinese Section where I belonged I co-compiled with Gu Xiegang New Chinese Textbook for Middle Schools. Its first volume was jointly compiled by several other editors, among them Zhou Yutong. I took part in drafting guidelines for compiling the textbook.

In June 1927, when Zheng Zhenduo was on leave touring Europe, I acted on his behalf as editor of the magazine Fiction Monthly, with Xu Diaofu as my collaborator. The Commercial Press then published more than ten different periodicals, of which the biggest was Eastern Magazine, a comprehensive publication with a staff of more than ten. The other magazines were each run by a staff of only four. In addition to Xu and me, Fiction Monthly had on its staff two men in charge of sundry matters. Occasionally they also did some proofreading, but we didn’t have enough confidence in them.

It was the post-Great Revolution days when the stirring times found expression in literature. For two consecutive years, there appeared in Fiction Monthly a great many works full of new ideas and also a great many new names, of which the most conspicuous were Mao Dun, Ba Jin and Ding Ling. People at that time did not know that Mao Dun was the pseudonym for Shen Yanbing. He had up to then written no fiction, but articles introducing foreign literary works and theories. I was not acquainted with Mao Dun and Ding Ling. I met them later.

After Zheng Zhenduo had taken a short rest upon his return from Europe, I gave him back my duties at Fiction Monthly and resumed my work at the Chinese Department, this time compiling Chinese National Culture Series for Students. I’m not able to recall the exact date, but I’m sure it was in the first half of 1929. In the second half of the next year, I co-edited Women’s Magazine with Jin Zhonghua. Early in 1931, soon after Kaiming Bookstore started its publication of the magazine Middle School Students, Xia Mianzun and Zhang Xichen asked me to help them with editing the new magazine. So I quit The Commercial Press after being with it for eight years.

When The Commercial Press was established in 1898, its proprietors were some ex-workers who had become rich by printing The Bible. Two years later, when the Editing and Translating Department was set up with the participation of reformist intellectuals, a cultural enterprise with the triple function of editing and translating, printing and publishing began to take shape. As its business developed gradually, books and periodicals edited, translated and published by it covered all fields, such as literature, history, philosophy, science, engineering, medicine, music, physical culture, fine arts, etc. Some were specialized and some intended for general readership or specifically for housewives and pre-school children. It also sold foreign books and periodicals, and various stationery and sports requisites. It also manufactured instruments, specimens and teaching aids for schools. It even produced films, including popular science and feature films. None of the present-day publishing houses can compare with it in the scope of business and number of customers. Yet people today seldom mention its outstanding features.

The Editing and Translating Department of The Commercial Press boasted a galaxy of talent, sometimes topping 300. Scholars who came to work there at different times included returned students from the US like Ren Hongjuan, Zhu Kezhen, Zhu Jingnong, Wu Zhijue, etc. and those from Japan like Zheng Zhenwen, Zhou Changshou, Li Shicen, He Gonggan, etc. The core members of the later-established publishing houses, such as Zhonghua, Shijie, Dadong and Kaiming, were mostly former employees of The Commercial Press. The same was true of many printing houses and bookbinderies. It can be fitly concluded that The Commercial Press has trained a huge army of technical personnel for China’s publishing industry.

Interestingly enough, when the General Administration of Publication was established following the birth of New China to take charge of publication directly under the Government Administration Council, Hu Yuzhi was appointed as its director and Zhou Jianren and I as its deputy directors. So the three old friends who had been colleagues over 20 years before at the Editing and Translating Department of The Commercial Press met again. Later, I became concurrently director of the People’s Education Publishing House. In September 1954, when the General Administration of Publication was dissolved, Hu Yuzhi was transferred to the Ministry of Culture to take charge of publication, and I was transferred to the Ministry of Education while still doing editing at the People’s Education Publishing House. During the past 20 years or so, many old friends have passed away. Zhou, Hu and I, however, are still living and enjoy good health. It is said that people in the publishing trade live longer.