Skip over navigation
Brown shield Brown shield Brown University Brown shield Brown shield Brown University Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World


The content on this page is no longer being updated. You will be redirected to the Joukowsky Institute's faculty page automatically in 5 seconds, so that you will be able to access the most recent information on our faculty members.



Cynthia Brokaw

Professor of History:
Phone: +1 401 863 2131

Cynthia Brokaw researches the history of the book in late imperial China. Her Commerce in Culture: The Sibao Book Trade in the Qing and Republican Periods (2007) is a study of an important regional publishing industry and its impact on the dissemination of knowledge in south China. Her current project, "Book Culture on the Qing Frontier," examines the development of publishing and the creation of book cultures, both Chinese and Tibetan, on the southwestern frontier of the Qing empire.


Cynthia Brokaw received her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1984. A specialist in late imperial Chinese history (ca. 1400 – 1900), she taught at Vanderbilt University, the University of Oregon, and the Ohio State University before coming to Brown in 2009. Her first work, The Ledgers of Merit and Demerit: Social Change and Moral Order in Late Imperial China, examined the role of popular religious belief in the formation of social ideology. Her current research focus is the history of the book in China. Commerce in Culture: The Sibao Book Trade in the Qing and Republican Periods, based on archival and field work in China, is a study of a rural book publishing industry active in distributing popular texts throughout south China. She is now engaged in research on the role that print culture played in the formation of Han Chinese identity on the southwestern frontier in the Qing dynasty.


Cynthia Brokaw focuses her research on the history of the book in China from the late sixteenth century through the early twentieth century—that is, from the beginnings of the great boom in woodblock publishing that marked the late Ming through the Qing dynasty into the early twentieth century, when woodblock publishing was in decline. Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China (University of California Press, 2005), a volume of essays she co-edited with Kai-wing Chow, was one of the first works in English to explore this relatively new field within Chinese studies. Commerce in Culture: The Sibao Book Trade in the Qing and Republican Periods (Harvard University Asia Center, 2007) is a study of an important regional publishing industry, centered in the hinterland of southeastern China, and its role on the spread of book culture throughout south China from the late seventeenth through the early twentieth centuries. Based on archival work and extensive field work in the two villages that formed the core of this industry, this work examines the text-production process in Sibao, traces the networks of itinerant book-selling and bookstores through which Sibao texts were distributed, and describes the wide range of texts—primers and textbooks, ritual handbooks, medical manuals, fortune-telling guides, poetry collections, novels, and so forth—that these rural publishers produced. Through the dissemination of these books, the Sibao publisher-booksellers were acting as agents of cultural integration, disseminating the core texts of Chinese culture to poor county seats, interior market towns, and isolated peasant villages.

Her current project, "Book Culture on the Qing Frontier: Publishing in Sichuan, 17th-20th Centuries" examines the spread of commercial publishing and Chinese book culture to the southwestern frontier of the Qing empire. This project has several goals. First, it maps the transmission of printing technologies and textual knowledge from the established publishing centers in the southeast coastal areas to the frontiers of late imperial China. Second, it expands our understanding of the structure of publishing businesses and the variety in production forms in the late imperial period; and of the relationship between the older forms of printing and publishing (woodblock and movable type) and the modern printing technologies (lithography and letter-press) introduced in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Third, by analyzing the range of texts published (and the reading publics they attracted), it allows us to draw conclusions about the spread of literacy and the role that print had in cultural integration and the forging of a shared Chinese identity. Finally, an examination of the publication of Tibetan texts (particularly texts of Tantric Buddhism) in western Sichuan (Derge) will illuminate the role that non-Han texts played both in the construction of the multi-ethnic Qing imperium and in the confirmation of a distinctive Chinese cultural identity under the Republic.


Overseas Visiting Scholar, St. John's College, Cambridge University, Easter Term, 2009
Research Grant, Committee for Scholarly Communication with China (ACLS), 2008
National Endowment for the Humanities, awarded 2008-2009
CLIO Award for Outstanding Teaching in History from the Zeta Chapter, Phi Alpha Theta, June 2004
United States-China Cooperative Research Award, Henry Luce Foundation, 1999-2005
Member, School of Historical Studies, Institute for Advanced Study, 1999-2000
Research Grant, Committee for Scholarly Communication with China, 1996
Fellowship for University Teachers, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1995
Research Grant, Committee for Scholarly Communication with China, Fall 1993
Fellow, Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute, Radcliffe College, Spring 1987
American Council of Learned Societies Mellon Fellowship for Young China Scholars, 1986-87


Association for Asian Studies
American Historical Association
Society for Qing Studies


As the historian of pre-modern Chinese history at Brown, I teach a wide range of courses in ancient and imperial Chinese history. In addition to surveys of late imperial history (the Song through the Qing dynasties), I offer specialized courses on the literati elite ("Knowledge and Power: The Elite of Late Imperial China"), on religious belief as a force in peasant rebellions ("Popular Religion and Peasant Rebellion in China"), the development of cities ("Cities and Urban Culture in Late Imperial China"), early intellectual history ("The Hundred Schools of Thought in Ancient China"), Confucianism in Chinese Society, and women and gender relations in late imperial and modern China.

Funded Research


Curriculum Vitae

Download Cynthia Brokaw's Curriculum Vitae in PDF Format