Up from Middlebrow
Up from Middlebrow
The Chinese had a word for it—wanbao quanshu. It’s a bibliographic term, which literally means “complete compendia of myriad treasures,” but an alternate translation might be “middlebrow.” These were encyclopedic works that distilled and summarized sophisticated science, history, and politics in cheap, accessible, illustrated guidebooks. Their audience (as a 1933 survey of Shanghai bookstalls confirmed) was neither the educated elite nor the impoverished peasantry, but an intermediate semi-educated class of shop-clerks, apprentices, housewives, workers, and prostitutes. Very few readers had thoroughly mastered the Chinese vocabulary of 50,000 characters, but many more, without much difficulty, had learned 2,000 basic terms, enough to read popular newspapers and wanbao quanshu. The latter commonly ran the subtitle wanshi buqiuren (“myriad matters you won’t need to ask”), which underscored their mission: self-education. They had titles like Riyong wanshi baoku choushi bixu, which could be rendered “Treasury of all daily things necessary for social relations” or (more idiomatically) “How to win friends and influence people.” Wanbao quanshu were the contemporaneous counterparts of H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History and Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy. They flourished in Republican-era China, the same time frame that Joan Shelley Rubin identified as the heyday of American middlebrow culture. In societies where a wide gap opens up between elite and pulp literature, where literacy is growing but access to higher education is still restricted, where modernizing forces arouse both optimism and anxiety, middlebrow bridges those divides and makes sense of rapid change. Those conditions certainly prevailed in China, the United States, and Great Britain in the first half of the twentieth century, but not only then. Middlebrow has a very long history: wanbao quanshu can be traced back to the seventeenth century. And how about eighteenth-century Europe? Two generations ago historians studied the High Enlightenment of Voltaire and Rousseau, one generation ago Robert Darnton discovered a Low Enlightenment of Grub-Street hacks and smut-mongers, and now a team of young scholars at Radboud University in the Netherlands are creating the database MEDIATE: Middlebrow Enlightenment: Disseminating Ideas, Authors and Texts in Europe (1665–1820).
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