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The publishing blues

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Oxford has bragging rights over Cambridge as the older university, but when it comes to establishing a publishing house, it was later to the game.

Oxford University Press was founded 52 years after Cambridge University Press (CUP) received royal assent in 1534. That gives CUP the title of the world’s oldest publishing house.

However, over the past week CUP has hardly covered itself in glory, after acknowledging that it had blocked access to 300 of its articles in China. The censorship swiftly drew widespread criticism from academics, both internationally and within Cambridge itself.

The publisher initially said it had been ordered by the Chinese government to withdraw articles on sensitive political topics (such as the Cultural Revolution) from its China Quarterly journal. One key consideration was that it feared a commercial backlash. The Financial Times reports that CUP’s English language textbook Kid’s Box China Edition has sold 3 million copies in the past eight years, and is its leading title in China.

However, the reputational damage to the publishing house was soon seen to outweigh such book sales, as senior figures from the university expressed their concern. In a volte face early this week the articles were restored, and Cambridge University released a tweet on its Chinese weibo account insisting: “Academic freedom is the overriding principle on which the University of Cambridge is based.” According to the Guardian it received 2,600 shares in China and 525 “overwhelmingly approving comments” before (irony of ironies) the post was deleted by government censors 12 hours later.

The Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan told the Guardian the move to uncensor the articles was “a triumph of morality”.

The commercial impact on CUP’s China sales remains to be seen, but the organisation does have some goodwill with the Chinese government thanks to its multi-decade 27-book classic Science and Civilisation in China. The series was the idea of the brilliant Cambridge Sinologist Joseph Needham, who authored 18 of the individual books. His first volume was published in 1954 and it greatly helped to rejuvenate China’s status in the Western world by detailing the country’s contribution to human progress through its groundbreaking inventions over past millennia (for more on Needham and his 15,000 page Science and Civilisation in China, see WiC23). Needham’s biographer Simon Winchester says of the CUP project: “It is universally acknowledged to be the greatest work of explanation of the Middle Kingdom that has yet been created in Western history.”


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