The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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Letter-writing Manuals (chidu) from the Late Qing to the Republic: Insights into Ordinary Lives, Families and Business

Principal Investigator


Total Fund Awarded


Funding Source

RGC General Research Fund

Abstract of Project

This project explores the history of letter-writing manuals that were produced from the late Qing to the Republic (approximately from the 1870s to the 1940s). That history will provide insights into the importance of letter writing to ordinary people when the cost of postage had been brought down by the introduction of the postage stamp. A vast number of letter-writing manuals were produced and reprinted during this period in response the vast numbers of letters that were written and sent.

Inspired by work on the history of letter-writing in Europe and America, I would like to explore if the popular participation in letter-writing ultimately changed its character. My hypothesis is as follows: 

At the beginning of the period of letter-writing explosion, letters were dictated by a standard format that had continued from much earlier times. Political revolution challenged the foundations on which those formats had depended, but as in Europe and America, new formats appeared in letter-writing that represented a new social etiquette, and the manuals were used for didactic purposes to impart on letter-writers the new etiquette.

A question that arises where etiquette dictated a medium of expression that was opened to individual expression is how individuality might be expressed, especially in its extreme forms in the expression of intimacy. Chinese letter-writing manuals of the late Qing and Republic left no place for intimacy. Expressions of intimacy were relegated, therefore, to poetry, magazine articles, short essays, and the novels, sometimes published in the form of letters. It might be presumed that intimate letters were indeed written, if only rarely, but their writers would have learned to write them, not from the manuals, but from the popular press.

This project will collect and examine the vast body of letter-writing manuals published in the late Qing and Republic and compare their styles and contents with samples of real-life and published letters. By examining changes in the manuals through time and how they might have corresponded to real-life letters, I shall test the hypothesis as stated.

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