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Project retrieves ancient Chinese books lost overseas

A visitor examines a volume of Yongle Encyclopedia, the earliest and largest general encyclopedia, at the National Museum of China. Half of the great work’s volumes are collected at the museum while the other half  are scattered across the world. Photo: BEIJING Daily

 

Recently, fascicles of Catalogue of Overseas Ancient Chinese Books have been published sequentially, including the world’s only remaining Song version of the 14th volume of Wenzhang Zhengzong (The Orthodox School of Literature), Shun Feng Xiang Song (Voyage with a Tail Wind), the first Chinese document to record the Diaoyu Islands, and Chixiu Baizhang Qinggui (Imperial Edition of Baizhang’s Rules of Purity), which commands immense value in the history of Chinese Buddhism. More and more ancient Chinese books hidden in overseas libraries have come into sight. They are precious in terms of document value and historical value, outlining Chinese culture’s path for global dissemination.

 
Discoveries
The catalogue is one of the major tasks regarding the compilation and publication of ancient books. Since 2013, Zhonghua Book Company has collaborated with more than 30 overseas organizations to comb their collections of ancient Chinese books and compile bibliographies. In early 2020, with the publication of An Illustrated Catalogue of Ancient Chinese Books at McGill University Library and University of Victoria Library, the fascicles reached a total of seven. The ancient Chinese books held by twelve overseas institutions have been compiled. Ohio State University Library, the UCI Libraries and the Yale University Library are among the institutions.
 
How many ancient Chinese books are collected outside China? The exact number remains unclear.
 
According to a UNESCO statistical survey, there are currently 1.67 million Chinese cultural relics recorded in more than 200 museums in 47 countries and regions across the world, and about 10 times this number are in private collections. These artifacts include a large number of ancient books and documents. The collection of the United States stands at no less than 700,000 thread-bound ancient Chinese books of annotated editions, and the total number of ancient Chinese books nears 4 million. Rough estimates show that there are 2 million volumes in Europe. And Japan has more. The Kanseki Database has 910,000 entries about ancient Chinese books. No systematic and exact data is available about the ancient Chinese books collected in public libraries, libraries of universities and research institutes, and private collections outside China.
 
“Protection still tops the agenda in the compilation of ancient Chinese books, and its first step is to get the whole picture. The compilation of the catalogue helps us understand the situation of ancient Chinese books abroad,” said Gu Qing, editor-in-chief of Zhonghua Book Company.
 
Li Guoqing, Chinese Studies Librarian at Ohio State University Libraries, said that people often fixate upon renowned large libraries while paying little attention to the collections of small and medium-sized libraries in North America. In the process of compilation, however, we have made unexpected discoveries in small and medium-sized libraries. For example, no one knew that the University of Iowa had ancient Chinese books until 229 kinds were found there in the survey, the oldest of which could date back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). A university in California discovered nearly 1,000 kinds of ancient Chinese books, including books printed in the Song Dynasty (960–1279) and block-printed books published in the Yuan Dynasty.
 
At present, most overseas libraries with collections of Chinese ancient books have no Chinese studies librarians or lack experts who are proficient in ancient Chinese books and know how to catalog them. Therefore, ancient Chinese books, in many cases, have not been sorted since they were collected. Some have lain unnoticed in libraries for almost 100 years. The earliest batch of new age novel manuscripts published in China in 1896 was an accidental discovery in two dusty cartons when a university library moved in 2016. “This is the significance of compiling the catalogue of ancient Chinese books scattered overseas. Libraries’ collections must be sorted out before scholars can use them,” Gu said.
 
 
Global collaboration
Almost every year since 1998, Guangxi Normal University Press has sent staff to investigate and compile ancient books at the Harvard-Yenching Library. Over the past 20 years, the two sides have worked together and published three catalogue series covering more than 1,000 ancient rare books and annotated books. The photocopying and publishing of these books have filled in the blanks of domestic ancient books.
 
“The cooperation between Guangxi Normal University Press and Harvard-Yenching Library is exemplary in the publishing of rare and annotated editions of traditional classic books. I admire the open-mindedness of the Harvard-Yenching Library. Its librarian James k. Cheng said that these books are collected in Harvard-Yenching Library, but the knowledge is open to the world. Academics should serve the world,” said Tang Wenhui, editor-in-chief of Guangxi Normal University Press. 
 
The two organizations have been keeping in contact for more than two decades. The professionalism of Guangxi Normal University Press is plausible. To save money, they live in small hotels in the suburbs every time they come, so they are more familiar with the operation of the Boston subway than me despite I have lived here for 20 years. They never made demands, never asked us to take them to play or have a sightseeing tour. They always work. The professionalism touched me, Cheng said.
 
Tang said that this long-term cooperation has formed a salutary model for compilation and publication of overseas literature by opening its collection, inviting worldwide (especially Chinese) scholars to work as visiting scholars and conduct academic compilation of a certain topic or a certain material type. The compilation outcome will get published. This model has facilitated the return of reams of precious documents scattered overseas through photocopied books, giving worldwide scholars, especially Chinese scholars, convenient access to the most important and valuable academic resources without leaving home.
 
The arrival of Chinese scholars has also greatly promoted the compilation of ancient Chinese books in overseas libraries. Cheng said that there are as many as 40,000 ancient Chinese books in the Harvard-Yenching Library. It is quixotic for Harvard librarians alone to compile and catalog such a huge number of books. Over the past years, we have invited Chinese experts and scholars in related fields to collaborate on the compilation.
 
Apart from ancient books, many overseas libraries also have an extensive collection of bamboo and silk scripts, stone carvings, manuscripts, and various forms of ancient historical documents, many of which are rare and annotated books that are extinct or seldom seen in China. However, these materials have been stored in libraries for years due to an absence of professionals, urging domestic experts to help sort them out. “The compilation of all these materials will cement the understanding of China’s cultural development, and it is of great significance for enhancing cultural self-confidence and consciousness,” Tang said.
 
 
Global dissemination
“We compiled the catalogue to investigate the collection of ancient Chinese books outside China, promoting the goal of studying the global dissemination of Chinese culture, rather than the possession of these books,” Gu said. He reminded that currently, some Chinese scholars focus too much on single-copy and rare books in the investigation while paying insufficient attention to ordinary books. Most of the ancient Chinese books lost overseas are ordinary ones, their value may pale in comparison in terms of their edition, but they have nurtured many overseas master scholars and contributed to the spread of Chinese culture and academic research. “We shouldn’t merely measure the version value, but also the dissemination value. Therefore, we should stand taller and observe ancient books through the prism of human civilization,” Gu added.
 
At present, China needs to stress the overall planning of the compilation, research and publication of overseas ancient Chinese books. The undertaking has become fragmented as publishers, libraries and academia are all participants. Problems such as vicious competition, repeated waste, low quality and copyright disputes still haunt the development and utilization of ancient book resources collected overseas. Overall planning is in urgent need to form a collective strength.
 
Head of the National Arrangement Leading Group of Ancient Book Publication said that in the coming era, the group will vigorously promote the return of ancient Chinese books lost overseas. Based on systematic procedures and plans, they will compile and publish ancient books and documents scattered in East Asia, North America, Europe, Southeast Asia and other regions, and work on a general catalogue of ancient books lost overseas. At the same time, the group will make research, compilation and publication more interconnected, so that rare ancient Chinese books from abroad can exist in numerous copies, transmit Chinese civilization, and serve academia in manifold ways, such as publication and digitization.
 
 
This article was edited and translated from People’s Daily.
 
edited by MA YUHONG

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