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CDNLAO Newsletter

No. 78, November 2013

Special topic: Historical Documents

The Historical Documents at the National Library of China

By Hao Jinmin, National Library of China


1. Introduction

The National Library of China (NLC) hosts vast and comprehensive holdings, including extensive collections in various languages and many historical books. By December of 2012, the NLC's collection totaled 31,195,121 volumes or items. It is renowned for its collection of ancient and rare materials. The most valuable collections are the inscriptions on animal bones and tortoise shells from the Shang Dynasty (Oracle Bones), Dunhuang Manuscripts, the Zhaocheng Tripitaka of the Jin Dynasty, the Yongle Encyclopedia, and the Complete Library of the Four Branches of Literature. Among its earliest editions in foreign languages are incunabula printed in Europe during 1473-1477. The collection details of the special collections as of December of 2012 are listed as follows:

Details of the NLC’s special collection (as of December 2012)1

Special Collections Rare Books (including Ancient Rare Books, New Rare Books, Rare Books in Foreign Languages) 334,141 volumes/items
Maps & Atlases in Chinese and Foreign Languages 147,013 volumes/items
Static Pictures (Photographs, New Year Pictures, Engineering Drawings, and others) 164,227 items
Documents on Epigraphs & Rubbings 316,993 items
Manuscripts & Letters 93,778 items
Dunhuang & Turpan Documents 21,823 items
Genealogies & Chronicles 65,043 volumes/items

2. Newly Acquired Historical Documents in 2012

In 2012, the NLC made efforts on acquiring precious collections, some of them through purchasing and some of them by donations. The major precious collections acquired in 2012 included Liang Sicheng’s Manuscripts, Rubbings from Hongdong County of Shanxi Province, Cheng Canpei Couple’s Donations and Wang Boxiang’s Diary.

2.1 Liang Sicheng’s Manuscripts

In March, 72 original drawings of a Pictorial History of Chinese Architecture written by Chinese famous architect Liang Sicheng were collected in NLC, which enormously enriched NLC’s collection. This was another important collection about architectural drawings in NLC after the collection of Yangshi Lei Archives. Liang Sicheng (1901-1972) was a Chinese architectural historian, an architect, an urban planner, and an educator.

2.2 Rubbings from Hongdong County of Shanxi Province

The NLC’s collection of metal and stone rubbings in 2012 was much bigger than that in 2011. In 2012, the NLC acquired 2,080 types (2,471 pieces) of rubbings, among which 10 sets (2,082 pieces of 1739 types) were bought and 23 sets (389 pieces of 341 types) were donated. The most precious one was the complete set of rubbings from Hongdong County of Shanxi Province, which had a significant meaning for effectively supplementing NLC’s collection.

2.3 Wang Boxiang’s Diary

In 2012, NLC’s collection was enriched as Wang Boxiang’s diaries from 1924 to 1975, amounting 141 volumes and an appendix of six volumes, were collected into NLC’s famous manuscripts collection. Wang Boxiang (1890-1975), an ancient Chinese literature researcher and historian, was born in Wu County of Jiangsu Province.

3. Preservation and Conservation of the Historical Documents

3.1 Chinese Ancient Books Preservation Plan

By the end of 2012, "Chinese Ancient Books Preservation Plan" had been going on for six years. The survey and registration of ancient books had been fully carried out nationwide. In total, 180 ancient books collecting institutions had completed the survey and registration of over 800 thousand volumes of ancient books. Successively in 2008, 2009 and 2010, the State Council announced three batches of National Catalogue of Rare Ancient Books, in which 9,859 ancient books were included and 150 institutions nominated as "National Ancient Key Protection Institutions." In 2011 and 2012, the evaluation and selection of the fourth batch of Rare Ancient Books and "National Ancient Key Protection Institutions" were completed and the results were submitted to the Ministry of Culture. A series of precious ancient books were newly discovered during the ancient book survey and the selection of the fourth batch of National Catalogue of Rare Ancient Books and "National Ancient Key Protection Institutions."

The ancient books preserved in the 150 "National Ancient Key Protection Institutions" amounted to over 20 million volumes and items, representing nearly a half of the total national reserve of ancient books. The China National Center for Preservation & Conservation of Ancient Books (NLC) organized 100 rounds of training sessions of various types, providing training for 5,885 specialists in ancient books preservation; 1,594 units nationwide participated in the training sessions. Multiple universities established the ancient books preservation major, fostering high level specialists on the undergraduate, postgraduate and doctorial levels. The number of personnel in ancient books repairing increased to nearly 700, which was a six-fold increase in comparison with that in 2007. More than a half of the personnel possesses a bachelor’s degree or above and several specialists have a senior professional title.

Since the launch of the "Chinese Ancient Books Preservation Plan" in 2007, the central government had invested special budgets of over 147 million Yuan in total, which brought a counterpart investment of 119 million Yuan from the authorities directly under the central government as well as those at the provincial level. Great advances had been achieved in the national survey of ancient books, specialists training, ancient books repairing, preservation condition improvement, ancient books reorganization and publication, ancient books digitization, ancient books preservation publicizing and minority ancient books preservation.

Photo of the NLC website of Chinese Ancient Books Preservation online
< NLC Website of Chinese Ancient Books Preservation online >

3.2 Minguo Materials Preservation Plan

Minguo was an important and special period (1911-1949) in China history, when new and old ideas, Chinese or foreign, from the ancient times, as well as the modern times, collided. The confluence of the ideas developed a special cultural landscape during a social transitional period. In 2011, NLC and related institutions in the field, supported by the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Finance, launched officially the Minguo Materials Preservation and Conservation Program, to conduct a full rescue and preservation of Minguo Materials. 2012 was the start-up year of the project. NLC launched projects in the literature survey, overseas documents collection, and compilation and publication, with the accent put on the basic research, mechanism enquiry, exchange and cooperation, as well as project planning.

In 2012, a special office was created in NLC to take charge of the organization and coordination of the Minguo Materials Preservation Project, the perfection of the organizational structure and rules and regulations, as well as the establishment of standard normalization of related activities. The Specialist Committee of Minguo Materials Preservation was established enrolling renowned specialists and experts in the industry and convened the first working conference, to facilitate the role of the renowned experts in advising and directing, providing academic support for the preservation project.

The application for Minguo Materials Preservation and Conservation Pilot Institutions was launched and 6 institutions were selected from 17 applicants as the pilots. A survey platform of Minguo materials was established and "Union Catalogue of Minguo Materials" was created. The platform, including nearly 200 thousand bibliographic records from NLC, Chongqing Library, Capital Library of China, Zhejiang Library, Shandong Provincial Library, Shanxi Provincial Library, and Jiangxi Provincial Library, constituted the fundamental data of the Union Catalogue of Minguo Materials, providing easy and quick access to the unified resources.

4. Important Exhibitions on the Historical Documents

4.1 NLC Collected Treasured Oracle Bones Exhibition

On April 20-May 10, 2012, the NLC Collected Treasured Oracle Bones Exhibition was successfully held in the NLC North Area. This was the first large-scale exhibition of collections in the history of NLC. The NLC collected 35,651 pieces of oracle bones from the Yin Ruins, accounting for a quarter of the total find and was the largest oracle bone collecting institution. To help the readers understand the oracle bone inscriptions and the splendid ancient culture, and to do a good job in the preparatory work of the declaration of including oracle bones into the Memory of the World Register, NLC selected the treasured oracle bones to hold this exhibition, displaying a total of 60 pieces of NLC collected oracle bones and 30 titles of oracle bone inscription calligraphy works. Within the 20 days of exhibition, according to incomplete statistics, a total of 5,738 visitors were received.

Photo of the opening ceremony of the NLC Collected Treasured Oracle Bones Exhibition
< Opening of the NLC Collected Treasured Oracle Bones Exhibition >

4.2 Exhibition of Rare Books Collected by Zhou Shutao

On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Zhou Shutao donating rare books to the NLC Ancient Books Library, the Exhibition of Rare Books collected by Zhou Shutao, was held by NLC from May 9 to June 7, 2012. Zhou Shutao (1891-1984), whose ancestral home was in Jiande (now Dongzhi) County of Anhui Province, was a famous ancient cultural relics collector and patriotic national industrialist, once serving as the deputy mayor of the city of Tianjin, vice chairman of the National Federation of Industry and Commerce, and vice chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). In August 1952, Zhou Shutao donated 715 titles and 2,672 volumes of rare books to the NLC, greatly enriching the NLC collections. To help the public learn about Zhou Shutao and his collections, 54 titles were specially selected from the exhibition and cataloged for publishing. For each book, except the facsimile sample pages, an abstract was also given to illustrate its characteristics, value and anecdotes about its collection. The appendix catalogue provided descriptions of all exhibits, helping visitors have a whole picture of the exhibition.

4.3 Series Exhibitions on China Intangible Cultural Heritage Classics Memory

On June 9, on the occasion of the 7th Culture Heritage Day, to demonstrate the rich content, essence and unique charm of intangible cultural heritage, and raise the public cultural awareness of the intangible cultural heritage protection, Series Exhibitions on China Intangible Cultural Heritage Classics Memory were opened in NLC, which were sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, and organized by the NLC and China Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Centre. 10 influential experts on intangible cultural heritage protection were invited to give 10 featured lectures successively in NLC from June 9 to 18, introducing the general situation of intangible cultural heritage protection in China. The Series Exhibitions on China Intangible Cultural Heritage Classics Memory included two thematic exhibitions: Exhibition of Chinese Rubbing Techniques and Exhibition of Chinese Traditional Architecture Construction Techniques.

The rubbing technique is a method of making copies of old inscribed texts or pictures on material objects, using paper, ink and rubbing tools. Exhibition of Chinese Rubbing Techniques introduced the emergence and development of rubbing techniques, displaying objects like Xiping Shijing (Stone Classics of the Xiping Region) of the Eastern Han Dynasty, Zhengshi Shijing (Stone Classics of the Zhengshi Reign) of the Three Kingdoms period, and over 100 items of representative rubbings of the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.

Photo of the Exhibition of Chinese Rubbing Techniques
< Exhibition of Chinese Rubbing Techniques >

Exhibition of Chinese Traditional Architecture Construction Techniques is the concentrated expression of the important books and cultural relics such as Qing Dynasty Yangshi Lei Archives and several latest achievements of the Re-relic Project by Tsinghua Urban Planning & Design Institute — digital recovering of 30 scenic areas of the YuanmingYuan Imperial Garden (Old Summer Palace), displaying the vigor of the Chinese traditional culture under the new technologies.

5. Access to the Digital Historical Documents

The historical documents are of great academic and research value. The historical documents at the NLC are mainly used through onsite access to the originals (most of them have access limitations), onsite access to the microfilms, online access to the digital copies. And the online access is more and more used by the general public.

By the end of 2012, the overall digital resources counted 813.5TB, among which 694.9TB are self-built digital resources. The digitized collections of the NLC include Minguo Books, Periodicals and Law Documents, Oracle Bones, Rubbings of Oracle Bones, Dunhuang Manuscripts, Local History Documents (Genealogy), Old Photos, Ancient Books, Great Encyclopedia of Yongle Reign, Tangut Materials and so on.

With these digital resources, the NLC provided the online services in different databases. Please see details at

Top page of the gateway to the NLC database of the digital historical resource
< Gateway to the NLC database of the digital historical resource >


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