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CDNLAO Newsletter

No. 85, February 2016

Special topic: Preservation and Conservation of library materials

The Inheritance and Initiative of the Culture of Ancient Chinese Books

By Guo Ni, National Library of China


1. Introduction

Books considered as a medium of knowledge and information play an important role during the development of Chinese civilization, because books can help us inherit traditional culture. And inheritance of the ancient Chinese books is a significant project that is beneficial to the research into Chinese ancient culture and to the understanding of Chinese spirit.

Ancient Chinese scholars considered books as the inseparable part of their life. In order to make use of and well preserve those books, they have made a lot of efforts in making catalogues and in doing registrations. After a long course of evolution, they created the bibliography of Chinese ancient books, the science of edition, emendation and discrimination. Depending on those sciences, today, the ancient Chinese books are well preserved and the knowledge in them is broadly spread. The efforts made by ancient Chinese scholars are also the task of modern Chinese librarians.

According to experts’ estimation, in China, there are about 150,000 items of ancient Chinese books which are written in minority languages.1 Because of some historical reasons, considerable ancient Chinese books, including some unique copies with the documental and historical value, are collected in foreign public or private institutions and libraries.

2. Brief history of ancient Chinese books outside of China

Based on the survey of the Office of China National Center for Preservation & Conservation of Ancient Books, National Library of China (NLC), which is in charge of more than 100 public and private foreign institutions and libraries house Chinese ancient books, and the number of those collection amounts to more than 3,000,000 in total. Most of them are spread in Japan, Korea, the United States and Europe. A huge number of Chinese books were brought all over the world via cultural communication during ancient times. Before XIV century, China was the axis of the East Asian cultural circle, one of the five main cultural circles in that time (the other four circles: Christian culture, Eastern Orthodox culture, Ancient Arabian culture, and Ancient Indian culture). Ancient China had frequent communication with the above four cultural circles by means of migration, business and missionary activities.2 During the Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) Dynasties, Chinese books were already taken by diplomatic officers, foreign students, monks and businessmen to Japan, Korean, Vietnam and Europe.

During the Song and Yuan (1271-1368) Dynasties, Korean envoys came frequently in search of monographs. Emperors of the Song Dynasty donated some important monographs to Korean envoys as a gift. And they also bought books from non-governmental channels. In 1314, the donation of the Yuan Dynasty to Korea totaled 4,371 volumes. At that time, Chinese books were very popular in Korea. For this reason, numbers of monographs published in Korea on those Chinese books returned to China as a gift at the same time. Until the Tang Dynasty, Japan housed more than 1,800 Chinese items, about 18,000 volumes involved with Confucian classics, history, philosophy and literature.3 Chinese books accounted for 50% of export to Japan in the Tang Dynasty. Vietnam paid tribute to the Emperors of the Song Dynasty for 57 times. Every time, Vietnamese envoys brought back some Chinese books to their country. In modern times, some western scholars studying Chinese history and culture collected Chinese ancient books and shipped them to their own country, for example, the Gest collection of Princeton University. In a word, in ancient cultural exchanges, Chinese books were a carrier to convey the traditional Chinese culture to the world.

After the First Opium War (First Anglo-Chinese War) (1840-1842), China was invaded by western countries. In the course of wars, Chinese rare books were brought out of frontier for preservation or for business. The most famous ancient documents brought out from China in this period include the oracle bones, a portion of books of "Bisong" book-collection house4 , the documents excavated from the Ningxia Hui autonomous region (located in the northwest part of China) and Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region (located in the northwest of China, it is also the largest Chinese administrative division). An especially important part of volumes of the Yongle encyclopedia or Yongle Dadian, which was commissioned by the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty in 1403 and completed by 1408, were robbed by Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. Moreover, in the early 20th century, after discovered in the Mogao Caves by the Daoist monk Wang Yuanlu, the manuscripts of Dunhuang, documents ranging from history and mathematics to folk songs and dance from the 5th to early 11th centuries, were taken by western explorers such as a Hungarian-British archaeologist Aurel Stein and a French sinologist and orientalist Paul Pelliot. Those purchased by Western scholars are now kept in institutions all over the world, such as the British Library who housed 13,000 volumes and the National Library of France who housed 7,000 volumes. Russian and Japanese explorers also acquired collections of manuscripts.

< One piece of Dunhuang manuscripts housed in the British Library >

3. Inheritance and initiative of ancient Chinese books

3-1. General survey of ancient Chinese books

Seeing that a huge number of Chinese ancient books were collected by foreign institutions, the Chinese government hopes to help those institutions better preserve their Chinese collections. In January2007, the Chinese General Office of the State Council, an administrative agency of the State Council which assists the chief administrative authority of the People's Republic of China, promulgated Suggestions on Strengthening Ancient Books Preservation and Conservation. "China Ancient Books Preservation Project," a national project in order to inherit and spread Chinese text culture, has been domestically carried out since 2007. The features of China Ancient Books Preservation Project are general survey of ancient Chinese books, establishment of National Rare Ancient Book Directory and nomination of "National Key Protection Units of Ancient Documents." The scopes of the survey are national libraries, public libraries, libraries of cultural units (depositaries of collected books), college and university libraries, academic libraries, libraries of religious units (depositaries of Buddhist texts) and personal collections within China. The contents of the investigation include basic information on ancient books and information on damage and preservation condition. In all, the core mission of this plan is to assign unique IDs to each ancient book (the number of ancient books surveyed and other information), to establish a national ancient book registration system, and to improve preservation and utilization of ancient books.

< Texting China: International Symposium at the University of Chicago Library >

In May2012, Texting China: International Symposium on Composition, Transmission and Preservation of Pre-modern Chinese Textual Materials was held in Chicago, in cooperation with the East Asian Library, University of Chicago, the NLC, Harvard-Yenching Library, and Princeton University East Asian Library. About 100 people from China, the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany, France and Italy, including scholars and library directors, attended the symposium. The symposium featured three themes: manuscripts and manuscript culture, printing and print culture, and preservation of pre-modern Chinese texts. Taking this opportunity, the China National Center for Preservation & Conservation of Ancient Books introduced "China Ancient Books Preservation Project" and proposed the "Plan for Collaborations with Overseas Institutions to Preserve Their Chinese Collections," which was welcomed by the attendees (see the International Catalogue of Chinese Rare Books). Directors of many East Asian Libraries in North America expressed great enthusiasm for participating in this Plan. They also hoped to develop cooperative projects, such as a general survey of ancient Chinese books, compilation of Chinese Ancient Books Union Catalogue in North America, digitization of ancient books, etc., and suggested establishment of ancient books preservation and restoration training classes or a training centre for the cultivation of ancient books preservation talents. After this symposium, the NLC Publishing House collaboratively compiled the North America Chinese General Ancient Books’ Catalogue and the North America Chinese Rare Ancient Books’ Catalogue with related institutions of the United States. In June 2013, a seminar on cooperation between China and the United States partner institutions was held in Beijing. Twelve agencies with Chinese ancient book collections discussed with the NLC Publishing House the format and edition of the above two catalogues of which the compilation will be finished in 2016.

3-2. Digitization of ancient Chinese books outside of China

The definitions of digitization of ancient books are still not unified. One of the definitions is that the digitization of ancient books is the process of converting content of ancient books into digital format. In this format, the content of ancient books is organized into discrete units of data (called bits) that can be separately addressed (usually in multiple-bit groups called bytes). This is the binary data that computers and many devices with computing capacity (such as digital cameras and digital hearing aids) can process. Text and images in ancient books can be digitized similarly: a scanner captures an image (which may be an image of text) and converts it to an image file, such as a bitmap. An optical character recognition (OCR) program analyzes a text image for light and dark areas in order to identify each character, and converts each character into GB2312 code (official character set for simplified Chinese characters, widely used in Mainland China), BIG5 code (Chinese character encoding method used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau for Traditional Chinese characters), GB18030 code (Chinese National Standard character set), Unicode, etc.5 Digitization of ancient books makes them easier to preserve, access, and share. In many cases, ancient books have replaced microfilming with digitization as a means of preserving and providing access to unique documents. For example, Dunhuang manuscripts may only be accessible to people who visit the NLC or the British Library. But now it is already digitized by "International Dunhuang Project," and can be freely accessed online. However, the problem is how to create a convenient database so that people can search documents easily and efficiently for ancient Chinese books. A good ancient Chinese books database can improve the scientific research conditions. Nowadays, a few ancient Chinese books databases provide full-text-search capabilities.6 The digitization of ancient Chinese books is beneficial to their preservation, utilization, and transmission. Especially, suffering from wars or disasters, digitized copies are easier to remain. At present, many Chinese libraries carry out digitization of ancient Chinese collections in cooperation with overseas institutions. The approaches to digitization cooperation are diverse, such as purchase of the ancient Chinese books database from overseas institutions, digitization of ancient Chinese books according to the catalogue from both sides. Nevertheless, the results of all kinds of digitization cooperation are not perfect. This is because most of the ancient Chinese books databases are image databases which are difficult for scholars to search documents. Obviously, those databases cannot provide full-text-search capabilities, and only search of the title, author, and other simple items. For example, the NLC Database of Dunhuang Manuscripts, NLC Database of Chinese ancient books collected by Harvard-Yenching Library, NLC Database of Chinese Collections collected by Institute of Oriental Culture at the University of Tokyo, all of them are full-text image databases which are constructed by simply scanning text or being converted from microfilms. If the classified retrieval system and Chinese Ancient Books Subject-headings are created, that would be very helpful in conducting academic research. Furthermore, developing metadata of ancient Chinese books is becoming more and more important.

3-3. Display and promotion of ancient Chinese books

Ancient Chinese books are the treasured legacy of China. In order to promote them to the public, in 2014, a new museum, National Museum of Classic Books has officially opened in Beijing. The NLC, part of who housed 2,000,000 volumes ancient books, offers a glimpse of some rare and ancient works, including important landmarks in Chinese literary history. This is the first museum of its kind for China. It covers an area of 11,549 square meters, and contains 10 exhibition halls.

< The National Museum of Classic Books >

The permanent exhibition showcases allocate more than 800 ancient works. The books all come from different eras, and are aimed at giving the general public a chance to get close to some pieces of Chinese literary history. The exhibits include the Yongle encyclopedia, the Complete Library in the Four Branches of Literature, Oracle bones (inscriptions on animal bones and tortoise shells) and some other rare texts. Some of the books of rubbings are the only examples from the Northern Song dynasty which are shown to the public for the first time. The original Dunhuang manuscripts kept by the NLC are also showcased in this museum. The rare ancient Chinese books were once only accessible to scholars and researchers.

At the same time, the Window to China Project spreads the facsimiles of ancient Chinese books to readers outside of China. Founded in 2006, the Window to China Project donates books to national libraries and other institutions around the world. Until now, the NLC, which is in charge of this project, has donated approximately 120,631 publications including many facsimiles of famous ancient Chinese books, covering many subjects such as history, literature, archaeology, fine arts, travel and ethnic nationalities. In addition, the Window to China Project also affords some monographs of the ancient Chinese book studies, for instance, studies of ancient Chinese books outside China, essays of Dunhuang studies and Buddhism, history of ancient Chinese prose.

4. Conclusion

Firstly, in spite of the survey and the catalogue of the ancient Chinese collections done by the government and academic organizations of China, scholars still cannot easily to search the contents of ancient books as much as using Google search engine to find a website. This shows that the research and development of metadata for ancient Chinese books are not enough. In the future, we expect that more and more ancient Chinese books databases with great function will be constructed. Secondly, how to make public know and enjoy reading ancient Chinese books is a significant problem for well inheriting Chinese ancient text’s culture. The National Museum of Classic Books and Window to China Project are two good examples for spreading ancient Chinese books, but we need more initiative ways to preserve and promote our historical culture.

1 Li Xiusheng. Management of ancient books and traditional culture [M]. Shenyang: Liaoning university press, 1991:7-8.

2 Yang Weisheng. Chinese ancient classics and traditional culture [J]. journal of hangzhou university, 1992, 22(3)

3 Yan Shaodang. Research about Japanese catalogue Ben Chao Jian Zai Shu [J]. Management and research about ancient books, 1986(1)

4 "Bisong" book-collection house is one of the four book-collection houses in the late Qing Dynasty in China.But, all its books were in the hands of the private library "Seikado Bunko" owned by a Japanese called Lwasaki in the early 20th century, which became Japan's national treasure.

5 Pan Deli. Process and perspective of Chinese ancient books’ digitization [J]. Library and information science, 2002(7):117-120

6 Li Guoxin. Process and task of Chinese ancient book’s digitization [J]. Journal of Academic Libraries, 2002(1):21-26,41

Copyright (C) 2016 National Library of China