Lists and Chungking publications

4 November 2022

At the forty-second EASL conference in Ghent at the beginning of September, I gave a short talk which was simply called “Lists”.

Increasingly, especially during the later years of my employment, scholars – mostly Chinese – were not asking to see specific books which could easily be found in our online catalogue without reference to me or any other librarian. They were asking the question “what have you got”. It would have been pointless, and even unhelpful, for me to tell them to go and have a look in the online catalogue, as online catalogues are not designed to answer this question.

Online catalogues are designed to limit what is being looked for, not to show everything. And the more they limit it, the better most readers are pleased. The ideal is to find exactly the book or books you’re looking for, and nothing more, in the first hit.

And so I designed the Serica website as an attempt to give an overview of all the “special” Chinese books in Oxford, not just a few of them. It is nothing more than a collection of lists, some of them very long. The data is arranged in a modified version of the Sibu 四部 classification, which can be seen and understood at a glance. Each category gives access to a list that can be viewed, printed out, or downloaded as required. Each list can be structured in a way that best suits the data it contains rather than a way that has to conform to a particular set of rules.

I had actually started to make lists at a very early stage of my career, well over forty years ago. Shortly after I was first appointed to the Bodleian in 1976, I started to visit Piet van der Loon at his house on Boar’s Hill to learn the facts of Chinese bibliography. He quickly infected me with his enthusiasm for the popular editions that had arrived in Europe in the seventeenth century, and I started to make a list of them. I then expanded the list to include the seventeenth-century Chinese acquisitions in other British libraries.

As soon as the internet appeared, and the Library staff were given space on which to mount their own pages, which we were encouraged to produce, I mounted my list and further expanded it to include the seventeenth-century acquisitions of all other European libraries. When scholars interested in these matters saw it, they started to help me, so that little by little, maybe only once or twice a year, the list continues to grow, a process which is regularly documented in this blog.

The list is expressed in the simplest HTML – it’s little more than a textfile – and is not a work of scholarship. But it led directly to the discovery of one of the most important Chinese historical documents in existence, the Selden Map. Robert Bachelor had noticed that there was a Ming dynasty map on my list, and asked to see it when he visited the Bodleian at the beginning of January, 2008.

I’ve recently started to produce other lists, the latest being a list of the official publications of the Chinese government when it was based at Chungking in the 1940s. The Bodleian received a gift of 151 of these from what was then called the “National Library of Peiping” in February, 1946. The original list that accompanied this donation is in English, and is preserved in the Library Records (Library Records c.1734):

A scan of the complete document can be found here.

All of these publications are valuable, and some are now very rare indeed, for example this work on Tojo and Koiso:

Before he left for Princeton, Joshua Seufert had located them and extracted them from the modern collection. I don’t know why or how he did this, but it has enabled the Library to incorporate them into its special collections, and I have subsequently made a list of them. The list has been produced automatically from the allegro catalogue and follows the order of the National Library of Peiping original, with its numbering given at the head of each record:

The complete list can be seen here.

My first list gives access to materials that could never be found in online catalogues – I don’t know what search-term would lead the reader to materials that came to Europe in the seventeenth century. And my latest list could only be produced from most online catalogues with much time and difficulty, and only by readers who really know what they’re doing and can cope with the sheer awfulness of the systems currently in use.

The more I work on the Bodleian’s special collections, the more my enthusiasm for lists increases. When I’ve been unable to find texts in online databases, I’ve resorted to Google searches, and these have often led to lists of books which Chinese scholars have mounted on their websites or reproduced in their blogs just as I do myself. Not only do you find what you’re after, but occasionally you notice things in the list which turn out to be even more interesting than what you were originally looking for.

Popular literature

29 March 2022

Since ceasing to be employed by the Bodleian some four and a half years ago, I’ve been trying my best to complete the cataloguing of the Library’s pre-modern and so-called “special” Chinese collections as a private scholar. Inevitably I’ve left the most difficult things until last.

These are some very down-market works of popular literature made by Piet van der Loon. I remember seeing some of them in his study in his house on Boars Hill on my frequent visits there, but never paid much attention to them. I think that he, too, had put them aside for dealing with one day in the future, which of course never came. There are several hundred of them, and I wouldn’t even have known what they were if he hadn’t tied them in bundles and labelled them.

They are extremely difficult to catalogue because they challenge the rules, which were drawn up for cataloguing regular publications, not casually produced ephemera. Again and again one is faced with the choice of either following the rules, or cataloguing the works in such a way as to show the reader what they are and to give access to them. The ideologues in our cataloguing departments often forget this, and would do well to conduct research using their own catalogues from time to time and see for themselves how difficult it often is to find things in them unless the rules are bent.

In these popular and very localised works, occasionaly rather strange alternative or dialect characters are used, and they are often difficult to identify and locate in the character set. My thanks to Andrew West for giving me much help in this area.

The three biggest collections, which I catalogued some time ago, are:

1. 閩南歌曲 (Fujian folk songs), Sinica 4028-4500
2. 廣州木魚書 (Cantonese “wooden fish books”), Sinica 4911-5234
3. 粵劇劇本 (Canton opera scripts), Sinica 5241-5700

A further hundred or so Cantonese “wooden fish books” were transferred from the Chinese Studies Library in 2014 (Sinica 6194-6295), and another two dozen came from Glen Dubridge in 2017 (Sinica 6751-6774), so that the total size of these three collections is currently:

閩南歌曲 – 480 editions
廣州木魚書 – 487 editions
粵劇劇本 – 461 editions

These are sizeable holdings by any standards.

I’m writing the present blog entry because I’ve recently catalogued three further groups of materials that Piet labelled, and which I’ve attempted to fit into my classification scheme, which is the Sibu 四部 system modified so that it will accept everything in our collection, at least after a fashion. They are (to use his terminolgy):

“Canton dramas, genre unidentified”, Sinica 5806-5854, 57 editions.

Catalogued here.

客家歌冊 (Hakka song books), Sinica 5855-5875, 25 editions.

Catalogued here.

When I first posted this blog entry I wondered why the term 廣東語 was set against each title if these are indeed Hakka song books. But Justin Leung posted a comment noting that all these editions were published in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period, when Hakka was known as 廣東語.

福州評話 (Fuzhou stories), Sinica 5876-5899, 26 editions.

Catalogued here.

If anyone with a knowledge of these things could tell me a better way of classifying this type of popular literature, I’d be extremely grateful.


Salt and a woodblock

31 December 2021

During the course of my work at the Bodleian, I was occasionally asked to give talks on how traditional Chinese books were produced. That is, how they were printed and bound. To demonstrate this I used a Japanese block that had been given to me by Christer von der Burg – I didn’t have a Chinese one – together with a disbound duplicate copy of one of the modern impressions from old blocks that are issued by Chinese publishers from time to time.

We acquired a Chinese woodblock in October 2013, and in the following January I wrote a blog entry about it. As a printing block it is typical, but its content is distinctly odd, so I’ve always been on the lookout for another. They turn up on eBay from time to time, often wrongly described as Chinese when they are obviously Japanese, and usually unrealistically priced. However, at the beginning of October last year I struck lucky, and managed to get a rather fine example very cheaply; I was the only bidder.

The block is from an edition of Changlu yanfa zhi 長蘆鹽法志, “A treatise on the salt law of Changlu”, an official publication in 20 juan 卷 compiled by Huang Zhanglun 黃掌綸 and others in 1805 on the basis of an earlier Yongzheng 雍正 edition in 16 juan. The subject is interesting, as salt production was a very important industry in traditional China. It was strictly controlled by the government, and was one of the principal sources of tax revenue. The Changlu Saltfield 长芦盐场 is situated on the Gulf of Bohai 渤海湾 near the cities of Tianjin 天津 and Cangzhou 滄州 and still supplies one quarter of China’s salt. During the Qing dynasty it was managed from these two cities, which are both on the Grand Canal 京杭大运河.

The edition was published by the Changlu salt commissioner at the time of its compilation; there are several copies in Peking University Library where it is described as 「清嘉慶十年[1805]長蘆鹽運使刻本」. It is reproduced in the collectaneum Xuxiu siku quanshu 續修四庫全書, from the electronic version of which I have obtained the images reproduced below.

The block measures 215 x 283mm, and is engraved on both sides with the leaves 20:43 and 20:44. These two leaves, when bound presenting four sides to the reader, contain the name, illustrations, and text describing the building known as Jintuo cheyanting 津坨掣鹽廳.


I had no idea what this building might be, so asked Zheng Cheng, who promptly sent me copious amounts of information, for which I’m very grateful.

Firstly, the name.

Jin 津 refers to Tianjin 天津, and tuo 坨 is the term used for blocks of salt. Cheyanting 掣鹽廳 refers to the office where the blocks were literally “drawn in” (che 掣) for examination and checking. I suppose we would call it “quality control”. There is a parallel section describing the Cangzhou office 滄坨掣鹽廳.

The Tianjin office is depicted in a famous 6.8-metre long picture scroll of the Qianlong 乾隆 period kept in the National Museum of China 中国国家博物馆. The scroll has no title, and as a result of an earlier misidentification of what it depicts, it is now named Luhe duyun tu 《潞河督運圖》. Actually, it is a depiction of the installations relating to the salt industry along the Haihe 海河 river which flows from Tianjin to the Gulf of Bohai 渤海湾, and in the opinion of authorities on this matter it would be better named Haihe xunyan tu《海河巡鹽圖》[1].  Here is the relevant section of the scroll, which also shows the nearby pontoon bridge, fuqiao 浮橋:

In the woodblock illustration, prominence is understandably given to the frame that supported the steelyard (chengjia 秤架) for weighing the blocks of salt; it is depicted clearly in the scroll:

The reproduction of Changlu yanfa zhi in Xuxiu siku quanshu is unfortunately not very good. But it is sufficiently clear to confirm that the impression is not taken from my block, which must therefore have been recut. There is nothing unusual about this – missing or damaged blocks were routinely replaced – but so far I have not been able to locate a copy which is described as a repaired edition, which is troubling.

1. Zheng Cheng has drawn my attention to two works on this scroll. (1) 王永谦: 潞河督运图卷. In 吕章申主编: 中国国家博物馆馆藏文物研究丛书, 绘画卷, 风俗画 (上海: 上海古籍出版社, 2007), 226-237; and (2) 高伟: 海河巡盐: 国博藏所谓《潞河督运图》天津风物考 (天津: 天津社会科学院出版社, 2018). I haven’t seen the second one yet.


Douce – postscript on Shixue

12 December 2021

Almost a year ago I posted an entry on the small but choice collection of Chinese books bequeathed to the Bodleian Library by Francis Douce (1757-1834). The following day, Zheng Cheng posted a reply drawing my attention to an article by Elisabetta Corsi on Shixue 視學, the most valuable among them. Following Corsi’s leads, I’ve been able to establish or at least make an informed guess of the provenance of this and a couple of other items in the collection, and have re-written the entry (where her article is referenced) to reflect these findings.

The purpose of this postscript is to make some observations on the edition of Shixue 視學, as there has been some confusion about it, and to present as complete a list as I can of the surviving copies, a list which is much longer than both Corsi’s and the one I originally posted. I’ll update it from time to time, as I discover more about them.

But first I must apologise to all readers of my blog who don’t have a burning interest in Shixue, as they will find what follows to be a mass of tedious detail which they could well do without. So please wait for my next blog entry, which I’ll try to make a little more interesting.

I’m told that the Douce copy of Shixue is one of the finest to survive, and since I wrote my original entry it has been digitised. So it is now possible to make close and accurate comparisons with copies elsewhere if anyone has the will to do so. For my part, I would already have been on the Eurostar to Paris to look at the copy in the Bibliothèque Nationale if it had not been for the pandemic.

Catalogues refer to two editions, the first prefaced 1729 (雍正己酉), the second 1735 (雍正乙卯). In the latter, Nian has added fifty or more plates together with explanations, as he explains in the preface (補縷五十餘圖並爲圖說). But I began to suspect, and so did Zheng Cheng, that the second edition was not a true second edition, but a reprint of the first edition with additional material. Because the edition is in large format, it would have been expensive to produce, and it seemed to me to be most unlikely that the blocks would have been recut after only six years – impressions were commonly taken from Chinese printing blocks for many decades or even centuries after they were cut. So I sent some images from the Bodleian copy (of 1735) to my old colleague and friend Maja Fuchs, and asked if she’d kindly send me images of the corresponding pages in the copy in Vienna (of 1729). This she did, and it was clear that the impressions had been taken from the same blocks except for the preface, which in the Vienna copy has the format 16行16字, but in later copies has been recut in the same format as the 1735 preface, 11行24字.

So the two versions might now be correctly described as follows:

Another complication was the title, which is sometimes given as Shixue jingwen《視學精蘊》. This puzzled me, as it appears nowhere in the text of either the Douce copy or the copy in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which is reproduced in the collectaneum Xuxiu siku quanshu 續修四庫全書. But it does appear on the cover labels found on some of the copies, printed labels on those of London and St Petersburg, and manuscript on the Vienna copy. But the title of a Chinese book should only be taken from that source as a last resort, as book covers were easily damaged and expendable, and were regularly replaced by collectors. They are thus impermanent, by contrast with what lay within them. We would normally take the title of the first juan of the text as standard, but as the Shixue is not divided into juan, we look elsewhere, and find it at the beginning of the 1729 preface, Shixue bianyan 視學弁言.

And so in Chinese, we would catalogue it as follows:
視學不分卷 …

In English, the edition is correctly described in Leuven’s Chinese Christian Text Database.

Here is the list of locations, with a few observations on the copies; as can be seen, there is much more work to do.

Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Sin 160-C. 1729. Sent from Peking by the Austrian Jesuit missionary Xaver Ernbert Fridelli, 1673-1743. It has a butterfly binding (蝴蝶裝), and the preface has the block format 16行16字 with original red seals, suggesting that this may be a unique surviving copy of the very earliest printing. Paris
Bibliothèque Nationale, Département des Estampes et de la Photographie, Oe 29 pet.fol.). 1729? The marking “n° 2864” indicates that the copy entered the Bibliothèque Royale en 1763. The copy lacks its covers and preface. The leaves are not bound in their correct order, and the text may be incomplete. (Information from Nathalie Monnet, e-mail, 6 April 2006).London
British Library, ex India Office Library and Records, Chin.H.31. 1735.Oxford
Bodleian Library, Douce Chin.b.2. 1735.Glasgow
University Library, Hunterian Chinese 45. 1735. This copy was originally sent by the Jesuits in Peking to T.S. Bayer in St Petersburg in 1737. See Weston, David: The Bayer Collection: a preliminary catalogue of the manuscripts and books of Professor Theophilus Siegfried Bayer, acquired and augmented by the Reverend Dr Heinrich Walther Gerdes, now preserved in the Hunterian Library of the University of Glasgow (Glasgow, 2018), 217.
St Petersburg
Institute of Oriental Manuscripts (IOM) of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Институт восточных рукописей Российской академии наук), G90. 1729. Zheng Cheng has investigated the St Petersburg copies, and through a contact there has located them in a published catalogue: Вахтин, Борис Борисович: Каталог фонда китайских ксилографов Института востоковедения АН СССР (Москва: Главная редакция восточной литературы, 1973), 95. What follows are the results of his findings to date. This copy, G90, is curious. The format of its preface is the same as that of the Vienna copy (16行16字), but the seals are printed in black, and it has only 16 pages fewer than the Douce and IHNS copies. This has led Zheng Cheng to suggest that it may be an intermediate printing, short of the “50 or more” illustrations of the final 1735 issue. At the same time, it is rather disturbing to note that it has three illustrations which are not found in the supposedly complete Douce and IHNS copies. It is bound in two volumes, western style on the head margin, with no evidence that the leaves were ever folded. All three St Petersburg copies have printed labels bearing the title Shixue jingwen《視學精蘊》.St Petersburg
IOM, F105. 1735. F105 and G91 bear the seals of the Asiatic Museum (Азиатский музей) in St Petersburg, whose collections subsequently passed to the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts. Apart from the printed labels, both are the same as the Douce and IHNS copies.St Petersburg
IOM, G91. 1735.Peking
中国国家图书馆 (NLC). 1735. Chen Yunru 陳韻如 (National Palace Museum, Taipei) has examined both the Douce and NLC copies, and told me in April 2006 that he considered the Douce copy to be the finer.Peking
中国科学院自然科学史研究所 (IHNS), 善子623/224. 1735. This copy is identical in every respect with the Douce copy, but has collectors’ seals.Changsha
湖南图书馆, 383/5. 1735.


Yongle dadian – 4

18 March 2021

Between December 2014 and May 2015, I posted three blog entries on the subject of Yongle dadian 永樂大典. It was always my intention to post a fourth one in which I would discuss the relocation of roughly half the volumes that survived the burning of Hanlin Yuan 翰林院 on Saturday 23 June 1900 during the Siege of the Legations. In the meantime, the sale of two newly discovered volumes in Paris last year has provided some new and quite unexpected food for thought, which I now throw into the mix.

The Paris volumes contain juan 2268-2269 and 7391-7392, and are explained fully in articles by Weng Lianxi 翁连溪, Director of the National Palace Museum Library and an authority on Chinese bibliography, and Gao Shuwei 高树伟, a doctoral student of classical Chinese literature at Peking University who wrote his master’s thesis on Yongle dadian.

Here they are:

翁连溪: 新出现的两册《永乐大典》趣闻
高树伟: 读巴黎新见两册《永乐大典》记

The volumes were auctioned as Lot 231 by Beaussant Lefèvre in Paris at the sale “Archéologie – Art d’Asie” which began at 2pm on Tuesday 7 July 2020. They carried an estimate of €5,000-8,000.

Full details of the sale in English sources are difficult to come by, and although it was obviously much bigger news in China than in the west, already some of the Chinese internet reports that I bookmarked at the time have disappeared. So my thanks are due to Xu Haiyan 许海燕 at the National Library of China (who is currently masterminding the reprinting of all the extant volumes) for helping me to gather much of the information contained in this entry, which I reproduce in the hope that it will be available for longer than the sources from which it is derived.

The bidding started at 4.47pm, and opened at €10,000. In a few moments it reached €500,000, and after a minute and half it amounted to a number larger than the auctioneers’ screen could display. The Chinese lady who secured the volumes entered the bidding at €2,000,000 and finally secured the lot with a bid of €6,400,000. With the auctioneers’ commission of 27%, this brought the price of the two volumes to €8,128,000; that is, more than one thousand times the estimate.

The Chinese lady, whose identity I haven’t been able to establish, was acting on behalf of a businessman called Jin Liang 金亮, who had been informed of the sale and persuaded to bid by Weng Lianxi. Jin Liang is a native of Zhejiang Province 浙江省, and chairman of two companies whose names I can only cite in Chinese, as I can’t find an English version of them: 上海春竹集团有限公司, 浙江奥特莱斯广场有限公司. He is passionately interested in old Chinese books, of which he is both a collector and and a generous benefactor, having donated Song editions to Zhejiang Library 浙江图书馆 and Dunhuang manuscripts to Qixia Temple 栖霞寺. It is naturally a source of great pleasure to the Chinese that these volumes have now been returned to Chinese ownership, and the hope is that one day they will again be in a public collection.

This leads me to consider the original intention of my fourth Yongle dadian post, which is to discuss the problem of where the surviving volumes are currently located. For the Chinese, the fact that half them are in foreign hands is a highly emotive subject. This truth was brought home to me at the international conference held at the National Library of China in April 2002 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the compilation of Yongle dadian, where I read a paper on the British holdings of this work. (The paper has subsequently been modified to include all the European holdings, and is reprinted and distributed with all the National Library’s reprints of them).

At the conference reception, I was surrounded by a group of very angry young journalists from the Xinhua News Agency who accused me of theft, and demanded that I return the volumes to China without delay. My protestations of personal innocence cut no ice, nor was it accepted that the volumes were not mine to return. And even now, from time to time angry comments are sent to my blog.

The relocation of parts of Yongle dadian is regarded as the bibiographical equivalent of the looting of Yuanming Yuan 圓明園, but the two events could not be more different. The destruction of Yuanming Yuan in October 1860 was entirely the work of the British and French, and the more I think about it, the sicker I feel.

But in June 1900, Hanlin Yuan was set on fire by the Boxers, and it was the British who extinguished it. In fact, if they had not extinguished it, no volumes of Yongle dadian would have survived at all other than a few of the 10,000 or more which had already been removed by the Chinese themselves, and which now seem to have mostly disappeared.

In round numbers, only 800 volumes of Yongle dadian were left in Hanlin Yuan before the fire; of these, 400 were burnt and 400 survived; and of those that survived, roughly half are in China and the rest were taken by foreigners in the immediate aftermath of the Siege. Many Chinese, however, maintain that Hanlin Yuan was looted at the same time as Yuanming Yuan, as can quickly be discovered by the most casual internet search.

In fact there is no evidence for this assertion. I have personally examined every volume in Europe, and described them exhaustively in the table appended to my paper. Wherever their provenance is documented, it points to the Siege. There is nothing to suggest that any volumes of Yongle dadian came to Europe earlier than this, much less that there is a cache somewhere of previously stolen volumes hidden away from public view.

The provenance of the Paris volumes however is different. And for me, given the fact that Yongle dadian gave up its secrets long ago, their provenance is the only interesting thing about them. It is therefore most unfortunate that so little is known about it – or that so little has been divulged – and that it is so vague. Near the end of his article, Weng Lianxi reports that the volumes were offered for sale by the descendants of a French naval officer who was in China in the 1870s, and that he received them together with other gifts from Chinese officials with whom he had dealings. He goes on to say that all this is quite plausible.

If this is indeed the case, the two Paris volumes would be the only ones yet discovered that came to Europe before the Siege, and which were not removed from Hanlin Yuan by foreigners.

I mention all these things not to justify the present location of what little survives of Yongle dadian, much less how it got there, but to introduce a few facts into an argument often clouded by unreason and emotion.