26 April 2017

Many years ago I noticed that some of the leaves in our old books had seals on them which were clearly placed there before the book was printed and bound – they are sometimes found on the reverse of the printed side of the paper, and are not usually in logical positions. They turned out to be the seals, or rather the trademarks of the manufacturer of the paper.

I started to record them in the hope that I would discover enough to support a study of them, but long ago I gave up after discovering only ten. Undoubtedly there will be many more in our collection, but finding them will involve examining thousands of editions, tens of thousands of fascicles, and hundreds of thousands if not millions of leaves.

Now, Devin Fitzgerald at Harvard has taken up the task, and with the advantage of youth, not to mention the internet, he will probably succeed. He has already enlisted the help of colleagues in gathering data, and we should regard him as the central collection point for anything we might turn up.

He has drawn attention to this in his blog, where he has also pointed out a bilingual paper on the subject that has been done by Zhang Baoshan 張寶三 of the National Taiwan University: Paper manufacturer hallmarks in rare Chinese books from the Qing dynasty 清代中文善本古籍中所鈐紙廠印記研究.

Here is my small contribution, nothing more than images of the ten papermarks I have discovered in our collection. I have given a precise shelfmark and page reference of the fascicle in which they were found, together with brief details of the edition. I have listed them in chronological order, but it is possible and indeed probable that not all the copies were printed at the time the blocks were cut. In the case of the papermarks that are found on the reverse side of the printed sheet, I have used an image editor to flip the image so that the mark can be read. In one case I have had to join up two separate images.

1. Sinica 180/27, 2:32b. 三才圖會 (明萬曆中).

2.  Sinica 528/19, 首2a. 二如亭群芳譜 (明末).

3. Sinica 3143/4, inside rear cover. 石榴記傳奇 (清乾隆壬辰[1772]).


4. Sinica 2691/7, 滱水3a. 水經注 (清乾隆中).
5. Sinica 2691/8, 濟水22b.


6. Sinica 559 序2b. 歲寒堂詩話 (清乾隆中).

7. Backhouse 254/54, 本傳5a. 畿輔叢書 (清光緒五年[1879]).


8. Sinica 2695/1, 花卉起手式上冊2. 芥子園畫傳三集 (清).


9. Sinica 2645/10, 西臺摘疏57. 涇川叢書 (民國六年[1917]).


10. Sinica 2698/61, 1:2a. 十三經讀本 (民國甲子[1924]).



25 April 2017

In an earlier blog entry, Survey of the Great Ming Empire, I discussed an edition which had been made sometime around the year 1600, not long before the fall of the Ming. The printing blocks of such a large-scale work represented a huge investment to their owner, but became a liability on the accession of the Qing, so they had to be modified. This made it particularly difficult for me to identify the edition at a time when I was still learning the trade, when I had access to few printed library catalogues, and when the internet was still a long way off.

Another edition which puzzled me at that time was a collection of memorials of famous ministers. Like the Survey of the Great Ming Empire, it is a large work. It had originally been compiled and printed in 1416 by order of the Yongle emperor.

Our edition has a preface preface dated 1635 (崇禎八年), and is in 319 juan. The problem I had when I first encountered it is that all other copies of the edition had 350 juan, like the original Yongle edition; the only 319-juan version that I could find was in the rare book catalogue of the National Central Library. When Shen Jin 沈津 was cataloguing the Harvard copy of this work, he also came across the National Central Library’s copy and thought that it might be simply be defective [1]. But an examination of the Backhouse copy’s table of contents shows that this is not the case. The final page had not been tampered with, and was clearly an impression from a block that ended with juan 319.

The reason why the final 31 juan had been omitted and all evidence of them excised from the table of contents block must surely be because they were concerned with the northern border regions (御邊) and the barbarians that inhabited them (夷狄). Once these barbarians had become the new dynasty, whoever owned the blocks at that time clearly felt that those chapters had to go (although a century later the complete 350-juan version was included in Siku quanshu 四庫全書).

But that is not the end of the story. Many copies of the Chongzhen edition have now been catalogued online, some with specimen pages. Although many of these catalogue entries are vague, ill-researched, and possibly wrong (as indeed was my first effort), I think the evidence is sufficient to provide a perfect case study of how blocks were modified to reflect changes in ownership, politics, and scholarly fashions. So I will describe each stage of its development evolution.


That the Chongzhen edition was actually a cut-down version of the original Yongle edition made by the famous Ming scholar Zhang Pu 張溥 (1602-1641) is stated clearly at the beginning of each chapter: 「吳郡張溥刪正」. But although it had been cut down in size, it still had 350 juan. From the lower banxin 版心下 we see that the blocks were cut by a printing shop called Dongguange 東觀閣, to which I can find no further reference; furthermore, these characters are found only on the first two leaves of the preface and the first two leaves of juan 1.

Copies of the earliest printings are found in in the libraries of Fudan and Kyoto universities. There is also one in Cambridge which I was able to examine at length a fortnight ago. It is in the Wade Collection and is rather fine, although like the rest of that collection, it has been bound in western style. Here is an image of the first leaf of the text:

If I were cataloguing it, I would describe the edition as follows:

歷代名臣奏議 三百五十卷 / (明)永樂十四年[1416]黃淮等奉敕編 ; (明)張溥刪正


The first change to the blocks must reflect a change of ownership between 1635 and the fall of the Qing, and is evidenced by the excision of the name of the printing shop Dongguange 東觀閣 from the lower banxin 版心下. This is exemplified by a copy in Liaoning University:

Be that as it may, the blocks had still been cut by Dongguange, so I would express this later printing as follows, to do the job properly perhaps with an appropriate note:

歷代名臣奏議 三百五十卷 / (明)永樂十四年[1416]黃淮等奉敕編 ; (明)張溥刪正


The 319-juan version must have been produced following the fall of the Ming. Now, we find that the words 「吳郡張溥刪正」 are no longer found in the lower part of the second column of the first leaf of each juan. They have been replaced by a much longer formulation, extending over the full length of the column: 「吳郡張溥刪正 子永錫 孫玉衡玉璇重較」. Zhang Pu had died in 1641, so presumably his son Yongxi and grandsons Yuheng and Yuxuan had taken responsibility for the expurgation of the final 31 juan. Here is the first leaf of Fudan University’s copy together with the fengmian 封面 where the name of Zhang Pu (字天如) is still prominent:


However, doctoring wooden blocks in this way is expensive and time-consuming, and we rarely find editions where it has been done perfectly, especially in large editions like this, where replacements were needed at the beginnings of 319 juan. I haven’t been able to examine any copies in Far Eastern libraries, but the Oxford and Harvard copies suggest that the change was only ever effected at the beginning of the following sixteen juan: 1-10, 13, 20, 131-134.

It is tempting to guess that the edition was made in the early Qing, but we can’t be sure. In fact, throughout the entire history of this edition and its printings, the date of the original preface is the only date we have. So the description of the edition is now as follows:

歷代名臣奏議 三百十九卷 / (明)永樂十四年[1416]黃淮等奉敕編 ; (明)張溥刪正 ; (清)張永錫, (清)張玉衡, (清)張玉璇重較


Now, for some reason, it was felt necessary to dissociate Zhang Pu from the edition and to associate it with his contemporary Chen Renxi 陳仁錫 (字明卿, 1581-1636) instead, and we find a whole series of copies where his name has been removed from the juan beginnings. The blocks evidently changed hands and were repaired in this stage of the edition, but from the specimen pages it is difficult to establish in what order the impressions were made, as they inevitably reflect not only the degradation of the blocks, but the care with which they were inked and the impressions taken.

The excision of Zhang Pu’s name is evident throughout the Backhouse copy, but inevitably some occurrences were missed, so that it survives at the beginning of the table of contents 目錄 and juan 49, 148, 252, 306, and 318:


But Zhang Pu also wrote the preface, or at least it is ascribed to him. Extraordinarily, here his name has simply been replaced with that of Chen Renxi without any change to either the text or the printed seal Tianru 天如 (Zhang Pu’s zi 字). The following two impressions are both from the same block. That on the right is from the copy of the original 350-juan edition in Liaoning Daxue, and that on the left is from the Backhouse copy of the 319-juan version, the block having degraded somewhat in the meantime and the four characters 「太倉張溥」having been replaced with 「陳明卿氏」:


And on the fengmian 封面 likewise, we now find that it is Chen Renxi who is credited with reducing the text; the images below are both from copies of the 319-juan version, that on the right from an early impression in Fudan Daxue, that on the left from a later impression in Nanjing Shifan Daxue:


The words「本衙藏板」 on the fengmian of the Fudan copy are formulaic are probably not true. And the words「文德堂梓」on the fengmian of the Nanjing copy are obviously nonsense – whatever the Wendetang may have done to the blocks, it certainly didn’t cut them.

The fengmian of the Backhouse copy indicates another owner of the blocks, perhaps before they came into the possession of Wendetang, although again from the quality of the speciman pages it is difficult to be sure:

This enables us finally to catalogue our Backhouse copy with some precision, as follows:

歷代名臣奏議 三百十九卷 / (明)永樂十四年[1416]黃淮等奉敕編 ; (明)張溥刪正 ; (清)張永錫, (清)張玉衡, (清)張玉璇重較
線裝50冊 ; 25公分
Backhouse 114

It is not clear to me why it was felt necessary to replace the name of one famous late Ming author with another. Zhang Pu was not a figure who was out of favour in the Qing Dynasty – indeed, four of his works were reviewed in Siku quanshu zongmu tiyao 四庫全書總目提要, and one was actually included in the final manuscript.

However, in the review of the original Yongle edition of the memorials in the tiyao 提要 (卷55, 史部11), Zhang Pu’s edition is described in rather unflattering terms. There is criticism of the way in which he has carried out the pruning of the original text, which is particularly severe in the periods following the Tang 唐. An extreme example of this is juan 83, where Zhang Pu has reduced the 34 leaves of the Yongle edition to a single leaf in his own. But it is hard to say whether this would have had any bearing on the saleability of the edition, even if the blocks were still around 150 years after they had been cut (the tiyao were not submitted to the throne until 1781).


Throughout the process of charting the development of this edition, I had been closing my eyes to references in various catalogues to a version in 320-juan in the hope that they would go away, but unfortunately they didn’t. A single maverick entry might reasonably be ignored, but not references to copies in the libraries of Fudan University, Jilin University, Zhongshan Daxue, Hong Kong University, and in Japan the Toyo Bunko, Tokyo University, Hosei University, and Nagasaki University. Nearer to home, there is also a copy in Leiden University Library and my colleague Marc Gilbert very kindly sent me some photographs of it, but these only increased my puzzlement, as they suggested that the version in 320 juan was later, not earlier, than the version in 319 juan.

Eventually, this indeed proved to be the case.

It is possible to view online a complete edition of the 320-juan version in Harvard, where it has been digitised (but in a most egregious error, the copy has been described as having 350 juan in both the online catalogue record to which it is attached as well as in both editions of Shen Jin’s printed catalogue quoted above). So I went to Cambridge (the original Cambridge, that is) with a few dozen images from the Backhouse copy to compare all three versions. My comparison left the chronological sequence in no doubt.

Sometimes the blocks of all three versions are the same; sometimes they are all different. Sometimes the 319-juan block is the same as the 350-juan block but different from the 320-juan block; sometimes it is the same as the 320-juan block but different from the 350-juan block. But the 320-juan block is never the same as the 350-juan block but different from the 319-juan block, which proves conclusively that the 320-juan version is the latest. Actually, making this comparison was not easy, and during the course of it I found many examples in the 320-juan version both of blocks that been re-cut in their entirety and some that had only been repaired.

Here are the leaves from the end of the table of contents in the Backhouse copy:


And here are the equivalent leaves from Harvard’s 320-juan impression, where the first block is the same, but the second has been completely re-cut with the addition of juan 320:


I can think of no reason why juan 320 was restored other than to turn the edition into something that didn’t look as if it had been fiddled with. But if this is so, I wonder why the new end leaf of the table of contents was not cut in the same format as the others.

Where re-cutting and repairing has taken place, the name of Zhang Pu has sometimes been restored, as at the beginning of juan 6 for example, where the leaf has been re-cut in its entirety:


But sometimes only repairs have been made, as at the beginning of juan 318, where the worn out bottom two lines of the Backhouse copy have been replaced in the Harvard copy, the rest of the block being identical:


And there is a new fengmian which bears details of the block-owner, who was presumably responsible for all the changes described above:

So we can now catalogue the final version of the edition as follows:

歷代名臣奏議 三百二十卷 / (明)永樂十四年[1416]黃淮等奉敕編 ; (明)張溥刪正 ; (清)張永錫, (清)張玉衡, (清)張玉璇重較

This is by far the most complicated case of block-altering and re-issuing that I have ever encountered, and it has taken me an inordinate length of time to determine and define the publishing history of the edition. I am dissatisfied with the outcome, as I can’t explain the reason for the most striking change: why the attribution was changed from Zhang Pu to Chen Renxi and then finally back again.

Now I ought to plough through the text of the Oxford and Harvard copies to see what (if any) taboo characters have been altered. This would enable us to establish at least approximate dates for the various impressions.

[1]沈津: 美國哈佛大學哈佛燕京圖書館中文善本書志 (上海: 上海辭書出版社, 1999), 155-156; 美國哈佛大學哈佛燕京圖書館藏中文善本書志 (桂林: 廣西師範大學出版社, 2011), 2:421-422.

Jinling Buddhist Press

28 September 2016

In April 2013 I visited China with Joshua Seufert, who had been appointed in the summer of 2012 to take over most of my responsibilities in the Bodleian so that I could concentrate on cataloguing our pre-modern collections in my final years of employment.

We had a very enjoyable and productive time visiting suppliers of both printed books and digital resources, mostly in Peking and Shanghai. For two days we parted company. While Joshua pursued his own interests in Hangzhou, I took the opportunity of pursuing mine in Nanking to see two places which over the years had excited my curiosity.

The first was the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall 侵华日军南京大屠杀遇难同胞纪念馆, which presents a large and detailed exposition of the atrocities committed by Japanese troops in the weeks following their occupation of Nanking on 13 December 1937; the second was the subject of this blog entry, the Jinling Buddhist Press 金陵刻經處, whose name is sometimes translated as “Jinling Scriptural Press”.


If there is a connection between these two places, it is because they represent both the highest and the lowest points in the relationship between China and Japan.

I first became aware of Jinling Buddhist Press when cataloguing the following work in our collection:

解深密經 五卷 / (唐釋)玄奘譯
線裝1冊 ; 24公分
Sinica 2536

sinica2536b sinica2536a

I had never heard of the publisher, and at the time was not particularly interested in making further investigations – I had several thousand editions to identify and could scarcely pursue scholarly research on each of them. Only when I came across a further ten editions in our collections by the same publisher, together with other Buddhist works printed in identical (or very similar) format by similarly named publishers, was my curiosity aroused.

The Press was founded by Yang Wenhui 楊文會 (1837-1911, 字仁山), who had converted to Buddhism after reading the “Awakening of faith” sutra (大乘起信論) on his recovery from a serious illness in 1864. He moved to Nanking in 1866 to work on the reconstruction of the city, which had been seriously damaged during the Taiping Rebellion. The Taipings had also been responsible for the destruction of the printing blocks of the Jiaxing Tripitaka 嘉興方冊大藏經.


Yang believed that the Buddhist faith, and through it the salvation of mankind, could only be revived through the reprinting and distribution of authoritative editions of its scriptures. So together with a group of like-minded friends, he established the Jinling Buddhist Press in 1866, and in that year its first publication was printed: Jingtu sijing 淨土四經, a collection of four sutras of the Pure Land school.

Like the Jiaxing Tripitaka, the Jinling editions were presented in thread-bound format (xianzhuang 線裝) rather than the folded binding (zhezhuang 折裝) of the imperial editions and of scriptures intended for liturgical use. And also like the Jiaxing Tripitaka, they were financed privately through individual subscription, and not by the Chinese state.

Much has now been published on the Press, including a very thorough article by Wu Yankang 武延康, which has been translated into English by Nancy Morton Tomasko and published in Princeton University’s East Asian library journal. [1] This article is replete with details of Yang’s life and work and the vicissitudes of the Press through the upheavals in Chinese history from its foundation to the present day; and very importantly, it documents the history of the printing blocks that are currently stored on the site, which number over 130,000.


Before proceeding further, I’d like to mention a connection with Oxford, albeit a tenuous one.

In 1878 Yang visited London. He had travelled there with Zeng Jize 增紀澤 (the eldest son of Zeng Guofan 曾國藩) who had been sent there as minister to Britain, France, and Russia. I don’t know if this was the main purpose of his visit, but during the course of his stay, he went to the British Museum (which then housed what is now the British Library) and discovered Buddhist texts that were no longer extant in China. There he met Bunyiu Nanjio (Nanjō Bun’yū 南条文雄, 1849-1927), the son of a priest of the Jōdo Shinshū 浄土真宗 sect, who is remembered as one of Japan’s greatest Buddhist scholars. [2] At the time, Nanjō was studying English in London so that he could then proceed to Oxford and learn Sanskrit from Max Müller.


The meeting of these two men is what I had in mind when referring above to the highest point in Sino-Japanese relations. The two became good friends, and exchanged letters over the course of many years. [3] Through Nanjō, Yang obtained some three hundred texts from Korea and Japan that could no longer be found in China for reprinting at his press in Nanking; and for his part, Yang provided Nanjō with Chinese esoteric texts for the continuation of the Tripitaka that was currently being compiled in Japan, the Dainihon zokuzōkyō 大日本續蔵經, which was eventually published in Kyoto between 1905 and 1913.

It is also worth mentioning that while he was in England, Nanjō compiled the first western catalogue of the contents of the Chinese Tripitaka, which was published at the Clarendon Press in Oxford in 1883:


Nanjō compiled this on the basis of a copy of the Tetsugen Tripitaka 鐵眼大藏經 which had been given to the India Office library by the Japanese government in 1875. This is said to be the first complete edition of the Tripitaka to come to the western world. It was based on the Jiaxing Tripitaka, a copy of which had been taken to Japan by the Chinese monk Yinyuan Longqi 隱元隆琦 (1592-1673), one of the Ming loyalists who fled there in the wake of the Manchu conquest and became the founder of Japan’s Ōbaku School 黄檗宗 of Zen.

There is thus a remarkable circularity in this story as well as many unexpected connections.

To return to the matter in hand. I referred above to other Buddhist sciptures printed in identical (or very similar) format to those of the Jinling Press by similarly named publishers. The Bodleian has examples from six of them, and here are their colophons:


(Sinica 2549, 2535, 2539, 2538, 6323)

There are some minor variations in format in some of the publications. For example, the text of the following edition is arranged in 8 columns rather than the standard 10; I think this is because it contains an unusual quantity of commentary printed small in double columns, so that if compressed into 10 columns it would be cramped and difficult to read:

大方廣圓覺修多羅了義經略疏 二卷 / (唐釋)宗密述
線裝2冊 ; 25公分
Sinica 2538

 sinica2538b sinica2538a

One of the editions in the Bodleian’s collection has a particularly fine frontispiece:

大乘密嚴經 三卷 / (唐釋)地婆訶羅奉詔譯
線裝1冊 : 圖 ; 25公分
Sinica 2537

sinica2537b sinica2537a

It seems that there was an informal project to reprint the entire Tripitaka by sharing the work out, but details of it are elusive, if indeed they can be discovered at all. The edition has occasionally been described as the Bainaben dazangjing 百納本大藏經, but I think this term is unsatisfactory, as its component editions are far from being unrelated (as in the Bainaben ershisishi 百納本二十四) – the whole point is that they were presented in the same format as a unified whole. But the project was never completed, so that the Bainaben dazangjing 百納本大藏經 doesn’t actually exist.

By ploughing through catalogues, both printed and online, I have discovered scriptures which are clearly part of this project produced by far more presses than are mentioned in any of the articles I have found on the subject; I have listed them here. It remains to take stock of what each of them printed, and over what period, and also to see if any of the texts were printed by more than one press. At first sight it appears that there was no duplication, but to establish that for sure requires more work than I’m currently minded to do.

Yang Zhifeng 杨之峰, in a short article on this Bainaben edition [4], summarised the nature of the project as follows:

“The Bainaben edition of the Tripitaka is the successor to the Jiaxing edition in that it is another large-scale endeavour funded entirely through public subscription. The places where it was printed extend over most of China, many people participated in the project, lay Buddhists rather than clergy were in charge, and although there was no unified organisational structure, there was very close co-operation.”

In short, it seems to have been the sort of anarchistic enterprise that gladdens the heart – or at least, it gladdens mine.

[1] Wu Yankan: Yang Renshan and the Jinling Buddhist Press. East Asian Library Journal 12:2(2006), 49-98.
[2] The EALJ article consistently mis-romanises Nanjō’s given name as “Bunryū”, and describes him as a monk of the “Shinto” sect, whatever that is, rather than Jōdo Shinshū.
[3] Yang’s letters are published in his collected writings: 楊仁山全集 (合肥: 黃山書社, 2000).
[4] 杨之峰: 中国近代的百衲本大藏经. 图书馆工作与研究 163(2009:9), 78-80.

Specimen pages

2 June 2016

Collections of specimen pages are a characteristically Chinese bibliographical genre, albeit one that doesn’t go back much more than a century.

The earliest example is thought to be a work by the famous bibliographer Yang Shoujing 楊守敬 (1839-1915), who in 1880 became an attaché in the Chinese embassy in Tokyo. While in Japan, he befriended local bibliophiles such as Mori Risshi 森立之 (1807-1885), and taking advantage of the low price that Chinese books were currently fetching on the market there, built up a collection of editions that were either rare or not extant in China, and eventually shipped them home. His notes on these books were published in 1901 with the title Riben fangshu zhi 日本訪書志.

Ten years later, the tracings of specimen pages that he made from the rare books he saw in Japan, together with others made in China (a total of 483) were published in twelve fascicles. Unsurprisingly – as he was a bibliographer and collector himself – there was a copy among Piet van der Loon’s books:

留真譜初編 不分卷 / (清)楊守敬編
線裝12冊 ; 31公分
Sinica 4545

This work is notable for three reasons. Firstly, it is the prototype of the genre; secondly, it is rare; and thirdly it is block-printed, and not produced photo-lithographically as all the later collections are, right up to the present.

The following illustration shows how remarkable this work is:


Although the page appears to have been produced carelessly, it is in fact a superb example of the block-cutter’s craft. The tilt is deliberate, as evidenced by the specimen on the right hand side of the leaf, which is squared up (not visible of course in this illustration); it has been made so in order to replicate exactly the copy from which it was traced. The smudges are also deliberate, and even the worm holes have been carefully reproduced.

A second collection (「二編」) in eight fascicles and containing a further 252 specimen pages was published posthumously in 1917. Kyoto has both parts, so does Stanford, but I have so far found none elsewhere.

The purpose of these collections, which continue to be produced, is primarily to show what the editions look like – Chinese printed pages are very variable in design and presentation, and are difficult if not impossible to visualise from normal catalogue entries. But specimen pages are also an invaluable tool for the cataloguer as an aid to identification.

This is best illustrated by the following example of a problem we experience whenever we set about cataloguing a Chinese book.

Here is a palace edition whose contents needn’t concern us, but it is described as “a synthesis of the doctrines of the Neo-Confucian school” by Fang chao-ying (in Hummel, 474). It was compiled and printed at imperial behest in 1715 by a team of scholars working under the direction of Li Guangdi, and is absolutely typical of the genre. I catalogue it thus:

御纂性理精義 十二卷 / (清)康熙五十四年[1715]李光地等奉敕撰
線裝8冊 ; 28公分
Sinica 2834

The copy is rather good, being printed on fine white paper, and the preface bears two imperial seals. In the bibliography of palace editions compiled by the National Palace Museum and Liaoning Provincial Library in 1995 (清代內府刻書目錄解題, 301), the physical description of the edition reads as follows:


I will translate and explain this for the sake of those who are coming to this sort of bibliographical description for the first time. What we have is a detailed description of the printing block, unusually long in this case, as the text comes in three sizes:

Each half-leaf has large text in 8 columns, with 18 characters in each column; there is small text in double columns, with 21 characters in each column; there is medium-size text in 8 columns, with 20 characters in each column. The block frame is a double line all the way round, the centre column is white, there is one fish-tail, and there are no column rulings. Each half-block is 22.5cm. high and 16.2cm. wide.

I think most of this is self explanatory apart from the fish-tail, perhaps. This is the black device in the centre column which is there as a marker for folding the leaves. Often there are two, and occasionally more. Sometimes there are none. This image will make things clear (apart from the medium-size text, which doesn’t appear on the first leaf):


Now here is a leaf from what a first sight appears to be the same edition:


But closer inspection will show that the impression comes from a completely different block. The edition is actually a copy of the palace edition made by a commercial publisher whose name is stamped on the printed label on the first fascicle. I describe it as follows:

御纂性理精義 十二卷 / (清)康熙五十四年[1715]李光地等奉敕撰
線裝8冊 ; 29公分
Sinica 2573

The problem is, the elaborate physical description above could equally be applied to this copied edition. Only the dimensions are slightly different, and even they are not critical to identification. A wooden block which is dry, perhaps having been stored for a long time (and some are stored for centuries) will have shrunk. When inked, it will begin to expand, so that the impressions taken at the end of the day are sometimes considerably larger in height than those taken at the beginning. The grain of a printing block always runs horizontally (as evidenced by cracks, which are never vertical), so the expansion always affects the height, not the width of the printed leaf, which stays the same. However, thin Chinese paper is very unstable, and easily distorts when moistened, so that the printed area of a leaf, first wet from the printing, then dry, is not necessarily identical with that of the block from which it was printed. And if the book is old and the leaves have been repaired and perhaps even laminated, the measurements will be of no use whatsoever for distinguishing editions.

All this leads me to question the value of these traditional Chinese book descriptions, especially when we can now produce scans of “specimen pages” 書影 so easily and make them universally available on the internet. We do not need to describe what can be seen at a glance, and the specimen page leaves no doubt as to which block an impression is taken from.

This is why modern online catalogues are increasingly attaching specimen pages to their records, and why we have developed this functionality for our own. Producing them is a little time-consuming, and I have not been able to make them for every record. But I try to do so at least when I’m unable to identify an edition, or when my confidence in an identification is less than total.

In the examples quoted above, it is quite clear which edition is which, because one is printed on fine white paper, the fascicles have indigo covers, and the preface has imperial seals. The other, by contrast, not only bears the seal of a dealer, but is of inferior workmanship and is printed on very yellow bamboo paper. But the identification of the palace edition is confirmed by comparing the impression with specimen pages from the many copies of this work in Peking University Library that appear in CALIS.


The state of things

6 April 2016

Regular readers of this blog might be thinking that I’ve lost interest in it, or even that I might be dead, as it is now some ten months since my latest offering. Neither is the case.

First, I had to finish my Serica project (to catalogue 5,200 of our pre-modern books). Then It was necessary to catalogue an extraordinary donation of missionary material collected by Arthur Bonsey, a Congregational minister who worked with the London Missionary Society in central China from 1882 to 1923 – I’ll be writing a blog entry about this before long.

And finally, I’ve been playing around with computers – a classic displacement activity, but one which occasionally produces something worthwhile. In particular, I’ve been tidying up and enhancing our implementation of the allegro software (developed by Bernhard Eversberg at Braunschweig Technical University) for cataloguing Chinese and other special collections in the Bodleian Library. This work has taken far longer than I expected.

Specimen pages  (書影)

One of the enhancements which is especially important to the work of describing our collections and making them widely known and accessible is the provision of “specimen pages” (書影) attached to the catalogue entry. The programming behind the button that does that has been done by my colleague Thaddeus Lipinski. I will explain the importance, and indeed the necessity for these specimen pages in my next blog entry.

Another enhancement adds to the allegro catalogue a function widely available in other databases, namely a link to texts which we have digitised and which are now available online.

Examples of these new functions can be seen here (go to the shelfmark index, and look for Backhouse 610 and Sinica 1250).

Pre-1920 Catalogue

Still on the subject of allegro, I have been whiling away the winter evenings by rescuing the Bodleian’s catalogue of pre-1920 (western) imprints; the rescued product, containing over one million records, can be seen here.

The Pre-1920 Catalogue is a project that was in full swing when I joined the Library on 5 April 1976, and its story is briefly told in the “About” section of the catalogue. I completed work on it only last week, and have presented it to the Library as a fortieth birthday present (we do things that way round here).

The Pre-1920 project was not only an early example of library automation, but was ahead of its time in encoding special glyphs (including Greek, Cyrillic, and Hebrew original script) using only the alpha-numeric keys on the standard English keyboard, with coded instructions in angle-brackets. Only now is it possible to display most of these glyphs on the computer screen. The system was the invention of John Jolliffe in the early 1970s; at the time he was Keeper of Catalogues, and subsequently became Bodley’s Librarian until his untimely death in 1985.

Constructing an allegro database from this data was relatively simple. What took time was mapping the data to UTF-8 values so that the glyphs could be displayed. Most of the original documentation had disappeared apart from a few pages which incredibly were preserved by a colleague who wasn’t even here at the time. Much had to be construed from the data itself, and I hope I’ve got it right. Certainly, Old Church Slavonic makes the Chinese script look like child’s play. Hebrew, with its short alphabet and lack of accented letters was easy, but the less said about Greek, the better.

To return to the matter in hand: old Chinese books. There have been a number of developments.

Zheng Cheng

Zheng Cheng 鄭誠 is a visiting scholar at the Needham Research Institute in Cambridge, from the Institute for the History of Natural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences 中国科学院自然科学史研究所 in Peking. He told me that his main research focuses on the history of science and technology in the Ming and Qing, especially military technology and the influence of European technology on Chinese firearms, and that his interest in the history of books is just “a hobby”.

Some hobby! He has just brought out an edition of the catalogue of the Ming bibliophile Qi Chenghan’s 祁承㸁 private library (Danshengtang 澹生堂), one of the largest in the late Ming. And out of the blue, he told me that he had read my blog entry of 27 March 2012 in which I asked for help in identifying seals, and promptly identified most of the impressions reproduced here.

In Cambridge, he has been hunting down 17th-century accessions both in the University Library and the colleges, and has made a number of discoveries which he has given me to add to my rather primitive, but I hope increasingly comprehensive 17th-century page.

All this is primarily to acknowledge his help and to thank him for it.

Southern Ming calendars

Another example of the fifty copies of the Southern Ming calendar for 1671 presented to Ellis Crisp by the “King of Formosa” (Zheng Jing 鄭經) has turned up in the library of Christ Church – I have made a note of it both on my 17th-century page (just cited) and also in my blog entry on these calendars.

I was told about it by the Christ Church librarian Cristina Neagu, and immediately went to examine it. Her discovery brings the total of known surviving copies to eight, and I’m sure that a few more will eventually turn up.

I’ve lived in Oxford for forty years, and my house is only a few minutes’ walk from Christ Church. I’ve shown visitors around many times, but had never entered the library until I went to see the calendar. What a spectacular interior! The 18th-century plasterwork in the Upper Library is extraordinary – so three-dimensional that one wonders how it stays up.

The Red Decree

Finally, another copy of the Red Decree has been found, in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. It was discovered in their online catalogue by Devin Fitzgerald, who is writing a dissertation at Harvard on the global trade in Chinese books in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He will visit Oxford in July.

That brings to 16 the number of known extant copies, and I’ve added it to the list in my blog entry. Quite an increase from the four that were known when I entered the profession! As I’ve pointed out several times already, the internet is making rare Chinese books less rare by the day.