Our earliest Chinese accession

29 November 2012

The earliest datable Chinese accession in the Bodleian Library is shelfmarked Sinica 2. It bears an inscription in Bodley’s hand with the date 1604, and its presence here at that time is evidence of two remarkable facts: that Chinese books were in the Library from its beginning, and that the Bodleian probably has a longer continuous history of Chinese book collecting than any other library, whether in the west or even China itself.

I have catalogued it thus:

新刻相臺分章旁註四書正文 殘三卷 / (明)蘇濬校
線裝1冊 ; 22公分
全書六卷, 殘卷四~六
Sinica 2

This edition is a down-market product of the late Ming commercial publishing industry. It is riddled with errors, and would never have found its way into the library of a scholar, which explains why this and many comparable editions in western libraries are quite unique. Even the publisher seems to be represented only by this copy.

The text

The text is that of the Four Books 四書 of Confucianism, arranged as follows in six juan of which only the last three are preserved:

翰林校正栢臺分章正文卷之四 (論語 11-20; 27 leaves)
新刻相臺分章旁註四書正文孟子卷之五 (孟子 1-7; 38 leaves)
新刊分章正文四書下孟卷之六 (孟子 8-14; 47 leaves)

We thus have the second half of the Analects and the whole of Mencius, and can infer from their arrangement that first two juan contained the Daxue 大學 and Zhongyong 中庸, and the third juan the first half of the Analects.

In the juan titles, Xiangtai 相臺 actually refers to the superb edition of the classics that was prepared by a certain Mr Yue of Xiangtai 相臺岳氏 during the Yuan dynasty at his family academy, Jingxi Jiashu 荆溪家塾. This edition was famous and much copied during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and there are two fine examples in the Backhouse Collection which I will write about presently. Here, the name is invoked to lend respectability to an edition which couldn’t be more different from that of Mr Yue. Indeed, it is so shoddy that even in the juan titles the simple character xiang 「相」 in Xiangtai is wrong in both places. In juan 4 the completely different character bai 「栢」 is used for it, and in juan 5 we find a non-existent character written with mu 「木」 on the left and ye 「頁」 on the right.

One of the juan titles also invokes the name of the Hanlin 翰林 Academy, whose members were responsible for setting the civil service examinations, in which success depended on an intimate knowledge of the classics. The attributions at the beginning of juan 4 continue the theme of lending respectability to the edition; it is said to have been instigated by Ji Cheng, whose official career as a censor had involved a tour to Fujian province 福建廵按吉澄發刊; and the text is said to have been edited by Su Jun, a graduate of 1577 and the well-known author of many scholarly works 丁丑進士蘇濬校正. It is of course highly doubtful whether either of these two highly placed people had anything at all to do with such a lowly edition (cf. the popular encyclopaedia attributed to Chang Pu described in an earlier blog entry).

The edition

The first half of Sinica 2 is missing,  so we are not able to learn anything from the title-page 封面 or other prefatory material that might have been present, nor do we know the title of the first juan, which is why I have derived the title for my catalogue entry from the most plausible among the juan that survive.

There is a printed colophon (paizi 牌子) at the end of the book bearing the words 「福河陳心齋梓」, indicating that it was printed by Chen Xinzhai from Fuhe. The words 「陳心齋重梓」 at the beginning of juan 5 corroborate this, but the different words 「石馬書林陳瑞齋刊」 at the beginning of juan 4, referring to Chen Ruizhai from Shima, introduce a complication. It is doubtful if we will ever know who either Chen Xinzhai or Chen Ruizhai were, or indeed if they were one and the same person, the publishers of the sole surviving copy of a worthless edition. Fuhe 福河 and Shima 石马镇 are small places to the northwest and southeast respectively of Longhai 龙海市, a town some 20km east of Zhangzhou 漳州 in the southern corner of Fujian province, but it is only a guess that the printer (or printers) may have originated there. Although these places are a long way from Jianyang, the centre of commercial book production during the Ming Dynasty, which in the northernmost part of the province, that the book was probably printed there is also evidenced by the reference to Ji Cheng at the beginning of juan 5, as described above.

We are on much firmer ground when it comes to dating the edition, which to judge from its appearance could be any time during the second half of the Ming. Conveniently, the reference at the beginning of juan 5 to Su Jun, the supposed editor of the text, includes the date of his graduation, 1577; and we know from Bodley’s inscription that the book was in the Library by 1604. So if we allow a few years for the date of Su Jun’s graduation to become known, and a few years for the book to get circulated, bought by foreigners, brought to Europe, and acquired by the Library, we can say with confidence that it was printed between 1580 and 1600.

The copy

The copy is a delight, as its markings paint a complete picture of how our earliest Chinese accessions have been handled from the time of their acquisition to the present day. In common with the other Chinese books that came to Europe at this time, the fascicle has been given a limp vellum binding. It is possible that this was done in Oxford, but equally possible that it was done in Amsterdam or London – we know little of how these books were distributed.  Here they are, explained one by one, starting with the earliest:


“Donum Henrici Percey comitis Northumbriae A° 1604”, in the hand of Sir Thomas Bodley, inscribed upside-down on the back endpaper. In a letter to his librarian, Thomas James, dated 5 April 1603, Bodley notes that “my L. of Northumberland giueth one hundred poundes to the Librarie” (Letters of Sir Thomas Bodley to Thomas James, ed. by G.W. Wheeler, Oxford, 1926, no.78, p.83). Sinica 2 was bought with this money, but we do not know where, or from whom. Almost certainly it is one of the books that were brought back by the East India Company  at the beginning of the 17th century. These were split up, and sold by auction in Amsterdam. It is therefore quite possible that the first fascicle may be found one day in another European library.


(3) Arch.A is the book’s first shelfmark, and it is inscribed on the front cover. “Arch.A” is the first cupboard on the left as one enters Duke Humfrey’s Library from the south staircase, and is the place where the Library’s Chinese books were first stored. That these were in a locked cupboard, rather than on open shelves, is an indication of their rarity and the value in which they were held at the time. The fascicles were numbered sequentially on the shelf, and this was the third. (It is now shelfmarked Sinica 2 rather than Sinica 3 because the first two fascicles on the shelf were different parts of the same copy, so that both are now shelfmarked Sinica 1. Bodley may well have acquired these before Sinica 2, but as they are not inscribed we shall probably never know.)


This inscription is found on the inside of the front cover, and was made in 1687 during the famous visit of Shen Fuzong, when the opportunity was taken of asking him to identify all the Chinese materials that were currently in the Library. Shen wrote the titles on to the items in Chinese characters, together with their romanised pronunciation. He then explained the books in Latin to Thomas Hyde (who was Bodley’s Librarian at the time) , and Hyde wrote it down. This inscription illustrates the process perfectly, clearly showing the different hands of Shen and Hyde. The inscription “四書 Lib.III.IV.” on the front cover was probably also made at this time.

Hyde was thus able to make a list of all the Chinese materials then in the Bodleian, which can be found among his papers at the British Library (MS Sloane 853). His descriptions are a summary of those written on to the books themselves at the time of Shen’s visit. They were later used almost unchanged in Edward Bernard’s Catalogi librorum manuscriptorum Angliae et Hibernae in unum collecti, cum indice alphabetico (Oxford, 1697) to describe the Libri sinenses in Arch.Bodl.A (p.149),  where what is now Sinica 2  appears as:

2786.3 Confucii lib. 3. & 4. dictus Sic-shu, de philosophia.

The printed label “S.C.2786” at the top right refers to the entry in F. Madan and H.H.E. Craster’s Summary catalogue of Western manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the first part of which is simply a new edition of the Bernard catalogue and preserves the same numbering. The entry is found in volume 2 part 1 (Oxford, 1922), p.539.


It appears that sometime during the latter part of the 18th century, the Chinese books were classified according to the scheme in Etienne Fourmont’s Linguæ Sinarum Mandarinicæ, hieroglyphicæ, grammatica duplex, Lat. &cum characteribus Sinensium. Item Sinicorum Regiæ bibliothecæ librorum catalogus which had been published in Paris in 1742. It is not known when we acquired our copy (shelfmarked G 6.11 Art). In his catalogue, Fourmont arranges the Chinese books in nine categories, of which Libri apud sinas sacri, aliàs Canonici, aliàs Classici is the fourth. And so Sinica 2 was assigned the number IV, and the II presumably means that it was the second book in that category. The number IV is also found on a small label pasted on to the spine.


The pencilled shelfmarks in the lower half of the inside front cover show how the book has been referenced during the modern history of the Library, and the full details of the Chinese shelfmarking systems throughout that period will be the subject of a separate blog entry.

To put it briefly, Chin.610c is the number assigned to the book by James Legge, when as Oxford’s first Professor of Chinese he turned his attention to the Bodleian’s Chinese collection, probably during the late 1870s or early 1880s. It appears towards the end of his manuscript catalogue, which by that time had become little more than a simple handlist, and is described simply as “Portions of the Four Books”.

Ser.e.157 is the shelfmark assigned by A.F.L. Beeston and E.O. Winstedt when they re-arranged the unsized “Chin.” collection into the sized “Serica” collection in 1938 to 1939; the sizing system had been devised by E.W.B. Nicholson (Bodley’s Librarian) and came into use at the end of 1883, and the letter “e” denotes a book between 7 and 9 inches tall.

Norman Sainsbury devised many Baroque schemes as Keeper of Oriental Books between 1956 and 1976, among them the “Vet.Or.” collection, which was designed to accommodate the rarities then dispersed among the Library’s modern oriental collections. Thus did the book acquire the shelfmark Vet.Or.d.Chin.3.  (It may interest you to know that it was against Sainsbury’s wishes that Robert Shackleton appointed me in April 1976, a fact which Sainsbury made no effort to keep secret).

The present shelfmark of the book is Sinica 2. I created the Sinica Collection at the beginning of 1980 when it became clear that the number of pre-modern Chinese books in the Library was so large that they deserved their own autonomous sequence – Sainsbury had only abstracted the very earliest ones for his Vet.Or. Within the Sinica Collection, the books are arranged logically in order of acquisition, to the extent that this is possible, from the earliest times to the present. All old, rare, or otherwise valuable Chinese language accessions are added to it.

4 Responses to “Our earliest Chinese accession”

  1. Joachim Dr Karsten Says:

    Thanks for the wonderful blog!

  2. Xiumin Says:

    it’s really a wonderful blog. Hope to see more. Many thanks!

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