Shen Fuzong and a letter writer

11 November 2018

An exhibition Shen Fuzong, the first Chinese visitor to Oxford is on display until 14 December at the China Centre in St Hugh’s College. The College’s puff describes it as “ground-breaking”, but Shen’s story has always been common knowledge.

I lost interest in it at the planning stage when it became clear that it was not to be shown in the Proscholium of the Old Library, only metres away from where the historic encounter of Shen Fuzong and Thomas Hyde (Bodley’s Librarian) took place, and where it would have been seen by countless visitors. Instead, it was to be shown in the middle of nowhere at St Hugh’s, apparently hopping to the tune of a benefactor, with the Library tagging along. But I’m always slow to see the positive side of apparently hopeless situations, and so it was on this occasion: if you visit the exhibition, you will enjoy the luxury of being alone with all the important materials relating to Shen and Hyde’s encounter.

The show is physically dominated by The Chinese convert, the life-size portrait of Michael Alphonsius Shen Fuzong made by Sir Godfrey Kneller in 1687, on loan from the Royal Collection. A series of smaller cases contain a selection of the Chinese works that Shen identified for Bodley’s Librarian Thomas Hyde (all listed in my page Chinese books in Europe in the 17th century), together with the notes (now in the British Library) on these and other things that Shen and Hyde discussed during Shen’s six-week stay in Oxford.


Shen Fuzong is the Bodleian’s first Chinese cataloguer. During the course of his stay in the autumn of 1687, he examined almost all the Chinese books in the Library’s collection at the time, well over one hundred, of which all but one are still there. He wrote down the romanised title of each book on the cover, and then explained what the book was in Latin to Thomas Hyde, who wrote the description down beside Shen’s romanisation. Later, Hyde shortened them and made a list of them (now among his papers in the British Library, Sloane Or. 853), and it is from this this list that Edward Bernard copied almost unchanged the entries for the Chinese books in Oxford in his famous Catalogi librorum manuscriptorum Angliae et Hibernae in unum collecti, cum indice alphabetico, which was published posthumously in 1697, the year of his death. Bernard described the Chinese books elsewhere, which Shen did not see, as simply “Liber Chinensis”. I have transcribed all Bernard’s entries for the Chinese books in the Bodleian and provided their current shelfmark together with their number in Hunt and Madan’s Summary catalogue; my transcription can be seen here.

A selection of these books in the exhibition illustrates the modus operandi of Shen and Hyde perfectly. I will take one example which should have been in the exhibition, but isn’t. They put the wrong book out. The caption identifies it as “Tu xiansheng pingshi mou yeji [sic – for mouye ji] … collection of essays by the famous Ming poet and artist Wang Zhideng (1535-1612) … Sinica 27″.

Actually, Sinica 27 is not a bad choice, and perhaps it will have its own blog entry some time in the future. It is a unique surviving illustrated edition of selected yuefu 樂府 (a poetic genre), described thus in my catalogue:

新鍥梨園摘錦樂府菁華 十二卷 / (明)劉君錫輯
洋裝(原線裝)1冊 : 圖 ; 27公分
Sinica 27

s00434 s00435 s00436

But it isn’t the book that should have been put out, which is Sinica 30, nor is Sinica 30 a collection of essays. The organisers of the exhibition were informed of this a month ago, but to no effect. I wonder what this tells us about the state of things.

Let’s turn to Sinica 30, and see what it actually is and how Shen and Hyde dealt with it. I have described it thus in my catalogue:

屠先生評釋謀野集 四卷 / (明)王穉登撰 ; (明)屠隆評釋
洋裝(原線裝)1冊 ; 27公分
Sinica 30


The book is a collection of Wang Zhideng’s correspondence, as a mere glance at the table of contents makes clear: it lists letters he sent, replies to letters received, and what in e-mail parlance we would call “conversations”.

Wang’s correspondence was first published by Yu Wenshu 郁文叔 in an edition prefaced 1588 (萬曆十六年序江陰郁氏玉樹堂刊本) which is not very common, and it has ten juan 卷. In his preface to this work, Feng Shike 馮時可 (himself a prolific writer) says that Yu decided to print Wang’s correspondence because he had a very high opinion of him, and that it was Yu who gave it the name mouyeji 謀野集. The term mouye 謀野 is difficult to translate, but I take it to mean “engaging with those in distant parts” – an elegant way of saying “corresponding”.

When Wang’s friend Tu Long 屠隆 got hold of this edition, he decided to select the finest letters and present them in four juan 卷, and to provide them with commentary and explanations for the convenience of his readers; that is, he turned it into a textbook. This was quite clear to Shen Fuzong, who first transliterates the words mouye (meuye in his native dialect), and then explains their meaning to Thomas Hyde who writes it down in Latin. A longer explanation follows:


Est nempe formularium epistolarum juvans excogitare materiam scribendam ad amicos distantes (“This book is actually a formulary of letters, dealing with material suitable for writing to distant friends”). In other words, it is a letter-writer.

The longer description of Mouyeji on the book itself becomes Liber Meu-ye, seu Formularium Epistolarum in Hyde’s manuscript list (where it is no.56), and almost unaltered as Lib. Meu-ye seu Formularium Epistolarum in the Bernard catalogue.

The letter-writer is one of two in my 17th century list, and unlike many items in that list, it is complete. It has been studied seriously, as evidenced by the manuscript notations on each leaf, clearly visible on the first page of text illustrated above – the circles and dots are used both to punctuate and as an equivalent to our underlining. The copy bears two seals:


These are not collectors’ seals, but are of the sort bought off the peg for decorative purposes and bear the whimsical sentiments si ru feng yun 思入風雲 “my thoughts enter the wind and clouds” and yin feng nong yue 吟風弄月 “singing of the wind and moon”.

This book has been used and valued by somebody, and bears clear evidence of its owner’s preoccupations.

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