More seventeenth-century finds

28 November 2020

Most of my latest blog entries have been concerned with the Chinese books that came to Europe in the 17th century, and so is this one. It’s beyond my control. People keep finding them, and when they do, if I can I like to provide some background information about them that it would be inappropriate to put in my simple list.

Pembroke College Cambridge

News of the first one came from Will Poole. Noel Malcolm had drawn his attention to an entry in the Benefactors’ Book of Pembroke College, Cambridge recording the donation of a Qu’ran by the London merchant Edward Tines, probably in the early 1630s, followed by a Chinese book in 1633. The Chinese book is an almanac for the year 1631. When I saw an image of it, I recognised it immediately because by a strange coincidence, earlier this year I’d re-examined another copy of the same work in Corpus Christi College in Oxford, which I catalogue as follows:

天星日子 不分卷有缺
洋裝(原線裝)1冊 ; 28公分
Corpus Christi College MS 216

The discovery of the Pembroke copy is particularly fortunate, as its title-page (to use a misleading word, as there is no real English equivalent of the Chinese term fengmian 封面) is complete, whereas that of the Corpus copy lacks the top portion which bears the date of the almanac: 崇禎四年辛未歲 “4th year of the Chongzhen emperor, the year xinwei“, that is, 1631. I’d already established the date of the Corpus copy from the text, but to see it so prominently displayed on the title-page was nevertheless reassuring.

Something worth noting is that there are editions in the 17th century corpus that date to well before the first Dutch East India Company voyages. For example, several of the medical works date to the first decade or so of the Wanli 萬暦 period, so does the edition of the word-book described below. So they could have been bought at any time from the first voyage onwards, as works like these are permanently in demand and would have been available from booksellers at any time.

Almanacs on the other hand are very ephemeral, and would only have been sold around the time of the Chinese new year, which in 1631 fell on Saturday 1 February, if the website from which I found this out is any good. And the fact that at least two copies of this almanac came to Europe suggest that they were indeed bought at this time, when multiple copies were on sale. So it may be possible for somebody with a detailed knowledge of the early VOC voyages to identify the sailing on which these two almanacs – and maybe even more – came to Europe.

Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht

The second find was made by Koos Kuiper. It’s actually three finds, in Utrecht University Library. Koos told me about them last year, but I didn’t put them into my list until he reminded me about them a couple of weeks ago. Inexcusable.


Two of the finds clearly belong to editions which are already in the list. The first is four more juan 卷 of Zhou Shixian’s 周士顯 edition of the Four books 周會魁校正四書大全: 2, 4, and two copies of 10 (V OCT 855). They were given to the library by Willem van Cleeff in 1719, who Koos thinks is probably the Gulielmus van Cleeff who obtained a doctorate in Utrecht in 1706.

This work has 18 juan altogether. Most of the surviving examples are in Oxford, and apart from the recently discovered juan in Utrecht there are a few leaves from juan 18 in Trinity College Dublin on which I posted a blog entry at the beginning of last year, telling all that I know about the edition and its distribution. I have nothing to add to that, except to point out that as my catalogue aims to record all Chinese books in Oxford, not just those in the Bodleian, I have added the juan in Corpus Christi College to my catalogue entry – it was already in the list – so that the entry now reads as follows:

周會魁校正四書大全 殘十六卷 / (明)胡廣, (明)楊榮奉敕纂修 ; (明)周士顯校正
線裝18冊 ; 27公分
全書十八卷, 殘卷一~六﹑八﹑九﹑十一~十八, 有缺
Sinica 68
Sinica 69 殘卷一﹑三﹑十二﹑十四﹑十五﹑十八, 有缺. – 線裝6冊
Sinica 52 殘卷十二. – 洋裝(原線裝)1冊 ; 28公分
Sinica 43 殘卷十四. – 線裝1冊 ; 25公分
CCC MS 205 殘卷十七. – 洋裝(原線裝)1冊 ; 27公分

From this it can be deduced that Oxford has fascicles from at least three different copies (there are three copies of juan 14). But we have no copies of juan 10 – they went to Utrecht. The only part of this work of which no example has yet been found in Europe is juan 7.


The next Utrecht find is some leaves from a medical text of which the first three juan are in the Bodleian, and which someone told me is a unique survival; indeed, I’ve failed to find it in any catalogue whether printed or online, and a Google search for this title or even part of it will currently only lead to its entry in the Serica Project website. I catalogue it as follows:

刻馬玄臺先生註證脈訣正義 殘三卷 / (明)馬蒔撰
線裝2冊 ; 28公分
Sinica 11

But the discovery of the Utrecht fragment shows that at least a second copy must have come to Europe, as it duplicates the first of the Bodleian fascicles:


The only difference is that the Bodleian fascicle (left) preserves p.22-54, and the Utrecht fascicle (right) p.21-53. It is possible that owing to its length, the first juan may have been bound in two fascicles, but it is a strange coincidence that only the second of the two should have been preserved in both Oxford and Utrecht.

This, together with the fact that almost all of the European 17th-century acquisitions are incomplete, makes me think that the complete books may never have been brought to Europe. The VOC merchants had no idea what they were buying, only that whatever it was, it had a curiousity value once it reached Amsterdam. So they might simply have bought (or been given) odds and ends by the Chinese they were trading with.


The third Utrecht find was at first rather difficult to identify, because the surviving leaves lack the juan 卷 beginnings and endings where a title would normally be found, nor is there a title in the banxin 版心, the central column of the block. Koos had studied the text and established that whereas it was clearly a word-book with phonetic glosses arranged according to radicals, the radicals were not in the familiar order of any of the well-known dictionaries such as the Shuowen 說文 or Zihui 字彙. As in the Yupian 玉篇, the radicals were arranged in categories denoting similar things, not in the order of their stroke count.

He then sent me some images, so that I was able to compare them with word-books in our own collection. The most promising was one having twenty juan, which I would have catalogued as follows if complete:

翰林重考字義韻律大板海篇心鏡 二十卷 / (明)劉孔當校

There are 6 fascicles of this work in the Bodleian representing three distinct printings.

Sinica 14 is the earliest printing, and the blocks have a so called heikou 黑口 or “black mouth”, that is, the central column of the block is uncarved, so that a thick black band runs down the centre of the leaf. (The word “mouth” is used because when the leaves are bound, that column is at the point where the book opens.) There are two fascicles of this printing, in which juan 2, 3, and 18 are preserved (below left).

There are two fascicles in Utrecht, and they are clearly of a piece with this edition (below right). The fascicles are both incomplete copies of juan 19 (pp.2b-30a and pp.1b-28a, 29a). It’s rather strange that again, Utrecht should have two copies of a juan which is not represented in a work of which the Bodleian has more extensive holdings.

In Sinica 15, the “black mouth” has been excised, so that the blocks now have a baikou 白口, or “white mouth”. This copy also has two fascicles, preserving juan 18 and 20. This is most fortunate, as juan 18 can be compared with the juan 18 in Sinica 14, showing that it is indeed from the same blocks; and juan 20 is the last fascicle, at the end of which there is a magnificent paizi 牌子 which tells us all we need to know about the edition:

The Bodleian also has two fascicles from what appears to be a third distinct printing, Sinica 73, preserving juan 13 and 14. This may be a later printing from the “black mouth” version before the central column was excised, but as these juan are not represented in the other copies, it can’t be proved one way or the other.

That three printings of this edition should have been on sale when the Dutch merchants picked them up is scarcely surprising. The nature of the Chinese script is such that anyone who can read it needs a dictionary by their side at all times. My colleagues and I have worn out several copies of Xinhua zidian 新华字典 during the course of our careers, and someone once told me that this dictionary is the best selling book of all time, including the Bible.


I’ve long thought that the most obvious places to look for other parts of the European 17th century corpus would be the smaller old-established libraries, which in England would be the libraries of Oxbridge colleges, cathedrals, country houses, or perhaps of the older private schools such as Eton College. The Pembroke almanac is a case in point.

It would never have occurred to me to look on eBay, but that is exactly where the last and probably most significant of the finds I’m describing was made last year. Andrew West told me about it.

It is a mid-19th century western leather binding containing juan 9-13 of the well-known and presumably unique surviving edition of the Shuihuzhuan which is already in my list, and of which other parts are in Copenhagen, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Stuttgart, and Oxford, where there is a single leaf:

There isn’t enough of the copy preserved to enable more than a rather vague description of the edition to be made: the opening juan and prefatory material are missing, as is the last juan, which may have had a paizi 牌子 at the end. So it isn’t even possible to say how many juan the complete edition would have had. But juan 21 (in Paris, the last of the preserved juan) begins with hui 回 102, so I reckon 120 hui in 24 juan might be a reasonable guess, and would tentatively catalogue the edition as follows:

新刻京本全像插增田虎王慶忠義水滸全傳 二十四卷一百二十回 / (明)施耐庵撰 ; (明)羅本編

The eBay volume was offered for sale by a bookseller in Winchester who had no idea what it was or what it was worth. It was eventually sold for the sum of £18,100, and has been taken abroad. Although this is currently the only part of the 17th century corpus to be in private hands and therefore not able to be freely examined, it is apparently going to be published in facsimile next year. All the other extant parts of the copy have already been published either in print or online.

I don’t know why the fact that part of the 17th century corpus turned up on eBay amuses me, but it does. Illogical, because I’ve found equally recherché, if less valuable things on eBay myself. In fact I found a Chinese printing block there only a few weeks ago, which will be the subject of a future blog entry.


3 Responses to “More seventeenth-century finds”

  1. christervdb Says:

    Dear David,

    Fascinating, as always. Keep writing, please.

    All the best.


  2. A rather late thank you for this fascinating blog entry as well as for your great work in general! It’s always a pleasure to read about your new (and old) findings!

    Concerning the 海篇心鏡 fragment in Utrecht: In 2019 I noticed that there are two tiny fragments from fasc. IV of a 海篇心鏡 in an album amicorum of Ernst Brinck (1582-1649), cf. this tweet here for some details: (there are also some other Chinese and Japanese fragments in the same album, which are the object of some other tweets) — to the best of my knowledge this is the only other Haipian-type dictionary, or rather fragments thereof, in the Netherlands.

    Another fragment of a 海篇心鏡, as well as a complete copy of a related (“Haipian-type”) character dictionary entitled 音韻字海, that had reached Europe before the end of the 17th century used to be in Berlin, but they’re now both in Manchester (JRUL) via the collections of Klaproth > van Alstein > Bibl. Lindesiana; cf. my paper on Andreas Müller, esp. section 3: (last year I’ve found further support of my assumption that the Berlin Haipian xinjing is the one now in Manchester among the papers of Christian Mentzel, but that’s not published yet, or even properly written up).

    The 海篇心鏡 fragments in Munich (fasc. XIV) and Vienna (XIII, XX) have likewise probably been in Europe since the 17th century, but I don’t quite remember how much straightforward evidence to that effect we actually have. Would have to check again. (Some further Haipian-type dictionaries, then usually in complete copies, came to Europe in the first half of the 18th century. Most of these are mentioned in the above-mentioned Müller paper.)

    Thank you again & with best wishes

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