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.

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