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Scholar on quest to find lost libraries

JIANG XIAOBIN | 2017-07-27 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Wenlange Library in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province

Based on his field investigations, Wei Li argues that Eryou Cave in the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE)  was one of the first private libraries. Fu Sheng, a great Confucian scholar, risked his life to save more than 1,000 books when Qin Shi Huang, the first Qin emperor, ordered books to be burned and had intellectuals buried alive. After overcoming all hardships, Fu hid these books in a cave in Yuanling County, Hunan Province, which became the roots of Confucian classics. Later, people began to use the proverb shu tong er you, which means “reading as many books as the contents of Eryou Cave,” to indicate great learning and a large amount of reading. Wei considered the Eryou Cave to be Fu’s private library, the first of its kind in China.

Painstaking endeavor
Looking for private libraries is an intellectual endeavor, requiring great effort and a huge amount of time. Usually, Wei begins this work by searching for collectors and trying to locate them with the help of local historical and toponymic management offices. After that, he asks his friends in that place if there are any historical sites or communities. Finally, Wei compiles all the information and visits the place for about 10 days, making inquiries street by street.

“There were no images in ancient times. Documents were the only sources through which Chinese people could experience the country’s history. We can read these books because the book collectors made painstaking efforts throughout their lives,” Wei said. “We are proud of China’s history, but we often forget the book collectors who preserved it. We show our gratitude to them by seeking out private libraries. They have made enormous contributions to the preservation of history,” he added.

Three-quarters of the private libraries that Wei Li discovered are located in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. A Qing book collector, Xu Shidong is not the most renowned name in history, but he may be second to none in terms of determination. Xu built his first library Lianhu Lou and renamed it Yanyu Lou and stored 100,000 books there. Rebels of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom attacked Ningbo in 1861. Xu took his family to seek asylum outside the city after hiding the books in a cave in Jian’ao Mountain. However, monks from nearby temples burned many of them for warmth, resulting in a major loss. One year later, the rebels entered the city of Ningbo and Yanyu Lou was again damaged.

Xu also built Chengxi Cottage outside the western gate of Ningbo to store the same books as Yanyu Lou, but the cottage caught fire in 1863, destroying all the books. But Xu did not give up and chose instead to build a new library named Shuibeige Library at the site of Chengxi Cottage. Shuibeige Library was well preserved until 38 years after Xu’s death. Despite constant setbacks, Xu never hid his books from others. When he participated in the compilation of county chronicles in 1868, Xu invited all the editors to Shuibeige Library in order to make it more convenient for them to look up ancient documents.

Like Xu, many literati collected books to use in scholarly pursuits. The foundation for the enlightenment of the late Qing Dynasty started from book collection. For example, Kang Youwei is known most as a reformer, but fewer are aware that he was also a book collector. Kang took the ancient books stored in his hometown to Guangzhou’s Wanmu Cottage, while he also purchased a large quantity of Western books for his students to use. After the failure of the Reform Movement of 1898, all his assets were seized, and more than 300 boxes of his books were burned.

A pioneer of Chinese industry and philanthropist, Sheng Xuanhuai was once the richest man in China. He built his private library Yu Room in Changzhou at Jiangsu Province with a relatively open attitude toward book collection, arguing that it was better to share enjoyment with those of the same taste than to collect books solely for the benefit of one’s offspring. He wrote in his diary when collecting books in Japan that “I was hoping to open a library to share books with those of the same interest. I follow no set pattern and collect all classic and modern books of China and Japan.”

The destruction of private libraries throughout history occurred for four reasons. In periods of dynastic change, books and libraries were frequently destroyed in civil wars. Though the patriarchs of great intellectual families built libraries with the intent that future generations would cherish them forever, the fate of the collections often paralleled that of the families. When these household declined, the preservation of books was neglected and their collections deteriorated.

Also, driven by jealousy of the intellectual class’ private collections, some of the wealthy and powerful would often confiscate collections and the book collectors were powerless to resist. In one era, the destroy was planned. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom established an official position responsible for burning books of each household. Its regime was active in the regions situated to the Jiangnan, the area south of the Yangtze River, where most private libraries were concentrate. As a result, literati in this area suffered a huge loss.

Culture never dies
One of Wei’s favorite libraries is that of the Ding family. One of the four best late Qing libraries, it collected more than 200,000 books in its heyday. Though the library of Ding family is incomparable with Tianyige Library, the greatest private library, or Wenyuange Library, the best royal library, in terms of reputation, two brothers of the family saved three libraries that were home to the Si Ku Quan Shu. The Si Ku Quan Shu or Complete Library in the Four Branches of Literature comprises the four traditional divisions of Chinese learning: classics, history, philosophy and belles-letters. After completion during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, the books were collected in four northern libraries and three southern libraries. However, the last library of the southern ones, Wenlange Library, was burned in 1861 after the rebel general Li Xiucheng’s capture of Hangzhou.

One year later, Ding Shen and Ding Bing, who were taking shelter in western Hanzhou, bumped into some of the paper used to wrap books included pages of Si Ku Quan Shu. They even saw the imperial jade seal stamped on the paper. The brothers decided to seek the book collection page by page. They found 8,689 books in half of a year, which constitutes one-fourth of Wenlange Library’s collection. They decided to copy the rest word by word. The brothers recruited more than 100 people and worked in the library of their family. This group of people copied a total of more than 26,000 books that were borrowed from a dozen libraries in the Jiangnan area.

Seven years of work made Wenlange Library “home to a great variety of books almost with its original look,” according to the document. Ding Shen and Ding Bing gave all parts of the Si Ku Quan Shu they had to Wenlange Library in 1908 after the reconstruction of the library. Their family library went back quiet and peaceful.

However, the descendants of Ding’s family had to sell all the books to the local official library at an extremely low price due to a business failure. These books are currently collected in Nanjing Library in Jiangsu Province. The books have been relocated and the library has gone. At present, there is a 117-year-old magnolia grandiflora near the site of Ding’s family library. It is said that the tree was planted by the two brothers. Wei Li hasn’t added the library to his new book, but he kept saying to others “Ding Shen and Ding Bing saved the Si Ku Quan Shu, but their own library cannot be restored today.”

Wei recorded information from the private libraries that he could find in his book, but in many cases, the trail went cold and his search turned up nothing. What makes him saddest is that “Some private libraries turned to ruins in the process of urban reconstruction because they were not units of cultural preservation.” “You should have come earlier. It stood here just a couple of days ago,” once local people said to Wei.

There were a total of 4,715 renowned book collectors in China throughout history, according to the 2001 statistics compiled by Fan Fengshu, whose research focus is the history of book collection. But more than 90 percent of their libraries were gone by the time Wei carried out the investigation. “I can’t stop the progress of the times. What I can do is to take some pictures and preserve them. At least, I can provide detailed and reliable information if attention is paid to restoration of private libraries someday in the future,” Wei said.

We have no idea when the day will come. It is undeniable that the practical need for private libraries is fading away due to the advancement of the times and technology. Book collection mainly became the engagement of public libraries after 1912. Private libraries will, like former residence of celebrities, become a place for commemoration and tourism if they no longer function as libraries. “A proverb goes that culture will never die. I write this book with a goal to record the stories of Chinese literati and their efforts to collect books throughout history from my perspective,” Wei added.