July 14, 2010
Stanford acquires a cache of ancient Chinese books
China's ancient treasures are now at Stanford thanks to China's patient labor and today's technology. The 9,100 volumes capture the best of China's past.
By Cynthia Haven
They are the most precious and rare books in China, some of them 1,300 years old.
The entire collection a small library, really comprises over 9,100 volumes representing the four traditional realms of Chinese knowledge: history, philosophy, literature and classics.
And starting this fall, during any afternoon from 1 to 5 p.m., visitors can enter the Stanford Auxiliary Library on Pampas Lane and thumb through these pages of China's long civilization.
They are reproductions, certainly, but reproductions of a caliber not seen before. Stanford is reaping the benefits of China's patient labor and high technology; in the United States, Reproductions of Chinese Rare Editions Series (Zhonghua zaizao shanben) is available in its entirety only at Stanford and Harvard.
China's long history of woodblock printing brought a huge number of beautifully illuminated and printed books to the world. During China's most prosperous period, during the North and South Song Dynasties, millions of copies of more than 10,000 titles circulated and were widely available. Over the centuries, they vanished.
In 2002, the government of China launched a six-year effort, costing 120 million Chinese yuan (about $18 million), to reproduce the best and earliest surviving editions of the classics in high-quality, limited editions. Everything is reproduced: If a Song dynasty scholar left an ink blotch on the manuscript, or a doodle, or a stain ring from an tenth-century teacup, it gets reproduced in the thread-bound books now at Stanford. The high-tech methods reproduce even the color of the yellowed manuscript pages.
Hence, "the books we have received are exactly the same as the Chinese," said Dongfang Shao, director of Stanford's East Asia Library. They include such books as Shi ji zhuan (the collected annotations of The Book of Poetry) by Su Che (1039-1112); Wen xuan, literary selections by Li Shan of the Tang Dynasty (618-907); and the 11th-century Meng xi bi tan (Brush discussion of a dream creek) by Shen Kuo.
The works are not easy for scholars to access even in China, since they are scattered in provincial and municipal libraries, university libraries and museums and museum libraries across the country, as well as the National Library of China.
Even at the National Library, they are squirreled away in the "forbidden cage" not an Indiana Jones-style torture device, but the Chinese name for the library vaults in the Forbidden City.
Consider a Western equivalent: Suppose in the English-speaking world one made an attempt to gather the first Shakespeare folio, the manuscript editions of Beowulf and the histories of the Venerable Bede, and maybe the Book of Kells and Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy for good measure. You'd still be more than 9,100 volumes shy of the present collection.
According to Shao, the Series is the optimal resolution between "preserving the artifacts and using them as research resources," since allowing access to the originals ultimately results in damage and loss, but inaccessibility hamstrings scholarship.
So far, the Series covers the books in the Tang (618-907), Song (960-1279), Jin (1115-1234) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties. However, more volumes are on the way: In the next few years, the Chinese government will provide a sequel to the Series, reproducing rare books of the later periods the Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as books by ethnic minorities and other older editions. "And Stanford will definitely purchase the sequel," said Shao.
Shao said the usual tab for the first phase of the collection was 3 million Chinese yuan (about $450,000), but China's Ministry of Culture extended Stanford a generous offer, thanks to the efforts of Shao and Stanford University Librarian Michael Keller.
The volumes will be invaluable for research and teaching. The agreement continues a trend to acquire major multi-volume sets on pre-modern China. Shao said that more than 10 faculty members are currently studying the pre-modern period of Chinese culture.
At present, however, he said "the magnet strength" of Stanford's Chinese collection has focused on the 20th century, particularly economics, history, politics, government, sociology and law.
"The acquisition of this set greatly enhances the strength of our collections on pre-modern China, which has been a weak area up to now," said Shao.
According to Keller, the new set is among the most valuable holdings of the East Asia Library to date. Certainly it is the biggest and most expensive multi-volume set.
Shao said it will take a little time to label and catalog all 9,131 volumes, which arrived a few weeks ago, but meanwhile, several samples in cases at the Stanford Library known as SAL-2 are available for China lovers to peruse the pages of the past.