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Discovering the Library’s Older Chinese Collection, Online

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(The following is a post by Qi Qiu, Head of Scholarly Services, Asian Division.)

Gifts from the Qing government in the name of Emperor Tongzhi (1861-1875) in 1869 (Chinese rare book collection, Asian Division).

With an estimated 1.2 million volumes, the Asian Division of the Library of Congress maintains the largest collection of Chinese-language materials outside of mainland China and Taiwan. The Library was also among the earliest institutions in America to collect Chinese materials. In 1869, two years after the United States Congress passed an act calling for the international exchange of publications, the Library received 10 titles, in 933 volumes, of ancient Chinese classics as a gift from the Qing government (1644-1911) in the name of Emperor Tongzhi (r. 1861-1875). This donation inaugurated a rich and diverse collection that has served researchers and general audiences for nearly 150 years.

Previously, users wishing to locate these and other Chinese items published prior to 1958 had to find them using the traditional card catalog located in the Asian Reading Room. During the 1970s, card catalogs for Chinese materials published after 1958 were converted to machine readable records. Projects in the following decades have enabled users to find post-1958 materials online. Thanks to a recent effort, records for pre-1958 Chinese publications have been fully converted into electronic format, too. Now, the Asian Division’s pre-1958 Chinese collection, which includes more than 42,000 items, is fully searchable through the Library of Congress Online Catalog in both Chinese characters and Romanized script. For example, one can easily retrieve the 10 titles gifted by Emperor Tongzhi with one simple search.

Examples of traditional card catalogs for the Chinese pre-1958 collection in the Asian Reading Room. Even though users no longer need to consult these cards now that they have been converted to online records, some of the cards are kept in the reading room as backup records.

The works contained in the pre-1958 collection span more than a thousand years and are organized across seven categories: classics and philology (古典文學與文字學); history and geography (歷史與地理); collectanea (叢書); social sciences (社會科學); law and political science (法律與政治學); natural sciences (自然科學); applied sciences (應用科學); fine arts (藝術); philosophy and religion (哲學與宗教); and literature (文學).

The entirety of the pre-1958 records cannot be retrieved at once due to a limit of 10,000 items retrievable with a single search; however, there are ways to get a glimpse of the records’ scope. For instance, searching for “Chinese Pre-1958” together with “history” in the online catalog’s quick search or keyword search will retrieve more than 3,000 results on this subject.

“Yongle dadian” (The Great Encyclopedia of Yongle in Manuscript 永樂大典) compiled in 1404-1407 by order of the Yongle Emperor (永樂) of the Ming dynasty (Chinese rare book collection, Asian Division).

The most conspicuous items in this collection are more than 5,300 titles of “rare books” published before 1796, as defined by the “International Union Catalog of Chinese Rare Book Project Cataloging Guidelines (Council of East Asian Libraries, 2000). Among these works, 12 are manuscripts of Buddhist sutras (canonical scriptures) from the caves of Dunhuang dating back to Northern Wei Dynasty (386-535) and the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Also known as the Mogao Caves and the Thousand Buddha Caves, the Dunhuang Caves were first built in the 4th century in Gansu, China as places of Buddhist meditation and worship. Constructed over centuries, these caves contain the finest examples of Buddhist art and documents spanning a period of 1,000 years. Editions carved and printed during the Song and Yuan dynasty (960-1368) account for 32 titles, including 10 Buddhist sutras. Around 1,800 items are Ming dynasty editions (1368-1644), including the famous “Yong le da dian” (“The Great Encyclopedia of Yongle in Manuscript,” 1404-1407, 永樂大典, 明嘉靖年間重抄本). Finally, some 2,700 works are early Qing dynasty editions (1644-1795).

The Chinese rare books at the Library also include 890 titles of rare local gazetteers, including 30 Ming dynasty editions (1368-1644) and 860 early Qing dynasty editions (1644-1795). Together with another 2,500 titles of local gazetteers published between 1796 and 1958, this assemblage of works is the biggest collection of local gazetteers outside of China. It offers rich resources for studies into a wide array of disciplines such as Chinese local history, geography, politics, economic and social life, education, agriculture, and biology.

Map of China (廣輿圖), hand-painted in Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the sole copy in existence (Chinese rare book collection, Asian Division).

Around 17,700 works in the pre-1958 collection were created between 1796 and 1911, when the rule of China’s final imperial dynasty came to an end. Another 18,000 works printed between 1912 and 1958 offer wide-ranging possibilities for historical research on the society, politics, economics, and literature of China during this period. These materials also include official documents and government archival sources pertaining to the Second Sino–Japanese War (1937-1945) as well as the conflict between Nationalists and Communists that culminated in the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Illustrated page from “Shi shi yuan liu ying hua shi ji” (Life and Activities of Shakyamuni Buddha Incarnate釋氏源流應化事蹟), 1486, full text available on World Digital Library (Chinese rare book collection, Asian Division).

The Asian Division has prepared a research guide for the Pre-1958 Chinese Collection, which is now available on the division’s website. The guide offers a detailed overview of the diverse types of materials found in the collection and helps readers navigate the rich body of texts it contains.

Researchers can write or email the Asian Division to set up an appointment with the reference librarian responsible for the subject area to access rare items for research use. If a surrogate copy is available (such as a photocopy, microfilm, microfiche, or digital image), it will be provided in lieu of the actual rare materials unless a librarian has determined that there is a compelling reason for the researcher to consult the originals. More information on the Asian Division Rare Book Policy can be found here. Full text images of 117 titles of Chinese rare items, such as “Life and Activities of Shakyamuni Buddha,” are accessible via the World Digital Library.

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  1. How embarrassing that a 1990s project for most research libraries was not finished at LOC until 2017!

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