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Centuries of Chinese Rare Books Go Digital

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

A leaf from the “Yu zhi geng zhi quan tu” 御製耕織全圖 (Pictures of tilling and weaving) , one of the 46 leaves painted in ink and color on silk by the Qing court painter Jiao Bingzhen (1650-1726). These depictions of rice cultivation and silk production are one of the best later-produced copies based on the paintings of Southern Song dynasty’s Lou Shou (1090-1162). Jiao Bingzhen’s work was sponsored by the Qing Emperor Kangxi (r. 1661-1722). Chinese rare book collection, Asian Division.

To share the rich pre-modern Chinese resources of the Library of Congress with a wider audience, the Library has presented 1,000 rare books online. The Chinese Rare Book Digital Collection includes the most valuable titles and editions housed in the Library’s Asian Division, some of which date back to the 11th or 12th century and are the only extant copies in the world. This new digital collection brings together printed books, manuscripts, Buddhist sutras, works with hand-painted pictures, local gazetteers, and ancient maps, encompassing a wide array of disciplines and subjects in classics, history, geography, philosophy, and literature. The majority are editions from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and early Qing dynasty (1644-1795), while nearly 30 titles are Song dynasty (960-1279) and Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) editions. More rare items produced before 1796 will be added to this digital collection in forthcoming phases.

One of the very rare and important titles is a complete edition of “Shi yi de xiao fang” 世醫得效方 (Effective remedies tested by generations of physicians). Considered one of the most influential works of remedies of traditional Chinese medicine, it was disseminated to Japan, Korea, and Europe after it was printed in 1343. Interestingly, this work made major contributions in the areas of anesthetics and orthopedics, introducing such innovative methods as suspension traction treatment for bone fracture repair.

A page from the “Shi yi de xiao fang” 世醫得效方 (Effective remedies tested by generations of physicians), a very rare and important title of traditional Chinese medicine printed in 1343. The illustration explains how different portions of the eye correspond to body organs known as “the five wheels.” This work is preserved with the traditional gold-edged-in-jade method where each folded leaf has white paper inserted inside to support and protect the pages. Chinese rare book collection, Asian Division.

The book was engraved by Chen Zhi, Superintendent of Physician Families of Jianning Circuit. During the Yuan dynasty, Superintendency of Physician Families was a local government agency attached to the Imperial Academy of Medicine, which was in charge of physician families and the medical care provided to imprisoned criminals. The author of this book is Wei Yilin (1277-1347), a native of Nanfeng Prefecture in Jiangxi Province, and an instructor at a local medical school. Wei came from a physician’s family and began his medical study at a young age. With his extensive medical knowledge and practice, Wei collected and researched remedies from five generations of his family, and completed this work in ten years. The work contains 20 juan 卷, or sections, and describes diagnoses and treatments in the practice of internal medicine, external medicine, gynecology, pediatrics, orthopedics, ophthalmology, dentistry, and acupuncture.

Another example of a much older rare work on traditional Chinese herbal medicine is an edition printed in 1249 during the early Yuan dynasty. The “Chong xiu zheng he jing shi zheng lei bei yong ben cao” 重修政和經史証類備用本草 (Revised Zhenghe edition of the classic materia medica classification) is not only one of the most useful botanical works but also a fine example of early printing with exquisite typography and illustrations. A complete copy comprises 30 juan, while the Asian Division’s copy that dates from 1249 only has 13 surviving juan. But the new digital collection also has multiple complete editions of this title that were produced later in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). One example is a complete edition from 1625.

The “Qi sheng yan hai quan tu” 七省沿海全圖 (Complete maps of the seven coastal provinces) is one of several maps in the Asian Division’s Chinese rare book collection. The preface to this work indicates that it was printed by Shao Tinglie, who acquired original paintings by Zhou Beitang in 1842. In the next year, Shao had Zhou’s hand-painted maps carved on woodblocks and printed with two other maps, one depicting the port of Wusong and the other portraying areas east of the Yangtze River. The maps are printed in blue and include annotations in red. These maps depict the coastal provinces of Fengtian, Zhili, Shandong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong, and areas near the port of Wusong and east Yangtze River. They also indicate important naval posts and include notes on river and coastal defense, therefore highlighting important military information for fending off attacks from pirates and foreign ships. The Library’s copy was formerly in the collection of Huang Pengnian (1823–1891), a painter who also worked in the Qing government. Huang carefully compared this map with others and added his explanatory notes in red and black ink between 1857 and 1871. Huang’s postscripts detail the meticulous study he had done with this map collection.

Illustration from the “Chong xiu zheng he jing shi zheng lei bei yong ben cao” 重修政和經史証類備用本草 (Revised Zhenghe edition of the classic materia medica classification) printed in early Yuan in 1249. Presented here is a scene of sea salt processing. The lively and skillful illustrations represent the highest level craftsmanship of the time, which also introduces a longstanding tradition of featuring quality illustrations in woodblock-printed literature. Chinese rare book collection, Asian Division.

One of the maps from the “Qi sheng yan hai quan tu” 七省沿海全圖 (Complete maps of the seven coastal provinces). It depicts the border area of Shandong and Jiangsu. The work was printed by Shao Tinglie in 1843. The maps are printed in blue, with annotations in red and the collector’s explanatory notes in red and black ink. Chinese rare book collection, Asian Division.

The Chinese Rare Book Digital Collection also encompasses a wide variety of formats and literary genres. Researchers can now access digital copies of an excellent example of woodblock printing with a Buddhist sutra from the 12th century, an edition of poems by legendary poet Du Fu (712-770) printed during the Song dynasty (960-1279), and a 19th-century illustrated album of Taiwan’s indigenous people.

Items in the Library’s Chinese Rare Book Digital Collection were digitized in collaboration with the National Central Library of Taiwan in recognition of the collection’s value as a major resource for the study of pre-modern China. In addition to the initial 1,000 titles, another 1,000 titles will come online later this year. Taken together, these 2,000 titles represent the gems among the more than 5,000 titles found in the Library’s Chinese rare book collection. This collection has been acquired over the last century through several means, such as gifts from the Qing government in 1869 and 1904, donations from Caleb Cushing (1800-1879) and William Rockhill (1854-1914), and acquisitions in China and Japan during the late 19th and early 20th century.

For items in the Chinese rare book collection that have not yet been digitized, access is by prior appointment only. Please consult the Asian Division’s rare book policy for more information and use the Ask-a-Librarian online inquiry form to contact Chinese reference staff or ask questions about the collection.