Top of page

Exploring Rare Manchu Books at the Library of Congress

Share this post:

(The following is a post by Jeffrey Wang, Chinese Reference Specialist, Asian Division.)

One of the many treasures at the Library of Congress is the rich variety of materials found within the Asian Division’s Chinese Rare Book Collection. Over the last few years, nearly 2,000 rare and valuable titles have been digitized and made available to readers around the world. But the Library’s collections are vast, and there are always new materials to organize, catalog, and share with the public.

A page from a rare book with text in Manchu and black and white illustrations.
One of the illustrated items from the collection is the Manchu edition of “Imperial Poems on the Summer Resort.” The Chinese edition of the work, known as “Yu zhi bi shu shan zhuang shi” 御製避暑山莊詩, was featured in a previous blog post. “Han i araha alin i tokso de halihün be jailaha gi bithe,” 1711. Chinese Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

More recently, the Asian Division has trained its efforts on a unique subset of the Chinese Rare Book Collection that includes more than 400 titles of Manchu-language materials. Tucked away safely in the division’s rare book storage area, these items had not yet been catalogued according to modern technical standards and thus could not be found in the Library’s online catalog. Now, after a multi-year inventory and cataloging project, these Manchu titles are fully discoverable on the Library’s online catalog.

Although only a few thousand people speak the language today, Manchu was once the official language of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), the last imperial dynasty in China. For nearly three centuries, the Qing ruled over one of the largest empires in world history. Covering a massive territory that stretched across much of East and Central Asia, it was home to a multi-ethnic population that numbered some 450 million people by the mid-19th century.

While the great majority of the empire’s population was Han Chinese, the emperor and ruling elite all belonged to the Manchu ethnic group. The Manchus descended from the Jurchen peoples, who spoke a language belonging to the Tungusic family. From around the 8th century, the Jurchens inhabited an area that corresponds to the northeast of present-day China, a region that is also commonly known as Manchuria. In the 12th century, they founded the Jin dynasty (1115-1234), a kingdom that ruled over Manchuria, southern Mongolia, and northern China. In 1616, a successful Jurchen leader named Nurhaci 努爾哈赤 (1559-1626) united the various Jurchen tribes and established a new kingdom in northern Manchuria, calling it the Later Jin dynasty.

To solidify the foundation of his new kingdom, Nurhaci built a strong central government based around the eight banner military system. He also sought to increase cohesion among the recently united Jurchen tribes by melding a shared cultural and ethnic identity among them. Language was one means to this end, and Nurhaci ordered the creation of a writing system for use among his people. This resulted in the adoption of a script based on the existing Mongolian alphabet that was written top to bottom, left to right. His successor, Hong Taiji 皇太極 (1592-1643), continued the program of linguistic reform when, in 1631, he ordered scholars to further revise Manchu orthography. This process added dots and circles for use as diacritics to represent additional sounds and assist in writing loanwords from Chinese, Sanskrit, and Tibetan. In 1635, Hong Taiji proclaimed the Jurchen peoples would now be called Manchu and, the following year, renamed the dynasty from the Later Jin to the Qing. The language reforms instituted by Nurhaci and Hong Taiji helped form bonds among the various Jurchen—now Manchu—groups and symbolized the emergence of a new Qing identity.

A page from a rare book with text in Manchu and a colorful illustration of a butterfly.
This hand-painted drawing of a butterfly-shaped kite comes from a collection of essays about various objects. The work was issued in two editions, one for each language. The Manchu title is “Manju hergen i uyun maktacun,” and the Chinese title is “Yi Qing jiu zan” 怡清九賛. Produced between 1740 and 1911. Chinese Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

After the establishment of the Qing dynasty in 1636, Manchu was declared the official language of government and also came to be known as Qing wen 清文 (“Qing language”). Over the next decade, the Qing extended their control over much of China, displacing the Ming from the capital at Beijing in 1644. Surviving archival material written in Manchu, preserved to this day at places like the First Historical Archives of China in Beijing, features original written records of the Qing dynasty and its bureaucracy. These documents serve as primary sources for the history of Qing politics, law, science, and culture. In the years following the creation of the Qing dynasty, the Manchu-led government began to adopt many elements of Chinese-style bureaucratic governance to its political system. At the same time, during the rule of the Shunzhi 順治 emperor (1638-1661), cultural exchange between Manchu and Han Chinese developed more actively.

Against this backdrop, a number of classic works of Chinese literature were translated into Manchu. Among them were books that remain widely read today—and have even been featured on this blog—such as “The Story of Three Kingdoms,” “The Story of Water Margin,” and “Strange Tales from Liaozhai.” Among the Library’s rare Manchu materials are two copies of the latter title, published in a bilingual edition as “Manju nikan liyoo jai ji i bithe: 24 debtelin” (He bi Liao zhai zhi yi 合璧聊齋誌異) in 1848. There are also two copies of a 1710 bilingual edition of the famous “Romance of the Western Chamber,” published as “Manju nikan si siyang gi bithe” (He bi Xi xiang ji: si juan 合璧西廂記: 四卷). A separate bilingual edition of that same work, published as “Man Han Xi xiang ji” 滿漢西廂記 in 1765, has already been digitized.

A print page from a rare book with texts in Chinese and Manchu.
A bilingual edition of “The Romance of the Western Chamber,” with a Chinese title of “He bi Xi xiang ji” 合璧西廂記. The book’s Manchu title is “Manju nikan si siyang gi bithe.” Published in 1710. Chinese Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

Because the Qing produced and circulated Manchu texts throughout the empire for nearly 300 years, a comparatively large number of Manchu manuscripts and books have been preserved not only in China but also around the world. The robust Manchu collection at the Library of Congress arrived several decades ago through two main sources. The majority were donated by William Woodville Rockhill (1854-1914), an American diplomat who served as the Minister to China from 1905-1909 and was instrumental in drafting the United States’ Open Door Policy toward China. (More information about Rockhill’s life and contributions to the Library can be found in the research guide “Rockhill Tibetan Collection of Rare Materials at the Library of Congress.”) Several years later, between 1923 and 1924, the Library purchased valuable Manchu materials from the renowned German anthropologist and sinologist Berthold Laufer (1874-1934). These acquisitions included Manchu literary works, histories of Manchu banner units, and the Barrett Collection of Manchu documents. Owing to these foundational acquisitions, the Library now holds one of the largest Manchu collections outside of China.

A print page from a rare book with texts in Chinese and Manchu.
Pages from a handwritten collection of dialogues with parallel text in Manchu and Chinese, to be read top to bottom, left to right. To the left is the book’s case. The title of the work in Chinese is “Li yu hua tiao” 俚語話條, and its Manchu title is “Muwakame gesurere gisun.” Produced sometime between 1700 and 1911. Chinese Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

To make these exceptional resources more accessible to users, a Chinese reference specialist conducted a two-year inventory project in 2018 and 2019. Fortunately, there was some good existing bibliographic data available in “A Catalogue of Manchu Materials in the Library of Congress: Xylographs, Manuscripts, Archives,” compiled by Japanese scholar Jun Matsumura and based on his research trips to the Library of Congress in 1975, 1995, and 1997. Building on Matsumura’s survey, the reference specialist sorted, reviewed, and tabulated more than 400 titles, including 163 items of the Barrett Collection. The inventoried items were organized into 11 categories: Classics, Philosophy, Religion, Calendar, History, Government & Politics, Law, Language, Literature, Manuscripts, and Archives.

Following this two-year inventory, the Manchu Collection Cataloging Project was launched in 2019 and completed over the course of one year. Each catalog record includes an added entry of “Manchu Pre-1912 Collection” to facilitate searching. A simple search for Manchu Pre-1912 Collection will retrieve all records with this entry. It is also possible to combine this phrase with key terms to search for specific topics. For example, to find works related to philosophy, one could search using the following terms: Manchu Pre-1912 Collection philosophy. For now, these catalog records contain Manchu text in romanized form only, transliterated according to the ALA-LC Romanization Table for Manchu (PDF, 171KB).

Now that these rare Manchu titles are discoverable on the Library’s Online Catalog, we hope more researchers will be able to access these materials and utilize them to deepen our understanding of Qing history.

Requests to view rare books are by appointment only and are governed by the Asian Reading Room’s Rare Book Policy. For inquiries about rare Manchu materials or the Chinese Rare Book Collection more generally, please contact Chinese reference librarians through our Ask-A-Librarian service.


Subscribe to 4 Corners of the World – it’s free! – and the world’s largest library will send you cool stories about its collections from around the world!

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *