Special collections: Chinese manuscripts and rare books

Early collecting

The Bodleian Library's Chinese collections date back to the earliest period of the library’s history. Sir Thomas Bodley himself was instrumental in building up the collection. He and his agents bought works which Dutch East India Company merchants had brought back to Amsterdam from overseas Chinese communities in South East Asia.

During the following century, the library acquired other Chinese works with the bequests of Laud (1635), Selden (1659), Thurston (1661) and Marsh (1714). The Bodleian now holds as many as a quarter of all the extant Chinese books that arrived in Europe in the 17th century.

The importance of this corpus is inversely proportionate to its size – fewer than 90 titles in 170 volumes. It contains a number of unique printed editions, among them chapters 11 and 12 of the version of the San guo zhi zhuan (‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’) (Sinica 46) printed in Jianyang by Yu Xiangdou in 1592. Most of the editions are products of the late-Ming printing industry in Jianyang and Jinling (Nanking). Together with other examples in both Europe and the Far East, they enable us to piece together the intricate pattern of commercial printing, publishing and book illustration in this period.

Among the books from Laud is the well-known manuscript rutter, or manual of compass directions Shun feng xiang song (‘Favourable Winds in Escort’) (MS. Laud Or. 145), which may have been derived from accounts of the voyages of the great Ming Dynasty navigator Zheng He (1371-1433).

Another notable accession from this period is the Jesuit missionary Guilio Aleni’s Tian zhu jiang sheng chu xiang jing jie (‘Illustrated Life of Christ’) (Sinica 60) of 1637, a particularly fine copy printed on heavy gold-flecked paper and bearing Portuguese manuscript notes on the cover.

18th and 19th centuries

After the initial phase of interest in Chinese material during the 17th century, it was almost two centuries before there was anyone in Oxford capable of reading the acquisitions made by Bodley and his associates. The 18th century is notable only for its near total absence of Chinese accessions at a time of increasing intercourse with East Asia.

The 19th century saw an upturn in interest once again. In 1834, the scholar, antiquarian and bibliophile Francis Douce bequeathed his extensive collection to the Bodleian Library. This contains a small number of Chinese printed works of the utmost interest and rarity. Among the Douce collection is the 1735 edition of Shi xue (‘On Perception’) (Douce. Chin.b.2), a work by Nian Xiyao on Western perspective that he had learned from the Jesuit painter and architect Guiseppe Castiglione. Also part of the legacy is one of the very few surviving copies of the so-called ‘Red Decree’ of 1716 (Sinica 3762), a large handbill from the Kangxi emperor, written in Latin, Chinese and Manchu and printed in red. This was handed out to all Westerners passing through the port of Canton, enquiring of the whereabouts of two emissaries that he had despatched to the papal court and who had failed to return.

Missionary collections

When the 19th-century Protestant missionaries began to take an interest in the civilisation of their prospective converts, the nature and quality of the Chinese collections began to change markedly. It was only when the library began to acquire their increasingly systematic collections that scholarly Sinological enquiry in Oxford could begin in earnest. The appointment of the missionary and scholar James Legge as the University’s first Professor of Chinese in 1876 and the publication of Joseph Edkins’ catalogue of the library’s Chinese collections helped shape the direction of the collection. With the acquisition of Alexander Wylie’s library in 1882, which doubled the Bodleian’s collections in quantity and even more in quality, it was now possible to speak of a broadly-based Chinese collection in the modern sense rather than a miscellany of individual objects of curiosity.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the library acquired two large collections of missionary publications, the contents of the great International Exhibitions at Philadelphia in 1876 and London in 1884. This brought the corpus of doctrinal works to near 2,000 volumes, representing at least 1,500 different titles. The collection is particularly rich in tracts published during the first half of the century, of which the earliest is Robert Morrison’s Shen dao lun jiu shi zong shuo zhen ben (Sinica 2672), a tract on redemption printed from blocks believed to have been cut in Canton in 1811.

The missionary works have an interest which goes far beyond their value as expositions of Christian doctrine. Some are written in local dialects. Others provide glimpses of the popular Chinese religious and social customs which the missionaries encountered in the course of their work. All illustrate the process whereby traditional Chinese block-printing was gradually superseded by Western typography as the missionaries strove to circumvent local prohibitions and improve the efficiency of their publishing. The Chinese Protestant missionary publications of the 19th century constitute a special collection whose importance is increasingly recognised and which is scarcely matched elsewhere.

20th century

The acquisition of the Backhouse collection between 1913 and 1922, one of the finest and most generous gifts in the library’s history, greatly enriched the Bodleian’s Chinese collections. An aristocratic collection put together in Peking by Sir Edmund Backhouse in the early 20th century as the Qing Dynasty gave way to the Republic, it is strikingly dissimilar to the Protestant missionary collections financed on a shoestring. It proclaims the resources of the scion of a Darlington banker collecting in courtly circles in Peking at a time of dynastic upheaval. As a consequence, it contains many fine Chinese editions. Much of its content is unique in the West and exemplifies the art of Chinese printing in all its variety. And unlike many of the traditional Chinese books that European libraries acquired in previous generations, the Backhouse Collection was never rebound in Western style, and also constitutes an excellent resource for the study of the Chinese book as an object.

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