Sinica 41

28 March 2013

Descending into cliché, I think the time has come for me to say which book I would rescue if the Library were on fire and I could only save one.

Without doubt, it would be Sinica 41, described as follows in my catalogue:

新刊二十四孝故事 卷一 ; 新鍥重訂補遺音釋大字日記故事大成 卷二至八 / (明)佚名撰
明萬曆中鄭氏聚垣書舍刊本
線裝2冊 : 圖 ; 28公分
本書為海內外孤本
Sinica 41

s41-4

The note 「本書為海內外孤本」 indicates that the work is a unique surviving printed edition, and that alone would be sufficient reason for saving it if it were not in the company of so many other unique surviving editions in the Bodleian Library, and if it were entirely true. In fact, there is another extant copy, in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Chinois 1392, and this copy has been digitised. Comparison shows that the impression has been taken from the same blocks.

However, the Paris copy is rather defective, lacking the first juan in its entirety except for the last half-leaf, and also two more leaves and the last leaves of juan 8; this is the extent of the copy:

[1:1-6a missing] 1:6b-2:13a [2:13b missing] 3:1a-7:8b
[7:9 missing] 7:10a-8:7b [8:8-12 missing]

By contrast, the Bodleian copy is complete apart from a single leaf, 6:10, and the final leaf enables the work to be identified. It seems that the Oxford and Paris copies are not only unique surviving copies of the work, but also the unique surviving work of the publishing house that printed it:  鄭氏聚垣書舍. In fact, a Google search for the term 「聚垣書舍」will point only to the entry for this edition in my list of Chinese books in Europe in the 17th century (the Paris colleagues could produce a second hit by updating their catalogue entry on the basis of this information).

s41-6

As for its content, the work is a typical product of the late Ming commercial press, centred mainly in Jianyang 建陽 (in Fujian Province), but also in Jinling 金陵 (modern Nanking). The first juan is the well-known Tales of the twenty-four filial exemplars 二十四孝, but juan 2-8 are a series of more general historical morality tales.

s41-5

But the reason why I would rescue this book from the flames has nothing to do with either its content or its rarity. It is because of the inscription on its front cover, which is not only one of the very earliest western inscriptions on a Chinese book, but tells the story of how the first significant quantities of Chinese books came to Europe.

 s41-2

The inscription is in Dutch, and neither I nor even Piet van der Loon could read it. So Piet sent it to Professor P.G. Hoftijzer at the Sir Thomas Browne Institute in the University of Leiden, and he transcribed it as follows – I reproduce his transcription exactly as he sent it to Piet on 7 November 1992:

Transcriptie

Historia Sinarum una |
cum figuris. |

Een gedruckte historie |
wt het groot Coninckrijck van CHINA |
Dewelcke gelesen werdt [doorgestreept: (more hebraico)] |
vande boven neerwaerts gaende ende more |
hebraico, vande rechter handt naer de |
slincke [doorgestreept: sijde] Handt waerts [woord onleesbaar] ende vereert aen |

<den> Edlen ende seer Eerweerdighen [woord doorsgestreept] |
Nicolaes [woord onleesbaar:  .oeck.o..] |
anno 1603. |

Met een Chinesche doosken ende ettelike verscheyden |
schelpen ende 2 bladen wit Chinesche pampier |

Door uwen |

Dienstwillighen A. [onduidelijke letter of combinatie van letters]. |

So we have quite a well-informed description of the book (few people at that time would know that Chinese was read top to bottom, right to left more hebraico), but what are we to make of the two lines that tell us that the book is accompanied by “a little Chinese box, various sea-shells, and two sheets of white Chinese paper”?

In fact this is the most vivid evidence we have of what can only be inferred from other sources: that this book, and others like it, was obtained by members of the Dutch East India Company from overseas Chinese traders in Southeast Asia (on whose tropical shores the sea-shells were gathered), and that it was sold as part of a job lot of curiosities at an auction in Amsterdam. That Chinese books were considered to be curiosities at that time is evidenced, for example, by the inclusion of two of them in the cabinet of curiosities of John Bargrave (1610‑1680), a canon of Canterbury Cathedral. Although this cabinet is still extant, the Chinese books have, alas, gone missing. [1]

The Dutch bibliographer Bert van Selm [2] has suggested that an important consignment arrived as a result of one specific trading expedition, in which two fleets of ships from Amsterdam companies set sail for the Indonesian archipelago on 23rd April 1601. Some of the ships returned to Holland with their goods in 1602, and it is quite possible that Sinica 41 was among them.

Other parts of the expedition returned in in the summer of 1604, the second in the spring of 1605. There followed an extraordinary sale of the cargo in Amsterdam in September 1605, which according to van Selm may be related to the publication in the same year and in the same city of a stock catalogue of Chinese books by Cornelis Claesz, the city’s leading bookseller.

The Parisian bibliographer Philippe Labbé (1607‑1670) gives the title of this catalogue as Chinensium variorum librorum Bibliotheca, siue libri, qui nunc primùm ex China seu regno Sinarum cum ipsorum atramento & charta admirandae magnitudinis aduecti sunt. Although there is sufficient evidence to show that the work actually existed [3], no copy has yet been discovered; this is unfortunate, as the catalogue is the earliest known printed list of Chinese books in Europe, and if found would represent a bibliographical source of the first importance. From time to time I search for the title on the internet – it is the Holy Grail of this subject, which has interested me for decades.

One final point – and it is an imortant one. Sinica 41 was in a grievous condition when I first encountered it. It was glued into a hard western binding that probably dated from the time when it was in the collection of William Laud, who used to own it, and whose elegant inscription is on the front endpaper:

s41-7

(One can’t help noticing that just as John Bargrave, a canon of Canterbury Cathedral, had Chinese books in his cabinet of curiosities, so the Archbishop himself possessed not only this one, but several more which are also in the Bodleian.)

The hard binding was pulling the thin paper of the book apart, and it suffered more damage whenever it was opened.

To enable our conservators to repair books like this, I conceived the idea of translating a little manual that I acquired shortly after its publication in 1980 [4], which had been written by the chief conservator in what we then called Peking Library. I worked on this intermittently during the 1980s and 1990s, and it was eventually published in 1998 – long after its completion – in Princeton’s East Asian library journal. [5]

From an earlier draft of this work, Robert Minte learned the techniques of the Chinese book conservator if not quite first-hand, certainly more authoritatively than in any English or even Chinese source than had existed hitherto. And I’m flattered that the illustrations which Chris Clarkson drew for me to illustrate some of the more unfamiliar procedures were lifted directly from my publication by Zhu Saihong without a word of acknowledgement; indeed, in her own work on Chinese book repair [6], my publication is the only one that she doesn’t include in the bibliography.

In particular, from my translation of Xiao Zhentang’s work Robert learned the technique of producing the “jade set in gold” 金鑲玉 binding, a sophisticated structure which enables the fabric of the original book to be preserved in its entirety whilst at the same time allowing it to be presented and handled as if it were new. He applied the technique to Sinica 41, and when the book had been pulled apart and the pages stabilised prior to binding, the work was photographed in its entirety, and it is from these photographs that the images in this blog entry have been produced – in 1992, when this work was done, digital imaging was still quite some way off.

Robert’s repair of this item must be considered a masterpiece by any standard, and he even went to the trouble of acquiring silk brocade from a friend in Hong Kong to cover the protective tao 套 with.

This, too, is why the book should be plucked from the flames.


[1] D Sturdy & M Henig: The gentle traveller: John Bargrave, Canon of Canterbury, and his collection (Oxford, 1983), 2 & 14.
[2] Cornelis Claesz’s 1605 stock catalogue of Chinese book, in Quaerendo 13:4(1983), 247‑259.
[3] It is cited in Henri Ternaux-Compans: Bibliothèque asiatique et africaine, ou, Catalogue des ouvrages relatifs à l’Asie et à l’Afrique qui ont paru depuis la découverte de l’imprimerie jusqu’en 1700 (Paris, 1841), 106 (no.934).
[4] 中國古籍裝訂修補技術 / 肖振棠, 丁瑜編著. – 北京 : 書目文獻出版社, 1980
[5] The repair and binding of old Chinese books. In The East Asian library journal (Princeton), 8:1(1998).
[6] 古籍修復技藝 / 朱賽虹著. – 北京 : 文物出版社, 2001

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