The last flowering

22 August 2013

In May 2006 Christer von der Burg sold me a copy of what will probably prove to be the last major Chinese book to have been printed by woodblock. I have just catalogued it as follows:

里堂道聽錄 : 四十卷 / (清)焦循撰
附 焦里堂先生年譜 : 一卷 / 江蘇廣陵古籍刻印社輯錄
辛已年[2001]揚州廣陵書社校刊南京江蘇廣陵古籍刻印社發行本
線裝40冊 ; 29公分
Sinica 6044

The book is a collection of short philological pieces by the prolific Qing Dynasty scholar and philosopher Jiao Xun (1763-1820), a native of Yangzhou. The original manuscript is in the National Library of China, and was photolithographically reproduced in the 1990s (the publication is undated) in its series of rare editions in its own collections (北京圖書館古籍珍本叢刊 – the National Library of China was then still called Peking Library, and its publishing house was called Shumu Wenxian Chubanshe 書目文獻出版社).

According to the information supplied by Christer, the edition took twenty years to produce, during which time two scribes and ten different block-cutters worked on it. In the Serica entry for the work I have presented many images from this book for the obvious reason that the edition will probably be the last of its kind, and readers may be curious to know what it looks like. Here is one of the images, the first page of text:

Litang

Although the blocks appear to have been finely cut, the quality of the impression is not at all good. There is a fuzziness which should not be present given that only one hundred copies had been taken from the blocks when we received ours – I have crystal-clear specimen impressions from blocks that were cut centuries before these, among them leaves from the Manchu Tripitaka and the Tetsugen Tripitika at Mampukuji near Kyoto. I think the reason might be partly due to the use of unsuitable paper.

Owing to this extraordinarily small print run, the book is not widely distributed, and it may be that ours is the only copy in Europe. WorldCat shows eight copies in the United States, one in Taiwan, and one in Hong Kong. The only other copy I have found is in the National Library of China. It is very odd that none can be found in Japan.

The National Library of China gives the imprint as 「南京 : 江蘇古籍出版社, 2001」. In WorldCat we find that nine of the ten libraries represented express the imprint as 「南京市 : 江蘇古籍出版社, 2001」 and one as 「揚州 : 廣陵書社, 2001」.

It is depressing indeed that librarians continue to follow slavishly rules that were written on the back of an envelope (see John Joliffe’s work on the subject) rather than tell readers what an edition actually is. AACR and MARC were devised primarily for cataloguing modern printed books in English;  traditionally produced Chinese books are about as far removed from that as it is possible to be.

For this reason, I follow the traditional Chinese practice of expressing the edition of a book in a single sentence of classical Chinese. Thus, my statement for this edition tells the reader exactly how the book was produced and distributed; the WorldCat and NLC records do neither, and only one refers to Yangzhou – the whole point of the edition, as it was produced in homage to one of that city’s most famous scholars!

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