The bronze man

21 May 2015

On Friday 8 July 2011 I moved out of my office in the New Library in Broad Street having worked there since Monday 5 April 1976 sitting at a desk in the same corner of the same room, a continuous occupancy of more than thirty-five years and almost certainly a record.

In August 2011 work started on the redevelopment of the New Library into what is now called the Weston Library, and was sufficiently complete to enable me to begin the move to my new office there on Monday 6 October 2014. I suppose it’s doubtful that I’ll occupy my new office for quite as long as I occupied the old one.

In the meantime, the special Chinese collections (that is, the materials that are the subject of this blog) were temporarily housed in the basement of the Radcliffe Science Library, and my office was in the Library’s building on Osney Mead. Although this building isn’t in the centre of town, it’s not that far out, and was actually rather pleasant once one had recovered from the shock of working on an industrial estate. I had a beautiful view of the river and its willows from my window, and my commuting time was halved to three minutes and 45 seconds by bicycle.

One of the jobs I undertook before moving out of the New Library was to sort out the Oriental Department’s collection of rolls and other oddly shaped material, which was then crammed into a grill on L-floor at the very bottom of the building, three floors below ground level. The collection included a number of Chinese items, some of which I had never seen in over three decades of working with the collection – they were quite literally buried in other things, in dark and dirty conditions.

It was then, in the summer of 2010, that I first set eyes on what was then shelfmarked Chin.a.4. It was a yellow box bearing the words “Chinese anatomical designs”, and containing 12 rolled paper hanging scrolls stamped with the date 24 January 1907, but lacking any indication of provenance. Tucked into the scrolls was a scrap of paper bearing the three characters tongrentu 同人圖 (the first being a simplification of tong 銅), meaning “pictures of the bronze man”.




The twelve scrolls turned out to be three sets of acupuncture charts, each consisting of four scrolls, which I shall describe presently. These “pictures of the bronze man” are so called because the art of acupuncture was taught by using a hollow bronze model in which the acupunture points are represented by holes. Here is a photograph of such a model that I took two years ago in the National Museum of China (中國國家圖書館) in Tiananmen Square:



The prototype was a life-sized model kept in the state medical college of the Song Dynasty (Yiguanyuan 醫官院). The model was covered with wax, thus sealing the holes, and was then filled with water. The examiner named a point, and if the candidate located it correctly with his needle, the water would flow out. If he located the hole correctly five consecutive times, he qualified.

The model disappeared when the Jin invaders overran Kaifeng – presumably it was looted and destroyed. But during the Ming, which is generally regarded as the heyday of acupuncture, many such figures were created, but not all of them life-size, and many are extant. Huang Longxiang 黄龙祥 and others have argued that the bronze man preserved in the Hermitage at St Petersburg is the only one to have been copied directly from the Song original (see 圣·彼得堡国立艾尔米塔什博物馆藏针灸铜人研究, in 中华医史杂志 35:2(2005:4), 67-73).

Acupuncture charts are also called mingtangtu 明堂圖, meaning “pictures of the human body”. Needham explains the term mingtang in Celestial lancets (Cambridge, 1980, 100 note c). It originally referred to the ancient imperial cosmic temple or ritual palace, and from the Han onwards its use was extended to the body, and subsequently it appears in the titles of anatomical and physiological writings. This idea of the human body as a temple is, of course, not uniquely Chinese.

In another work, his compendious two-volume illustrated history of Chinese acupuncture, Huang Longxiang distinguishes two main series of what he calls “mingtang diagrams”, the first being “general diagrams”, and the second “diagrams of acupuncture bronze statues” (中国针灸史图鉴, 青岛出版社, 2003, 上卷:79ff, 200ff).

I interpret this to mean that the first series of images is purely theoretical in the sense that from the start, the points and meridians were plotted in two dimensions on paper. The second series, on the other hand, is a two-dimensional expression of points and meridians that were originally plotted on a three-dimensional bronze man. It is clear that of our three sets of charts, two belong to the first series, and one to the second. I’ll call them Series A and Series B.

Series A

We have two closely related sets of these, described as follows in my catalogue, taking all details of authorship and imprint from what is clearly printed on them:

明堂圖 / (元)滑壽撰 ; (明)吳崑校
4幅 ; 106 x 33公分
Sinica 6335

明堂圖 / (元)滑壽撰 ; (明)吳崑校
4幅 ; 108 x 34公分
Sinica 6336

The charts have been scanned, and the links at the shelfmarks give access to these scans. Clearly, they are the same in content and design, but are from different blocks.

There is a problem with their attribution to the famous Yuan 元 dynasty physician Hua Shou 滑壽. Huang points out that as there are significant points of divergence from the illustrations in his treatise Shi si jing fa hui 十四經發揮, they cannot possibly have come from his hand. But it is quite possible that Wu Kun 吳崑 was indeed the editor, as the illustrations are close to those in his Zhen jiu liu ji 針灸六集 and the text is mostly accurate.

I have found no record of either of these editions in another library. What I thought may have been a copy of the 1782 edition in the National Library of China turned out to be no such thing; it is reproduced in Huang’s book, and although it bears exactly the same imprint and is identical in format, it is clearly from different blocks and the titles of the charts are in seal script, not kaishu 楷書 as in the Bodeian copy.

A Google search for the printer “魏玉麟” and “明堂圖” will lead only to the apparently very well-known copy in the National Library of China and to our own, while a search for “鄒啟華” and “明堂圖” will currently lead only to the Bodleian. I can therefore only assume that our copies are either unique, or that others are lying somewhere uncatalogued, or even unnoticed, exactly like ours were for over a century.

Series B

I describe our set of charts from Huang’s second, “bronze statue” series as follows:

銅人明堂之圖 / (明)趙文炳繪製
4幅 ; 112 x 56公分
Sinica 6334

Here is a detail from the first of the four charts, showing how it relates to an actual bronze man, using an images I found on the internet:

charts4 bronzeman3

Actually the first surviving charts to be taken from a bronze man were made by Shi Su 史素 on the basis of charts preserved in Zhenjiangfu 鎮江府 by the Song dynasty physician Shi Zangyong 石藏用. The blocks were cut in 1474 (成化十年) in the Ming medical college. Neither the Song dynasty charts nor the original printing of Shi Su’s charts are extant.

Shi Su’s charts were two in number, the bronze man from the front (正人) and from the back (伏人). Although a manuscript copy of the front view is preserved in Japan, we only have a modern reconstruction of the back view.

The first charts based on the bronze man in the Ming medical college, of which the Bodleian’s edition is a copy, were made in 1601 (萬曆辛丑) by Zhao Wenbing 趙文炳. Now, to the front and back views are added two side views – really 45° views, one from the front, the other from the back (正側、背側). There are no extant copies of this edition.

Zhao’s edition was re-cut in 1665 (康熙四年) by Lin Qilong 林起龍, a jinshi 進士 of the Shunzhi 順治 period, and I originally thought that Sinica 6334 might be an example of it. But I had failed to spot (or rather, to realise the significance) of the characters used for expressing the Wanli period (萬歷 for 萬曆). Clearly, our copy cannot have been printed earlier than 1760, when the order was given that the taboo of the characters in the Qianlong 乾隆 emperor’s personal name Hongli 弘曆 might be avoided by the use of homophones.

There is actually no extant copy of Lin Qilong’s edition, so that all surviving editions of Zhao Wenbing’s charts, including ours, are re-takes dating from the Qianlong period or later.

Yongle dadian – 2

9 December 2014

In several places elsewhere in this blog I have explained the nature of Chinese encyclopaedias and their importance as a source of lost texts.

It is well known that when Siku quanshu 四庫全書 was being compiled during the Qianlong period, 385 of the works it contained (more than ten per cent of the total) which were otherwise lost were reconstituted from quotations in Yongle dadian. Less well known is the precise manner in which this was done.

This leads to the second feature of Yongle dadian that has interested me over the years, the Siku quanshu forms that are pasted inside the front covers of some of the volumes. Such forms are found inside four of the Bodleian’s nineteen volumes; three of them are printed, and a fourth is in manuscript. Here’s what they look like:


These forms are extremely valuable pieces of ephemera, as they give us a glimpse of the working practices of the editors which would otherwise be completely unrecorded – Chinese scholars of that period (if not all scholars of all periods) are not known for their interest in the practical and mundane. For this reason, when examining and taking stock of the volumes of Yongle dadian in European libraries, I made a careful note of the existence or otherwise of these forms, which can be summarised as follows: of the total 59 volumes, forms are present in 12, there are traces of forms in 16, and there is no evidence of forms in 31.

And so in the tiny sample that the European corpus represents (scarcely 0.5% of the total), forms, or evidence of them, are present in less than half. Not only is this sample too small to be scientific, but we don’t know whether the volumes lacking forms ever had them, or whether they might have disappeared if the volumes were ever repaired or rebound.

At first I thought that no work could have been done on these forms, because access to original volumes of Yongle dadian is limited, and the Zhonghua Shuju reprint of 1960/1984 (cited in my paper on the European holdings) is somewhat sanitised, reproducing only the text itself and not the covers and associated material. So in spite of the inadequacy of the European sample, I thought the path was open either to me to make a second original contibution to sinology, or to a bright student to make it the subject of a dissertation. But yesterday, my hopes were dashed when after a little searching in CNKI’s online database Chinese Academic Journals, I discovered an article on this very topic by Zhang Sheng 张升, a professor of Ming and Qing history and literature at Peking Normal University with a particular interest in Siku quanshu studies (《四库》馆签佚书单考, in 中国典籍与文化, 2006:3, 61-66).

Zhang Sheng first explains the structure of the forms. This is mostly self-evident, and I will illustrate it in a moment from one of the forms in the Bodleian volumes. He then uses the forms to investigate the identity of the thirty scholars who are known to have worked on extracting the lost passages from each volume. He has been able to identify twenty of the thirty names from the labels he has seen (mostly in China and Japan), together with the range of juan he reckons each of them worked on. Strangely, he gathers evidence from one of the forms preserved in a volume in the Bodleian (juan 5244-5245), but does not mention those in the other two volumes (juan 15073-15075 and 16217-16218) which would have filled a large gap in his list and enabled the names Min 閔 and Chen 陳 (from Guangdong 廣東) to be added; nor does he consider the volumes in the United States and elsewhere in Europe. Next he examines the process of the extraction itself, and finally determines the precise time when this took place. In all these four areas of enquiry, the forms are the primary if not the only source.

Here is one of the forms in a Bodleian volume with the entries explained:


A. name of the editor reponsible for identifying the texts that should be copied from the volume
B. juan numbers contained in the volume
C. titles of works from which text should be copied, followed by the number of passages to be copied from each
D. total number of works to be copied, followed by the total number of passages to be copied (two or more may have to be copied from the same work)
E. date the volume was processed
F. name of the scholar designated to copy out the passages

All the forms were printed from the same block, dated the 38th year of Qianlong (1773) – only the month and and day were to be completed in manuscript (E). We thus know precisely when the work was done. For some reason not yet explained, the name of the person who was to do the copying (F) has not been entered in any of the surviving forms.

So from the example shown, we learn that an editor called Min worked on juan 15073-15075 on the 12th day of the 8th moon of the 39th year of Qianlong (27 September 1773), and identified twenty passages to copied from that volume, taken from seventeen different texts.

Another way of monitoring the texts and passages to be copied, and not noted by Zhang Sheng, is exemplified by the printed form in the facsimile (very fine, as it happens) of juan 7889-7890 made in Nanking in 2003, and the manuscript note in juan 1036-1037, one of the Bodleian volumes:

form-7889 form-1036

Here, the titles of the texts are listed in the normal way, but each passage copied from them is indicated by a circle, not the total number; the editor must have been drawing the circles as he went through the volume, so as not to lose count. And so we get a very close look at the actual working practice of the editors, and see that they did the job in exactly the same way as we would do it today.

Another interesting piece of evidence is found in juan 13872-13873, a volume also in the Bodleian, where we have the remains of a printed form together with a manuscript slip bearing the words  「此本無簽」 “this volume has no label”. This must mean rather more than what is obvious, but what, I wonder?


Looking again at the example of a completed form explained above, we see that two passages were to be copied from the text Gujintou 古今黈, which in Siku quanshu and subsequent printed editions is always called Jingzhai gujintou 敬齋古今黈, Jingzhai being the fancy name of its author Li Ye (1192-1279), the famous Yuan dynasty mathematician. The lost work contained his literary anecdotes (biji 筆記):


Here is the first of the two passages in this volume:


And here is how they end up in juan 2 of the reconstituted work, reproduced here from the online version of Siku quanshu:


I have no idea how or on what basis the many fragments of text were assembled to reconstitute the complete work, that is, in what order they were fitted together, and how the juan divisions were decided.

I still feel a sense of excitement when looking at these original volumes of Yongle dadian, seeing the very manuscript from which lost texts were reconstituted, and the evidence of the precise manner in which this was done. Whether these volumes are appropriately located is a different matter, and I’ll be looking into this presently.

Yongle dadian – 1

3 December 2014

My only original contribution to sinology is to discover a hitherto unrecorded volume of the well-known Chinese encyclopaedia Yongle dadian 永樂大典.

The discovery took place in April 1997 during the course of a conference held at the University of Aberdeen to mark the centenary of the death of James Legge, a missionary to China from the nearby town of Huntley who subsequently became a pioneering sinologist and first Professor of Chinese at the University of Oxford.

At a soirée in the University Library in connection with this event, I asked Myrtle Anderson-Smith if the special collections, of which she was currently in charge, contained any Chinese books. She could only recall a large fascicle covered in yellow silk, with the text in black and red. It could only have been a fascicle of Yongle dadian, and an examination of it the following day confirmed that this was indeed the case – the unusually large size of Yongle dadian‘s fascicles, in addition to the unique binding and distinctive presentation of the text, make an impression that is relatively easy to recall. Easy, that is, if you’ve ever seen or handled them.

Thereafter, I came to be regarded as something of a specialist in Yongle dadian studies, and was asked to present an account of the British holdings of this work at a conference in Peking in 2002 to mark the 600th anniversary of the start of its compilation. For my presentation there, I gathered as much information as I could about the circumstances under which the surviving fascicles of Yongle dadian were scattered in the aftermath of the Siege of the Legations in the summer of 1900, carefully recording the precise provenance of every single fascicle.

I subsequently expanded this paper to include all the fascicles of Yongle dadian in European libraries, completing the account only in October when I visited Dublin to see the three fascicles in the Chester Beatty Library. My work is rather turgid, and consists largely of footnotes and a detailed table. The text itself is essentially the talk that I gave at the conference in Peking. It can be seen here.

Later, I was invited to give a talk about the Aberdeen fascicle at a meeting of the University’s Chinese Studies Group in March 2009, and took the opportunity of recording my understanding of what Chinese encyclopaedias are, and how the Yongle Dadian fits into the scheme of things. The text of that talk can be seen here.

Most recently, I have refashioned my work for the current issue of Arts of Asia (44:6, 2014, 82-89) in a series of articles commissioned to coincide with the British Museum’s Ming exhibition, where a fascicle of Yongle dadian from the British Library’s collection is on show.

Very few people have even seen any of the surviving parts, let alone handled them. This is because we are dealing with a work that was never printed, and whose surviving parts are held by only a few libraries. The National Library of China holds most, but even when visiting that library as a representative of the great Bodleian Library in Oxford, I would not ask to handle them. It would be like a Chinese colleague coming to the Bodleian and asking us to produce a Gutenberg Bible or a First Folio. In any case, a number of very faithful facsimiles give a good idea of what the original volumes feel like.

The scholarly content of Yongle dadian has been thoroughly exhausted, starting in 1773 with its use as a source for reconstructing lost works for the Siku Quanshu 四庫全書 project (and I can still remember the frosty reception that one of the participants got when he said as much at the Peking conference in 2002; rather like the reception that A.B. got at the hagiographical Legge conference in Aberdeen, when she said that the great man’s understanding of Chinese mythology was virtually nil).

In three (perhaps more) blog entries, I’m going to elaborate on features of Yongle dadian that have interested me, starting with its arrangement, which I think is both original and peculiar. It is illustrated in the following images of the cover and first leaf of text from one of the nineteen fascicles in our possession, which I catalogue as follows:

永樂大典 殘一卷(19735) / (明)永樂中解縉等奉敕編
包背裝1冊 ; 51公分
MS.Backhouse 1j = Arch.O.a.6/17

aoe0003 aoe0001

The cover has been repaired, but both the labels have been retained. In some cases one or both these labels have disappeared.

The label on the left is quite straightforward, giving the title of the work and the juan contained in that volume. In this case there is only one, but most of the surviving fascicles contain two or three. The juan are numbered consecutively throughout the work, giving no indication of their content. This is provided by the small label on the right.

Before the compilation of Yongle dadian, the biggest works ever produced in China were the Taiping yulan 太平御覽 (1000 juan, and completed in 983) and the Cefu yuangui 冊府元龜 (also 1000 juan, and completed in 1013); these were two of the so-called “Four great books of the Song Dynasty” 宋四大書 (the other two being the Taiping guangji 太平廣記 and Wenyuan yinghua 文苑英華, completed in 981 and 982 respectively). All these works had been arranged by subject.

But Yongle dadian was more than twenty times bigger than the biggest of these “Four great books”, and it is recorded in the Ming Shilu that the emperor himself had required that the entries be arranged by rhyme, so that locating them would be “as easy as taking things out of a bag” 便如探囊取物 (明太宗文皇帝實錄, 20, 132). So far as I know, this is the first time that the entries in a Chinese encyclopaedia were arranged not by subject, which is inevitably arbitrary to some extent, but in the fixed order of a commonly accepted sequence of characters – the Chinese equivalent of our alphabetical order.

The rhyming sequence adopted was the one that had been used in a fairly recently compiled work that for a time became standard, the Hongwu zhengyun 洪武正韻, or “Correct rhymes of the Hongwu period”. This had been compiled in 1375 at the behest of the first Ming emperor, and was an attempt to establish the northern pronunciation of Mandarin as standard, but it actually reflects the southern Mandarin speech of its compilers.

We have two Ming editions of this work in our collections, which I will take the opportunity of presenting.

洪武正韻 十六卷 / (明)洪武八年[1375]樂韶鳳等奉敕撰
線裝5冊 ; 31公分
Backhouse 406


洪武正韻 十六卷 / (明)洪武八年[1375]樂韶鳳等奉敕撰
線裝5冊 ; 30公分
Sinica 539


It is clear from these specimen pages that both editions belong to the same family, being identical in format. Like all the editions curently represented in the CALIS database with the exception of a single edition from the very end of the dynasty (明崇禎四年[1631]), they must surely be copied from the first edition which was presumably an imperial edition made in the early Ming, although I have failed to find an edition so described in any catalogue.

The content of Hongwu zhengyun is arranged firstly by the four tones (which are not the same as those of modern Mandarin), and within each tone, by initial consonant and rhyme. Our Backhouse edition preserves its original labels and covers (they’re a bit damaged, but I’ll be getting them repaired), so that we can see how convenient the work is for locating the required character (indeed, as easy as taking it out of a bag):


Returning to the fascicle of Yongle dadian illustrated above, we see that the label indicates that the volume is the 76th (of a total 251) in the rhymes under the character wu 屋, the first character in the former fourth, or “entering” tone 入聲.


Here is where the character is located in Hongwu zhengyun (but finding it it was for me, at least, not quite as easy as taking it out of a bag):

lu3a lu2a

The table of contents of Yongle dadian, if there ever was one, has long ceased to exist. But in 1932, in the bulletin of the National Library of Peiping as it was then called, Yuan Tongli 袁同禮 reproduced a manuscript table of contents of the encyclopaedia that had recently come into the library’s possession, bearing the seal of the Hanlin Academy 翰林院, where the encyclopaedia was formerly housed (永樂大典存目, in 國立北平圖書館館刊 6:1, 1932, 93-133). Yuan Tongli (1895-1965), a graduate of Peking University who went on to become a distinguished librarian, was fascinated with Yongle dadian, and made great efforts to establish the whereabouts of extant volumes, as noted in my paper on the European holdings referred to above.

Canton operas

15 September 2014

In almost four decades of work in the Library, unlike a number of my colleagues, I have never had offers of voluntary work.

But earlier this year, an undergraduate by the name of Cameron Henderson-Begg, who has just completed his first year of study in Oxford followed by a year in China, asked if he might join us during the summer for some work experience. He is contemplating a career in curatorship, whether in a library or a museum, and wanted a taste of what might be on offer. This, too, is a first among the students who have passed through Oxford during my time here. We children of the sixties did what we fancied without a thought for the future (and at the time, for China there wasn’t one – it was a third-world country in total chaos with no sign of an end to it). How different are most of the present generation of Thatcher’s children, who have studied venality from the cradle!

Cameron’s time was split between helping my colleague Joshua Seufert at the brand new China Centre Library which was officially opened by the Duke of Cambridge only last week, and helping me with my project to catalogue our special collections.


I gave him a very clearly defined corpus of material to work on from Piet van der Loon’s books – a large collection of Canton ballads. There was something rather shocking about how good his Chinese is after only two years of study, and how easily he got the hang of cataloguing this material with our newly developed browser-based allegro catalogue. In little more than a full week’s work, he had not only catalogued the operas, but had warmed to the theme sufficiently to write one of the better pieces in this blog. Here it is, exactly as Cameron gave it to me.

Piet van der Loon’s Cantonese operas

Cameron Henderson-Begg

Among the many items bequeathed to the Bodleian by the late Piet van der Loon are nine boxes of yueju 粵劇 (Cantonese opera) scripts with colourful printed covers, averaging around 30 pages long. In total Piet left us 459 of these, and they now occupy numbers 5241-5700 in our Sinica collection. For instance:

廣州 : 華興書局[印行], [1920或1930年代?]
平裝1冊(40頁) ; 19公分
Sinica 5251

The speculative date will be changed soon – more on that below. The vast majority of the items seem to have been published in Canton, with occasional interlopers from Hong Kong and a couple of intrepid outsiders from Shanghai.

Now in something of a decline, Cantonese opera enjoyed a heyday in the Republican era, with thousands of new scripts issued for purchase. Old favourites soldiered on, but many of the van der Loon scripts are striking in their modernity: a silhouetted female nude on the cover of Sinica 5326, for instance, reminds of nothing so much as a first edition Great Gatsby, with its famous nudes-in-the-eyes above Coney Island.


And these scripts seem very much aimed at southerners invested in the new Republican ideal. In the back pages of some, the cavalry carry the national flag proudly past copyright notices; in one, perhaps short of matter for their last two leaves, the publishers have copied the score of the Sanmin zhuyi, now the ROC national anthem, in both the traditional gongchipu system and the newer jianpu or numerical notation system. A notice informs the public-spirited reader that the score is placed there in case they should have need of the “Party song” but find themselves stuck without it (the likelihood of a reader so unprepared coincidentally having this particular opera to hand seems not to have been considered).



The presence of these scores brings us neatly to the matter of dates. The Sanmin zhuyi was the “Party song” (黨歌) of the GMD from 1928 onwards, only becoming the national anthem officially in 1943, so we seem to be dealing with the mid-Republican period. But very few of the scripts carry any kind of dating data. Of the 459, only one, Sinica 5657, carries an obvious printed date. Here a part of the colophon reads 民國十六年三月十日二版, that is, the item is a second edition from March 1927.



Happily all is not lost for dating the collection as a whole. A 1985 index of Cantonese operas, the 粵劇劇目通檢, lists 11,360 separate works from the very late Qing to the early years of the PRC. In a random sample of 20 of our items, nine were listed with year-of-publication ranges. (Of the remainder, six were listed with no known publication date. Five were apparently not known to the author of the index, but the rather cumbersome layout of the book, whose entries are listed not in a single body but as a main text with three large sections of addenda, means it is possible some slipped under my radar.) In the dated sample, all but one were from the years 1920-1936; the other was from the period 1937-1945. It seems reasonable, then, to take the majority of the collection as dating from 1920 to 1936, with the odd straggler up to the end of the Second World War.

Most all of the scripts carry printed ads, usually for medicines—Oujiaquan Pharmaceuticals seems to have felt it had found its target audience with these little books. Some of them bear the marks of previous owners: handwritten names are common, with a few more traditional seals thrown in along the way. The recurrence of a few names, plus the repeated presence of a stamp from a bookshop in the Petaling Street Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur, suggests that large parts of the collection come from bulk purchases. The most notable mark of provenance is a cartouche-style stamp in at least a couple of numbers with the name 梁醒波.



If genuine, this would link some of our items to Leung Sing-Bor (1908-1981), one of the greatest Cantonese opera performers of his time. After showing an early interest in performance, he went on to become one of the “Four Kings” 南洋四大天王 of the yueju 粵劇 stage. From 1950 he appeared in enormous numbers of films, and until his death he was a long-running host on TVB’s enduringly popular “Enjoy Yourself Tonight” 歡樂今宵, a kind of Hong Kong version of Saturday Night Live.

Away from possible connections to the stars, one of our numbers, Sinica 5690, has had its back cover used for calligraphy practice, and this along with the frankly flaky quality of the paper suggests that these were workaday books, certainly not treasures. That in turn brings us to the value of these items. They are probably not immensely rare. The size of our collection and the ability of an author to piece together over 11,000 separate titles in the 1985 index speak to that. Nevertheless, their very un-treasured status makes them a notable holding. Cambridge University Library possesses some, but Chinese libraries and collectors have rarely ascribed much value to such low-brow works. For what they tell us about the vitality of theatre in the Republican south, for their links to the long tradition of Chinese illustrated book printing and for their snapshot of the concerns of the opera-going classes in the new China, these are objects deserving of study.

Chen Yuan – a draft history

4 August 2014

I love to discover editions in the collections that have what I call “integrity”. Over and above being rare or fine, they must be distinguished in other ways.

A case in point is what at first sight appeared to be a rather poor edition by a twentieth-century author, and probably not suitable for inclusion in the Serica database. I catalogue it as follows:

元西域人華化考稿本 : 八卷附錄一卷 / 陳垣撰
線裝2冊 ; 27公分
Sinica 2589

s01501 s01500

Chen Yuan (1880-1971) was a native of Xinhui county 新會縣 in Guangdong province 廣東省. He received a classical Confucian education and sat the provincial examination. I haven’t been able to establish when and where, but it was probably the last such examination to have been held in Canton. His paper, and the conditions under which he was examined, would have been exactly as described in my blog entry for the recent exhibition in the Bodleian Library’s Proscholium.

He failed, but like many such failures, subsequently distinguished himself far more in the field of letters and scholarship than he would have done in officialdom. Perhaps it was this failure, together with the realisation that the old order was fast disappearing, that made him change direction completely.

He began by founding the pictorial magazine Shi shi hua bao 时事画报 in Canton in 1905, and two years later in 1907 enrolled at Guanghua Medical School 光华医学院, where he graduated in 1910. Having fallen under the spell of Sun Yatsen, at the beginning of 1911 he co-founded the Zhen dan ri bao 震旦日报 with Kang Zhongluo 康仲犖 and Liang Shenyu 梁慎余, and later that year, following the success of the revolution became a representative in the National Assembly 國會 in Peking. Although he eventually became Deputy Minister of Education in 1921, he left politics soon after to pursue an academic career which he had been developing in parallel during the 1910s.

His two interests were history and religion, and his first major work – the one that launched his scholarly career – was his Yuan ye li ke wen kao 元也里可温考, which he completed in 1917. This was an investigation into the Nestorian Christianity of the Yuan period, the term ye li ke wen 也里可温 being derived from the Syriac term arkagun, meaning “blessed people” (Syriac was the official language of Nestorianism). In 1919, he became a Christian himself.

His interest in the Mongol period continued, as evidenced by the production of the present work (“The sinicisation of the Western Region peoples during the Yuan dynasty”), Sinica 2589, about which more in a moment.

After resigning from politics in 1921, he founded Peking’s Pingmin Middle School 平民中学 (the present Number 41 middle School 北京市第四十一中学). And then, although he was a Protestant Christian, he became the second president of Fu Jen Catholic University 輔仁大學, a post which he held from 1926 until the closure of the university by the Chinese government in 1952, and the forced merger of its departments with other universities in Peking, notably Peking Normal University 北京師範大學 of which Chen Yuan continued to serve as president until his death in 1971.

Chen Yuan was almost an exact contemporary of Chen Yinke 陳寅恪 (1890-1969), and the two were of equal scholarly fame, becoming known as “the two Chens of historical studies” 史學二陳.

So in what way does Sinica 2589 have “integrity”?

Firstly, it is in near perfect condition, and preserved exactly as published.

Secondly, it is rare. As its title suggests, it is the first draft of a work which the author later printed by woodblock in 1934, without the additional words gao ben 稿本 in the title. This first “real” edition of the work is very common.

But the present edition was printed by the mimeograph process with which those of my generation are very familiar, because it was used to print our assignments at school and also for the production of many local, low circulation magazines. In fact, the process was still in use in China in the late 1970s, and the Chinese students used it to produce most of their “Democracy Wall” publications during the short-lived “Democracy Movement” of 1978-1980 (which gives me the opportunity to say that we have a collection of these which comprises 48 different titles in 146 separate items, shelfmarked Sinica 3861-3912). The best known example is:

北京之春 = The spring of Peking
[北京], 1979
冊 ; 27公分
本刊為「民主牆」(Democracy Wall) 刊物
存: 1979:1(8:1:79), 1979:2(27:1:79), 1979:3(17:2:79), 1979:4(2:4:79), 1979:5(16:5:79), 1979:5增刊(13:5:79), 1979:6(17:6:79), 1979:8(28:9:79)
Sinica 3862

In this printing process, a stencil bearing the text (produced either by a typewriter or as here, by hand) is mounted on a drum, and an oil-based ink is forced through it on to the paper, which is why the Chinese term for the process is “oil-printed”. The drum is turned by a handle and the paper is automatically fed through the machine. Nevertheless, it is a crude, home-made method, and only suitable for relatively small print-runs.

For this reason, Chen Yuan’s first draft of this work is rather rare. I have only found fourteen other copies, of which all but one are in China, and of these, four are in Peking University Library and another four in the National Library. Clearly, it was not distributed widely or commercially.

This leads to the third reason why I consider our copy to have “integrity” – its provenance. We know exactly where it came from. There is a letter accompanying the book that tells us that it was given to us by Bishop Frank L Norris in the same year as its publication. Francis Lushington Norris (1864-1945) was an SPG missionary, who became Bishop of North China in 1914, retiring in 1940. As a recent convert, Chen Yuan must have known him, and given him a copy of his work. Yet again, it is evident how much we owe to the missionaries – it was another, Arnold Foster, who sent us the juren papers a decade or so earlier.


Fourthly, and finally, also accompanying the book there is a Library binding order dated 3 November 1938, or rather not a binding order, but an order for a Chinese-style wrap-around tao . Of the thousands of pre-modern books in our collection that I have handled, this is the only such order that I have discovered, and it is very interesting because it provides the exact date when this, and by association the other wrap-around tao were made.


One could expatiate on the appalling practice of giving western bindings to traditionally bound Chinese books, but for the moment it is sufficient to say that at the Bodleian, it was rarely done. Perhaps we never had the money for it, or perhaps we were ahead of our time in knowing it to be bad. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I don’t have to think of how to rescue the thousands of Chinese books in richer places whose heavy western bindings are now wrecking what they were supposed to protect.