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A Comprehensive Variety: The Rylands Chinese Collections

From May 2018 to January 2019, Johannes Lotze worked on the library’s Chinese collections and produced a report covering the collection strengths and highlighting individual items of significance. The project was generously funded by the Manchester Confucius Institute. You can read the report in full here. In this blog Johannes introduces some basic characteristics and highlights of the collection.

Calligraphy tools, Chinese Drawings 40

What is perhaps most remarkable in particular is the diversity of the collection. Its roughly five hundred separate works, mostly printed between 1550 and 1850 (plus a few manuscripts), are a distillation of all aspects of traditional Chinese culture, as European scholars encountered it in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. While the precise books here today obviously found their way into the collection due to specific interests of individual collectors, it can safely be said that their overarching approach was comprehensiveness. Items include the authoritative works of the Confucian canon, known as the Four Books (Sishu) and Five Classics (Wujing); various Daoist and Buddhist scriptures; encyclopaedias (leishu); novels and stories; books relating to astronomy, history, geography, medicine, linguistics, calligraphy, music theory, court dances, games (such as chess or dominoes), painting, statecraft, administration, even dream interpretation; and works and pamphlets resulting from Christian activities in China, especially translations made by Jesuits.

Another form of diversity can be seen in the materiality of items, as we find traditional Chinese books, European-style books, scrolls, and other material shapes specific to the Chinese context (for example, accordion-shaped books). Some items come as cheap everyday books, others as polished prestige objects.
Comparative vocabulary of the Chinese, Corean and Japanese Languages, Crawford 435

The collection is, furthermore, characterised by linguistic diversity. Several additional languages apart from Chinese play a role in the ‘Chinese’ collection, especially Manchu (the language of the Manchus who founded China’s last dynasty, the Qing), but also Tibetan, Korean, Japanese, and several European languages. These languages appear either on their own or as part of bilingual (e.g. Chinese-Manchu or Chinese-Tibetan) creations. Items such as the Collected Essentials, or Jiyao (a work listing the names of the Buddha in five different languages), point to the international aspects of Chinese traditions that transcended language boundaries.

While this diversity and the striking thoroughness in mirroring traditional Chinese culture—together with numerous works in other East Asian and European languages—already make the collection significant, that significance is further increased by a number of rare items. To give an example, the collection holds one of globally only three exemplars of an extremely rare Buddhist pronunciation guide, composed by monks of the early Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Moreover, many items are truly spectacularly manufactured, for example emperor Kangxi’s lavish birthday celebration scroll of 1717, depicting a bustling streetscape in the capital Beijing. Equally impressive is an excerpt from the Flower Adornment Sutra, originating in the Tang era (618-907), in the form of a beautifully illustrated scroll version of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). And there are many more items with fascinating illustrations. Woodcut blocks for printing reached a high standard in the Ming and were further perfected in the Qing dynasty. Illustrations were therefore a common practice and can be found in numerous items across all categories (mostly in black-and-white but occasionally in five-colour printing, which came in use by the early seventeenth century).

Ten Bamboo Studio Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, Additional Chinese 1

Certainly, my report is far from being the last word on the collection. Rather, it aims to provide a stepping stone for further research efforts. Explorations of the report—and my bilingual bibliography of 569 separate titles in the appendix—will hopefully lead to the discovery of many more hidden treasures.

1 comment on “A Comprehensive Variety: The Rylands Chinese Collections

  1. Pingback: Chinese Educational Texts of the Late Qing Dynasty | John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

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