Ancient Chinese texts heading for digital frontier

Children look at the ancient books on display at the National Library of China
Children look at the ancient books on display at the National Library of China

Zhang Zhiqing has just returned from the United States, where, he jokes, he was treated like a rock star. The deputy curator of the National Library of China was in Philadelphia to attend the annual meeting of The Council on East Asian Libraries, the organization for East Asian librarians in North America.

"Everyone wants to know how they can better protect their collections," Zhang says. "One emotional librarian, who is a Chinese-American, told me: Protecting Chinese ancient books is a duty to our ancestors and a responsibility for our sons. This is a precious opportunity."

A joint project between the NLC and CEAL to systematically document the ancient Chinese book collections held by major council members, which include 12 North American libraries, will continue for up to three years. It is the first international collaboration on such large scale. The project is planned to later cover all 50-odd CEAL members.

"Both sides will get big academic benefits, and I guess such a crucial project will also win our American and Canadian friends more money in the future as well," says a smiling Zhang, who is also the deputy director of the National Center for Preservation and Conservation of Ancient Books.

In China, "ancient books" refers to volumes produced before the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Two sides will also co-present a library catalog class to train more professionals from the United States and Canada who specialize in ancient Chinese books.

NLC, which has the biggest reserve of books in China, seems to have inspired new zeal to better protect tons of ancient Chinese books scattered overseas.

"It is hard to believe, for example, the last time The British Library made a detailed catalog of its ancient Chinese collections was during Queen Victoria's reign. But now we intend to cooperate with them to update it."

Zhang says similar cooperation is expected with state-level libraries in Germany and France.

He adds no one has estimated how many ancient Chinese books are held in foreign collections.

Many were exported during cultural exchanges over centuries, and during social upheavals and wars in the 19th and 20th centuries, uncountable books were also taken away.

He notes that Kyoto's Buddhist temples have copies of the Chinese Buddhist Canon published in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), while it is difficult to find that complete set in China.

According to Zhang, it's most important to share the digital resources with all sides than to focus on the return of such volumes to China.

NLC has a 2.6-million-volume collection of ancient Chinese books. It began a long project to digitalize them in 2012, and shares the database with overseas counterparts. Zhang expects fellow institutions to reciprocate.

In the newest NLC-CEAL agreement, more than 10,000 kinds of fine ancient Chinese book collections all across North America will be digitalized for wider study.

Zhang believes that the Chinese communities overseas are also holders of many lost ancient books and unique historical files.

"We are running the national library for all Chinese people in the world, so our definition of ancient books cannot be too narrow. Our compatriots living abroad for centuries can also join in our common work by providing their recorded history."

Zhang says the library will seek help from Chinese embassies and consulates in that effort.

"However, the most pitiful so far is our communications with Japan, where there is the largest overseas reservoir of ancient Chinese books, mainly in the hands of private collectors rather than state-level institutions.

"As we try to warm up the cultural connection between two sides, something may gradually change."