last month
next month

Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

03/2013 manuscript  of the month

Of Collectors and Seals

The Eventful “Life” of a Chinese Manuscript

Looking at this Chinese manuscript, the five red rectangles are immediately catching the eye. They are imprints of book collectors’ seals, which have a long tradition in China. The practice of Chinese collectors to mark their books with seals has been known since the 7th century. It is common for collectors to affix their seal next to older imprints, which in some cases results in a single manuscript (or print) carrying several dozen imprints. When examining the seal inscriptions one may identify the various owners of a book and thus reconstruct its “life”. Today this manuscript is held in the National Central Library of Taiwan. How did it get there and what do the seal imprints tell us about the former “life” of this late imperial manuscript?

Fig. 1: "Annals of the Ming family"
(Mingshi shilu) by Yang Xueke,
(fol. 1r)

The manuscript, a small bound notebook comprising seven folios with writing on both sides, is entitled “Annals of the Ming family” (Mingshi shilu). The text tells the history of the short-lived Xia dynasty, whose two rulers of the Ming family exercised control over Sichuan, a region in the Southwest of China, from 1362 until 1371. It was compiled at the beginning of the 15th century by Yang Xueke, an eyewitness who also made use of archive material. This manuscript is not the author’s original. Although it is undated, we can say with certainty that this copy dates back to the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), i.e. long after the author’s death. This is evidenced by, among other things, five blank spaces where characters were left out deliberately (see Fig. 2). We know from the comparison between this copy and an older version of the text that the characters left out are derogatory terms for non-Chinese. The rulers of the Qing dynasty were not Chinese and had banned the use of such terms as they knew about their subversive potential.

While the seal imprint at the top, which at the same time is also the latest, is from the National Central Library, the other four imprints can be traced back to private collectors. Like other personal seals, book collector seals are usually made of soft stone in which the characters have been cut into before being stamped onto paper using red seal ink. If the characters are cut directly into the stone, the script appears in white; if, however, the space around the characters is cut off so that only they remain, the script appears in red. On our manuscript two imprints with white (at the bottom and in the middle) and three imprints with red script are visible. A special seal script is applied without exception, which differs substantially from the standard script and is not easy to decipher. Three of the four imprints originating from private collectors date back to the 20th century, while only the one at the bottom may date back to the 19th century: “He Tangyu’s seal”. It is only known that He Tangyu lived in Wuyi, a place in East China, that he was presumably born in the second half of the 19th century and died after 1911. It is impossible to say how he gained possession of the manuscript or whether he himself copied it.

Fig.2: On the right folio two examples for
deliberate blank spaces. “Annals of the Ming
family” (Mingshi shilu) by Yang Xueke, (fol. 1r)

The next two seal imprints “Ex libris studio of joys and pains of editorial work” and “Lipei’s private seal” both belong to Wang Lipei (1854-1943), a man who lived in the city of Xiangxiang in central China. Wang, who spent some time in exile in Japan, soon after the revolution of 1911 abandoned his political ambitions and from then on lived the life of a scholar. Collecting books, in particular old manuscripts, was his great passion. It can be assumed that he bought this manuscript on one of his many travels which he undertook to purchase old books. However, at the end of the 1920s he was forced to sell this manuscript as well as other manuscripts due to financial constraints.

Fig. 3: The manuscript’s path.
(© CHGIS Harvard Yenching Institute)

The next owner added his seal “Collected by Qinpu”. Qinpu is another name for Zhang Naixiong (1890-1945), the descendant of a rich merchant family from Nanxun, a small town to the southwest of Shanghai. He inherited the passion for collecting books from his father, who had been a well-known collector. It is said that, beside working as a businessman in Shanghai, Zhang always spent half the day pursuing his passion for collecting books. A catalogue from 1940 informs us that his collections consisted of 1,486 books among which we also find an entry for our manuscript. The outbreak of the Japanese-Chinese War in 1937 meant hard times for book collectors. Given the increasingly difficult circumstances many of them, including Zhang Naixiong, were forced to sell their collections. For this purpose the catalogue was compiled in 1940. Despite raging inflation and following complex negotiations, finally, in November 1941, he sold most of his collection to the “Association for the Preservation of Documents”, an organization which on behalf of the Chinese government secretly purchased important historical documents in the area occupied by the Japanese in order to save them from destruction or sale abroad. The manuscript first remained in Shanghai where it was hidden together with the other books collected by Zhang. In 1949, together with the whole collection as well as many other cultural objects it was transferred to Taiwan where the Nationalists had escaped after their defeat in the civil war against the Communists. There the manuscript finally found its way to the National Central Library in Taibei.

FÖLSTER, Max Jakob (2009): Die Xia-Dynastie in Sichuan (1362-1371). Unpublished M.A. thesis. Hamburg: Universität Hamburg.
GU Liren 顧力仁; RUAN Jingling 阮靜玲 (2010): “Guojia tushuguan guji sougou yu Zheng Zhenduo 國家圖書館古籍蒐購與鄭振鐸“ in Guojia tushuguan guankan 國家圖書館館刊 99:2, p. 129–165.
GUOJIA TUSHUGUAN 國家圖書館 (eds.) (1997): Guojia tushuguan shanben shuzhi chugao 國家圖書館善本書志初稿, shibu yi 史部一. Taibei: Guojia tushuguan 國家圖書館, p. 245.
HUANG Ting-Pei 黃庭霈 (2009): Zhang Naixiong cangshu yanjiu 張乃熊藏書研究. Unpublished M.A. thesis. Taibei: National Taiwan University.
SU Jing 苏精 (2009): Jindai cangshu sanshi jia 近代藏书三十家. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju 中华书局.
WAGNER, Lothar (1997): ”Chinese Seals“ in Dominique Collon (eds.): 7000 years of seals. London: British Museum Press, p. 205–222.
ZHANG Naixiong 張乃熊 (1969): Qinpu shanben shumu 菦圃善本書目. Taibei: Guangwen shuju 廣文書局.
ZHENG Weizhang 郑伟章 (1999): Wenxianjia tongkao (Qing-Xiandai) 文献家通考 (清-现代). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju 中华书局.

Taibei (Taiwan), National Central Library 國家圖書館, 204.26 02205
Paper, 28.7 x 17.8 cm
7 folios with writing on both sides, 9 lines per page with mostly 21 characters per line
China, between 1644 and 1911

Text by Max Jakob Fölster
© for all images of the manuscript: National Central Library 國家圖書館, Taiwan