Book care in Medieval China

Book care in Medieval China

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By Elizabeth Smithrosser

In the early 800s, a young, but outrageously talented poet composed a melancholy verse.

The wind through the parasol tree
startles the heart of the toiling young scholar.
Beyond his waning lamp,
the weaver-crickets cry out their winterwears.
Who will see to it that the young bamboo
is bound together as a book
And not left to the dappled silverfish
To chew into holes and dust
Like tonight’s snaking thoughts
unravel my innards?
A chill from the rain:
Sweet sympathetic souls of writers past
console this man of letters.
While by the autumn graves,
The poems of Bao
Are chanted by ghosts.
In a thousand years, that boiling blood
Will turn to jade in the earth.


Li He 李賀 (790–816)

Here Li laments for the fate not just of his own life’s work and legacy, but one he believes is shared by all writers: the inevitability that their work will be forgotten by future generations.

The “poems of Bao” refer to a poet who had lived more than half a century beforehand: Bao Zhao 鮑照 (414–466). By Li He’s time, Bao’s poetry was rapidly fading from memory, and in the image he conjures up, only the dead remain able to remember it. And though ghosts might be able to recite poems, they unfortunately lack the physical form to reproduce them as a manuscript or book – to bind the young bamboo, as Li puts it.

But making the physical book is just the beginning of the story. Someone also has to read it. Bookworms and silverfish are granted the time to burrow “holes and dust” only when left undisturbed, in a closed book languishing at the back of a library. Quite poetically, then, the only surefire way to ensure the survival of a book, along with the text it contained, was that it was perpetually opened and closed: in other words, to ensure it was often read.

As it turned out, Li He’s fears that his work would disappear into the void have proven unwarranted. In a short life of 26 years, he produced several poems which have remained staples of the literary canon and Chinese school curriculums to this day.

More prescient was his observation concerning Bao Zhao. While plenty of Bao’s poetry has survived, a great deal of it did indeed disappear. In fact, much of it was lost during the Tang dynasty, the very time period from which Li He writes. What remains is nowhere near as well known, with many readers encountering him only as a footnote to Li’s famous poem.

The survival of poetry, as well as the enormous historical and literary corpus which teaches us much of what we know about Chinese history, is in part down to widespread practices of memorization and recital. But this aspect worked in tandem with another a story of the care and protection of the physical written word: about taking care of books.

The physical record seems to trump oral transmission in Li’s view. “Who will see to it that the young bamboo is bound together as a book, and not left to the dappled silverfish to chew into holes and dust?”

Implicit in his poem is an appeal to the reader, sitting at some unspecified point in the future, on behalf of himself and all writers: to make books, and to take care of them. Two simple requests from a young poet, in the hope that future generations will equip his work for a successful transmission across the millennia-long tightrope strung up high above oblivion.

So, what next? How did people look after their libraries in medieval China?

Taking care of books

In China, books were made of natural materials like paper or bamboo, and were normally stored in wooden buildings. This made them vulnerable to fire. Throughout Chinese history, great collections and enormous libraries have been lost, to fires both accidental and deliberate. Similarly, natural disasters and war have destroyed many books over the years. In times of mass migration due to conflict or invasion, a book collection was simply too bulky to carry along, and had to be abandoned.

Other causes of book damage and loss were more avoidable. One of these was Li He’s dreaded silverfish, that we have encountered above, and other kinds of bookworms.

Also, books being made of natural, absorbent materials, combined with the fact that much of China can get very warm and humid, meant that books were susceptible to mold. If left to run its course, mold could render a book no longer readable.

One way to avoid this was to dry the pages out in the summer months, as was the practice in Buddhist temples and monasteries. The “Sutra Sunning Festival,” or “Sutra Page-Turning Festival,” is a ritual which is still observed in some institutions. On the sixth day of the sixth month on the lunar calendar, the sacred texts are brought out into the open, and their pages are turned at a slow pace, giving each some time to dry out in the sunshine.

Over in the lay world, books were not the only items afflicted by mold. According to local custom, clothing and other possessions were aired outside on the seventh day of the seventh month, and families with books aired them in a similar way.

For households with libraries and painting collections, this summer practice offered the chance to visit, read and admire the collection of a friend, or to share and show off one’s own. The practice quickly evolved into a kind of alfresco party, usually involving food and other forms of entertainment. These came to be known as “Book Sunning Get-togethers” 曝書會.

The term took a metaphorical turn, to refer simply to getting the books out.

Sunning the books with Song Minqiu

Such gatherings were remembered fondly in the writings of their attendees. During the Northern Song period (960–1127), there were surely few invitations more coveted than one to a Book Sunning Get-together at Song Minqiu’s place 宋敏求 (1019–1079).

The Song family’s private library was one of the most renowned in the realm. The library’s beginnings can be traced to Minqiu’s father Song Shou’s 宋綬 inheritance of a large book collection from his maternal grandfather, on account of him having no sons of his own. The priority was clearly to make sure that future generations would be around to attend to the upkeep of the library.

Song Shou was a keen booklover as a child, and remained so in adulthood. As one co-worker in government remarked:

“When he goes to the lavatory, he always heads there with a book under his arm. The sound of him reciting the words rings out clearly, to be heard near or far. Such is his commitment to learning.”

The library tripled in size under Shou’s watch. This was made possible in part through his access to the imperial archives and libraries. By memorizing the content of the material at work, he could later have a copy made for his library. This might even be what he is up to in the above episode.

By the time Song Minqiu had inherited the library, it contained over thirty thousand volumes. The collection was famous among the learned men of the land. Several of the dynasty’s literary superstars paid a visit over the years, with some citing what they saw therein as inspiration for works of their own. Also, a great many of the anthologies, histories, commentaries and treatises compiled at this time involved a research visit to Minqiu’s library.

An anecdote in the History of Song recounts a visit by one such historian:

Song Minqiu was magistrate of Bozhou (present-day Anhui province), and there were many books at his house. On his travels, Liu Shu took a detour so that he could come and view them. Minqiu would prepare good food for Shu every day, to fulfil the proper etiquette for a host. Shu said, “I did not come here for this. It is a great distraction from the task at hand!” He declined them all, and shut himself alone in the library. Night and day, his lips moved as his hands flipped the pages. There he remained for ten days, until he had finished reading all of the books and went on his way. It left his corneas scarred.

Not all visitors were as intense. Su Song 蘇頌 (1020–1101) was a polymath who is famous for his contributions to science and technology. In 1078, he was invited to Minqiu’s residence, not just to open the books, but also paintings, which were just as susceptible to bugs and mold.

“On this day, I viewed paintings with the group of gentlemen,” he wrote, and composed a poem to commemorate the experience:

“Sunning the books and paintings in the library with Song Minqiu, in the year 1078”.

In the hallowed libraries
a refined gathering,
And the secret scrolls unfurl.
Our eyes traverse past fairies and onwards
to grassy landscapes
And deer and horses
of most extraordinary style and conception.
Colors, which once dry,
reveal tiered pavilions.

The feast and wine refreshed and refilled
At this resplendent woodland meeting
Those seated converse on the genius
encased in this grand mansion.
How fortunate I am
That after a lengthy stint
in service of my records and accounts,
I may cast aside the brush and ink,
Granted permission to accompany you
Here in your forest of words.



The lively library gathering sketched by Su Song’s poem presents a striking contrast when placed beside the ghostly, solitary lament by Li He, with which this article began. Now, almost three hundred years later, it would appear there was cause for optimism when it came to the legacy of writers.

And while there were several further challenges to come, judging by the impressive amount of material that has survived, this optimism was not unwarranted.

Book binding

The YouTube tutorial below shows you how to bind a book in a similar fashion to traditional Chinese books. However, the folded page structure of printed books was different to the example in the video.

Elizabeth Smithrosser is a PhD Student in Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. .

Watch the video: Chinese Ancient Music (June 2022).


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