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The Book Doctors
Chinese historical texts gain a new lease of life
By Wei Yao | NO. 45 NOVEMBER 9, 2017
Cui Zhibin, a member of the books repair team, is working on an enroded page of an ancient book on September 22

Du Weisheng, 65, is an expert on repairing ancient books at the National Library of China in Beijing. Before starting work at the library in 1974, Du had been on service in the army's construction and engineering corps in south China's Hunan Province for five years. He was a complete novice in ancient book repair when he ended the service in the army and joined the library.

At the beginning, Du thought his new office job must be more simple and relaxing than being a soldier. Moreover, the job gave him easier access to books, especially many rare ancient books collected in the library. He was thus very satisfied with his new work. However, he subsequently found that repairing ancient books was nowhere near as easy as he had expected.

Guo Zhixin, an apprentice of Du Weisheng, uses a sprayer to humidify a page of an ancient book as a part of the repair process on September 22

Now having been engaged in the work for more than 40 years, Du always says he is a "doctor" maintaining the health of ancient books. In ancient times, books were seen as living things. Each part of a book was named differently—as mouth, brain or root—according to its function. Du believes his work is very important and meaningful in sustaining the life of ancient books, which were used to record and spread Chinese civilization.

To be a "book doctor," a novice must master specific skills and techniques through professional training. Du and his colleagues learned the necessary skills passed down from generation to generation. With years of efforts, he has gradually become an expert from an apprentice.

Today, Du is a renowned expert on ancient book repair, with his name added to the fourth list of inheritors of national intangible cultural heritages. He has been participating in the establishment of national standards on ancient book repair for over 10 years. Currently, he is working on drafting a new revision of the standards.

Du reached retirement age five years ago. But the National Library lacks experts like him. So he continues his work at the public institution. Everyday he spends much time in training new hands. He hopes his skills can be passed down to the younger generation.

Du Weisheng fligs over a repaired book on September 22

"Generally, it would take half a year to learn basic skills and need five years to become a skillful repairer," Du told Beijing Review.

Du is also a team leader for ancient book repair work. He has reformed the traditional apprenticeship by which a master taught a student. Now, all young novices are able to learn from all experienced veterans in the team, which helps everyone learn from each other and improve their skills together.

Du's team has more than 20 members. Among them, 13 members are young people who are under the age of 35 and hold bachelor's or master's degrees in chemistry, physics or archaeology.

Du Weisheng (right) and his collegue Hu Bo put a plastic sheet on a workbench as preparation for books repair in National Library, Beijing, on September 22

Du said he is pleased to see a growing team with so many talented young people joining in, for book repair requires a combination of various knowledge, skills and innovative methods. More importantly, the work needs repairers to have a deep understanding of traditional Chinese culture and classical literary styles.

The role of science and technology is becoming increasingly important in the work of repairing ancient books. To "doctors" like Du, severely damaged ancient books are like cancer patients. Old craftsmanship can only serve to postpone their demise. The good news is that nowadays, scientists are researching how to overcome the maladies affecting historical texts so as to preserve their intangible value for future generations.

(Photos by Wei Yao)

Copyedited by Chris Surtees 

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