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Recovering Old Memories
Silent for too long, classical books are slowly coming back to life
By Li Fangfang | NO. 21 MAY 24, 2018
Classical books that have been cataloged at the UIBE library (WEI YAO)

Over a century ago, a British diplomat was Inspector General of China's Maritime Custom Service, including Canton Customs, a critical Chinese port. Why did the Chinese Government have a foreign official managing the considerable trade revenue that entered through Canton? Hordes of classical books recently discovered after being hidden away for decades may reveal the answer to this question.

The books were collected by Robert Hart, who led Chinese Customs for 50 years during China's last imperial Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Totaling some 44,000, the books reflect many aspects of Chinese life during that period. The collection, in both English and Chinese, served foreign officials during Hart's tenure as tools for learning about China and its people. They tell the story of China's forced opening up under a vacillating government, said Qiu Xiaohong, Director of the Beijing-based University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) Library, who has been the guardian of the classical books for 30 years.

Qiu Xiaohong, curator of the UIBE library (WEI YAO)

Unveiling treasures

As an alumnus of UIBE, a Customs officer in Guangdong Province, was excited to learn that what she had been seeking for so long lives right in the library.

"With such historical value, it's a pity that they are just sitting there on shelves," Li said.

Li told Beijing Review that they are invaluable for research into the Qing Dynasty. In most Chinese people's mind, the Qing period evokes shame because China was invaded by Western countries, deprived of its sovereignty and forced to open its door to the outside world.

"China experienced so many changes then, but there is very little historical material available precisely due to the invasions," Li said. The books were collected by foreigners, who were eager to learn about China, making such an inclusive collection a rare find in China.

"This collection best signifies the fusion of Chinese and Western cultures," Qiu told Beijing Review. "They are significant for clarifying China's historical development in relation to setting up rules for today's opening up."

UIBE history professor Zhang Xiaofeng said that these books recount how China dealt with its economy and going global during this period. He also said he believes they have great importance for modern China due to their high value for literature, history and culture.

Qiu and Zhang both hope that these books will also nurture university students' confidence in Chinese culture and their own global vision, which is a main feature of UIBE, a university that has been committed to educating globalized talent for over 60 years.

According to Li, Hart's work at China's customs authority was professional and contributed to making rules and anti-corruption regulations.

"That's why we are curious about these books. It could possibly be the origin of today's customs system," Li said.

A classical book titled, Canton Customs Regulations (WEI YAO)

Going public

The classical materials were listed as cultural relics by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage in 2016, which means people can't take any of the tangible items away for collection or exhibition purposes. Li totally understands this limitation. "Some books are so vulnerable that given their state, they cannot be opened to the public," Li added. However, the intangible content has been put to practical use. The university library established a separate department on classical book protection. It has finished a complete digital catalog of all the books, laying a solid foundation for further use. What's more, a sharing platform for libraries of economics has been put into use and is updated regularly.

While that's only the beginning of Li's ambitious plan to help create more opportunities for the classics to go public, the next project will be more targeted in terms of content usage.

"We will comb the historical records for studies on specific topics. Our final goal is to build a database of these classics," Li said.

However, Li also mentioned that over-exploration could harm the books. "The balance between more social attention and proper development is needed. Only those purely aspiring and committed to these classics will make it."

Qiu welcomed such social participation in protecting and developing the classics. "These collections are an embodiment of inclusiveness from their very beginnings," he said. With the rapid development of the Chinese economy, he said it is necessary to reflect on the past to know where achievements came from and what the origins of Chinese culture were.

However, Qiu also emphasized, "I would rather let them sit there rather than being over-explored if we can't find a good solution which gives protection a priority." Qiu has insisted on this position for years.

A proper way of developing these classics could be to photocopy them. However, Qiu stressed the significance of special techniques in doing this job, which must be guaranteed by a sufficient budget.

"At least millions of yuan are necessary, because scanning by itself may destroy the original copies, so better skills and cautiousness are a precondition," Qiu said.

In the past decade, China has realized the necessity and urgency of protecting the Chinese cultural essence. In 2007, the State Council, China's cabinet, launched a campaign for classical book protection. Its main goal remains to obtain a national survey of Chinese classical books via a census, as well as to build a working system and a strong team for protection-related work. The National Center for the Preservation and Conservation of Ancient Books (NCPCAB) was established in the same year. The center's main mission is to register classics nationwide, train talent and promote research work.

Hong Yan, head of the Survey Management Section of the NCPCAB, came to the center after receiving her master's degree in classical Chinese literature in 2007.

"Once we started the job, we found the census work more difficult than we had anticipated due to too many organizations taken on the project, as well as a heavy workload carried out by a limited number of personnel," she told Beijing Review. Hong has been involved in the massive effort of surveying Chinese classics nationwide for years. The biggest achievement she sees is the increase in professional personnel.

In 2017, an enhanced document, mainly regarding the inheritance of the essence of Chinese culture, was published by the Chinese Government. One of its tasks was to promote classics among the Chinese people, which is a goal shared by both Qiu and Li.

Classics are much more easily understood by researchers or the highly-educated, while for the majority of Chinese people, classics remain distant and unattainable, making Hong's job of bringing them to the masses even harder.

"We wish classical books could be as popular as Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) expressions among Chinese people," she said. "However, books are silent and not as intuitive as ICHs. Moreover, the ancient Chinese language is hard for modern Chinese people to understand, presenting another major obstacle."

Professor Zhang said, "It is worth thinking about how to relate classical books to the modern way of living by making use of the Internet and other technologies." He also suggested that protection work should be deepened as the promotional work continues to be realized.

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

Comments to ffli@bjreview.com

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