UVA acquires valuable collection of rare Chinese books

Barbara Heritage, Associate Director and Curator of Rare Book School’s Collections, said: “The Guanhailou Collection offers a broad yet deep look at China’s book culture – not only its technical innovations, which were numerous, but also how the culture of writing, printing, and book-making developed widely in China and then spread to Korea and Japan.

Jack Chen, professor of Chinese literature at AVU, took Edgren’s course several years ago.

“This is a world-class collection, and it would easily elevate UVA to the top rank of important rare book collections in East Asia,” Chen said. “Perhaps most important is how this collection makes it possible to teach China’s history through books and printed matter. I would definitely design courses around the collection.

Chen added the possibility of organizing workshops and lectures around the highlights of the collection, “which includes Confucian classics, Buddhist and religious texts, epigraphy, historiography and literary collections”.

In European Civilization, Johannes Gutenberg has been credited with inventing the printing press in 15th-century Germany, but Heritage noted that centuries earlier artists and others in China had invented paper and experimented methods of reproducing text, including movable type.

Some of the earliest printed books come not from Europe, but from East Asia, and describe Buddhist prayers, or sutras, not the Christian Bible. Some early texts also served as reference materials for scholars covering topics such as the “I Ching” or “Book of Mutations” and certain ceremonies and rituals.

The collection – which spans a millennium from the 9th to the 19th century – includes examples of the precursor to printing where copies of texts like these were made by a process of rubbing ink from blocks of stone or carved wood. Pages were rolled up into rolls or folded into portable albums — similar to books, Edgren said. In temples and other places, printed texts and woodcuts were hidden in small to large statues and pagodas.

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