University of Virginia: UVA Acquires Valuable Collection of Rare Chinese Books

Instructor Soren Edgren gingerly lifted a rare Chinese book, bound in indigo-dyed silk covers, from its hardwood box. Students hoisted their mobile phones to take photos, and despite this book being centuries old, were encouraged to pick it up and examine it.

It’s an example of the hands-on approach typical of Rare Book School at the University of Virginia.

Edgren, an expert in rare Chinese books, has spent decades gathering a collection believed to be one of the most significant private collections in North America.

The collection now has a new home in UVA’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library and Rare Book School, where Edgren has been on the faculty since 2014. He just finished teaching a weeklong course on Grounds for the first time in person since the pandemic.

The Guanhailou Collection comprises more than 500 items, primarily Chinese, including rare books, ink rubbings, scrolls, wood blocks and calligraphic materials. One group of rare books and facsimiles is housed in Special Collections and another group of items is now part of the teaching materials for Rare Book School.

One of the books he showed the students, who come from all over the country, has special seals and information from owners spanning four centuries. Another is an 18th-century cookery book that’s a kind of memoir with recipes.

Special Collections curator Molly Schwartzburg noted that this is a new partnership in the long history of Special Collections’ collaborations with Rare Book School, which have included providing rare materials to courses, logistical support, classroom space and curatorial consultations for its faculty.

“This is the first time we’ve worked as a team with RBS to bring a collection to Grounds,” she said. “We are very excited to share these exceptional artifacts in UVA classes, exhibitions and with visiting researchers in our reading room.”

Barbara Heritage, Rare Book School’s associate director and curator of collections, said, “The Guanhailou Collection provides both a broad and a deep look into the culture of the book in China – not only its technical innovations, which were numerous, but also how the culture of writing, printing and bookmaking largely developed in China, and then spread into Korea and Japan.”

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

“This is a world-class collection, and it would easily catapult UVA into the very top tier of important East Asian rare book holdings,” Chen said. “More important, perhaps, is how this collection makes teaching book and print history of China possible. I would certainly design courses around the collection.”

Chen added the possibilities of holding workshops and conferences around the strengths of the collection, “which includes the 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 invented paper and experimented with methods for reproducing texts, including movable type.

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

The collection – which spans a millennium from the ninth to the 19th centuries – includes examples of the precursor to printing where copies of texts like those were made by a process of ink rubbings from carved stone or wood blocks. The pages were rolled into scrolls or folded into albums that were transportable – similar to books, Edgren said. In temples and other places, printed texts and woodcuts were hidden in statues and pagodas of small to tall sizes.

Even though there is evidence that movable type printing came from China hundreds of years before Gutenberg, the technology did not take off for several reasons. Korea actually developed metal type and printing production.

Edgren explained: “China invented movable-type printing, according to an 11th-century printed description, but it did not develop the technology for economic reasons, largely the consequence of the language having an enormous number of Chinese characters.” That would be thousands and thousands, unlike the comparatively small number of letters in the English alphabet.

“Korea was the first country in the world to cast metal types for the purpose of printing,” said Edgren, who added that the collection contains samples from all major Korean fonts, including several from before Gutenberg.

“A 1239 woodblock edition of a Korean book clearly states that it is a reprint of a metal-type edition. A 1377 Korean bronze movable-type edition is the oldest extant [in existence], and Korean metal typographic printing flourished in the 15th century.”

Edgren, who was editorial director of the Chinese Rare Books Project, an online international project based at Princeton University from 1991 to 2011, began focusing on the history of printing in China and East Asia as a graduate student at the University of Stockholm. He took a deeper dive into the worlds of East Asian rare books during three years of postgraduate study in Japan. That’s when he started building his collection.

In the early 1990s, Edgren attended a Rare Book School course and said he was very impressed by the teaching methodology, as well as by the organization and spirit of the staff.

Above view of an old books made in the Qing dynasty.
This volume, part of the text of the “I Ching” or “Book of Changes,” is a forerunner of printing, an ink rubbing from engraved stone tablets of the ninth century (and still extant) made in the Qing dynasty.
In addition, Edgren worked with Michael Suarez, director of Rare Book School and University Professor in UVA’s English department, when Suarez edited “The Oxford Companion to the Book” in the early 2000s.

“I ran into Michael Suarez at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair in New York in spring of 2013, and he asked, ‘What would you say if we asked you to teach a course on the history of the book in China?’

“I’d say, ‘What took you so long?’” Edgren recalled. He began teaching the following year.

Rare Book School, located at UVA since 1992, is an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to furthering the study of the history of books and printing through a variety of intensive, weeklong courses and seminars.

Most take place at UVA, but courses are also offered in other places such as Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. Its students come from a range of book connoisseurs and professionals – antiquarian booksellers, collectors and conservators, in addition to librarians, graduate students and professors.

Edgren was eager to join Rare Book School and add to its curricula this area of study to which he had devoted his career.

“My purpose in teaching this course was to help my marginalized subject join the mainstream, which would require integration with the other RBS classes,” he said. “Furthermore, I had just finished teaching the first graduate seminar on the subject at Princeton and had used material from my own collections, which I felt would be sufficient for teaching at RBS.”