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Pre-1958 Chinese Collection

Map of China

Map of China (廣輿圖)
Hand-painted in Ming dynasty (1368-1644).
The sole copy in existence

The Pre-1958 Chinese Collection, comprising more than 42,000 titles, has long served as the foundation for the Chinese collection in the Asian Division at the Library of Congress. The works contained in this collection span more than one thousand years and are organized across seven categories: classics and philology (古典文學與文字學); history and geography (歷史與地理); collectanea (叢書); social sciences (社會科學); law and political science (法律與政治學); natural sciences (自然科學); applied sciences (應用科學); fine arts (藝術); philosophy and religion (哲學與宗教); and literature (文學).

While this collection possesses great historical breadth and significance, for decades the bibliographic records for its holdings remained accessible only through the physical card catalog in the Asian Division. A special inventory project for the collection, launched in 2008 and completed in 2013, enabled the subsequent conversion of data from the card catalog to online records. All pre-1958 Chinese book records are now fully searchable through the Library of Congress Online Catalog in both Chinese characters and romanized script. The entirety of the pre-1958 records cannot be retrieved at once due to a limit on the number of items returned by a single search; however, there are ways to get a glimpse of the records’ scope. For instance, searching for “ChinesePre-1958” together with “history” in the online catalog’s quick search or keyword search will retrieve more than 3,000 results.

Gifts from the Qing government

Gifts from the Qing government

in the name of Emperor Tongzhi (1861-1875) in 1869.

Almanac for the 6th year of the Qing Emperor Guangxu (1880)

Almanac for the 6th year of the Qing Emperor Guangxu (1880)

Rockhill Collection.

The Pre-1958 Collection covers more than one thousand years, with manuscripts dating as far back as the 5th century. A little more than half of the collection, totaling some 23,000 titles, was published before 1911, when the rule of China’s final imperial dynasty, the Qing, came to an end. Notable early acquisitions include the following:

  • 10 titles in 933 volumes of ancient Chinese classics received in 1869 as a gift from the Qing government (1644-1911) in the name of Emperor Tongzhi (r. 1861-1875).
  • 237 titles in 2,500 volumes donated by Caleb Cushing (1800-1879) in 1879.
  • 68,000 volumes of Chinese traditional works and local gazetteers purchased by Dr. Walter T. Swingle (1871-1952), a botanist in the Department of Agriculture, during his various trips to China in 1897.
  • 198 titles in 1,965 volumes donated by the Qing government at the conclusion of the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.
  • 6,000 volumes of Chinese and Tibetan works donated by William Rockhill (1854-1914) in 1915.
  • 1,644 titles in 22,100 volumes purchased in 1929 from the family collection of Wang Shunan of Tianjin through the generosity of Andrew W. Mellon (1855-1937).

The remainder of the pre-1958 collection comprises some 18,000 titles published between 1912 and 1958. Although a span of just five decades, this period encompasses changes of momentous importance to the history of modern China, including the Republican Era, the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the early years of the People’s Republic. The Pre-1958 Collection includes materials relevant to social, political, economic, historical, and literary studies of China during this period in addition to official documents and government archives pertaining to the power struggle between the Nationalists and the Communists and the Sino–Japanese War (1937-1945).

Original revolutionary documents of the Chinese Communist Party

Original revolutionary documents of the Chinese Communist Party

Mimeographed pamphlets made in Moscow in 1926 and 1928.

The first issue of the People’s Daily

The first issue of the People’s Daily

May 15th, 1946

Below is a collection overview designed to highlight some specific groupings of materials likely to be of greatest interest to researchers. It discusses rare books (including digitized copies), local gazetteers, the Gamble Collection, the South Manchuria Railway Company Chinese Collection, microforms, and a bibliography of print and electronic resources.

Yongle encyclopedia

Yongle dadian (永樂大典)

The Great Encyclopedia of Yongle in Manuscript, compiled in 1404-1407 by order of the Yongle Emperor (永樂) of the Ming dynasty.

Rare Books

The items described below constitute the core of Chinese rare materials in the Library of Congress. Their enduring value for historical research has attracted hundreds of scholars and researchers to the Library for decades. In 2000, the Council on East Asia Libraries (CEAL) published the International Union Catalog of Chinese Rare Book Project Cataloging Guidelines,which recommended cataloging Chinese language printed books and bound manuscriptsproduced before 1796 as “rare materials.” Based on this definition, more than 5,300 works in the Pre-1958 Chinese Collection are officially categorized as rare books, including 890 local gazetteers. Among the 5,300 titles, 36 are Song and Yuan dynasty editions (960-1368), including 11 Buddhist sutras; about 1,800 are Ming dynasty editions (1368-1644), including the famous Yong le da dian (“The Great Encyclopedia of Yongle in Manuscript,” 1404-1407,永樂大典, 明嘉靖年間重抄本); and some 2,700 are early Qing dynasty editions (1644-1795).

Published Descriptions and Digital Access to Rare Books

A Descriptive Catalog of Rare Chinese Books in the Library of Congress (國會圖書館藏中國善本書錄) compiled by Wang Chung-min and published in 1957 lists 1,777 ancient classic works, which are organized in four categories:  jing 經 (classics); shi 史 (historical works); zi 子 (philosophic works); and ji 集 (literary works). Eleven of the compiled works are Song dynasty (960-1279) editions; one is a Jin dynasty (1115-1234) edition; 14 are Yuan dynasty (1260-1368) editions; 1,518 are Ming dynasty (1368-1644) editions; and 70 are early Qing dynasty (1644-1795) editions. There are also 140 manuscripts, including eight Dunhuang scrolls and 23 miscellaneous items. 

The Continuation of Descriptive Catalog of Rare Chinese Books in the Library of Congress (美國國會圖書館藏中國善本書續錄) compiled by Fan Bangjin and published in 2011 describes 886 works which are organized in five categories: jing; shi; zi; ji; and cong 叢 (anthologized works). Twenty-one of the compiled works are Song dynasty editions (960-1279), one is a Liao dynasty edition (947-1125), one is a Yuan dynasty edition (1270-1368), 306 are Ming dynasty editions (1368-1644), and 257 are early Qing dynasty editions (1644-1795). There are also 144 manuscripts and 156 miscellaneous items printed in Japan and Korea.

In 2005, the Library of Congress and the National Central Library in Taiwan launched the Digitization of Chinese Rare Books in the Library of Congress Project. This six-year cooperative effort digitized 2,000 rare items from the Chinese collection in the Library of Congress. Now, these digital texts are made freely available online as the Chinese Rare Book Digital Collection. This digital collection includes the most valuable titles and editions housed at the Asian Division, and encompasses a wide array of formats and subjects.

Local gazetteers

A Catalog of Chinese Local Histories in the Library of Congress (國會圖書館藏中國方志目錄) compiled by Chu Shih-chia and published in 1942 lists 2,939 titles of local gazetteers on provinces, prefectures, and districts with especially strong holdings on the provinces of Hebei (河北), Shandong (山東), Jiangsu (江蘇), Sichuan (四川), and Shanxi (山西).

Local gazetteer of Qinan prefecture, Gansu province

Local gazetteer of Qinan prefecture, Gansu province

Ming edition (1535)

Local gazetteer of Xinghua prefecture, Fujian province

Local gazetteer of Xinghua prefecture, Fujian province

Ming dynasty manuscript (1503)

The present holdings of the Chinese local gazetteers collections are estimated to number approximately 3,260 titles in 60,000 volumes. Of these, 890 are considered rare, such as the Qinan xian zhi, 1535 (Local Gazetteer of Taian Prefecture, Shandong Province, 山東省泰安縣志, 明嘉靖十四年刻本). Nearly half of them were collected prior to 1928. Since then, considerable effort has been made to increase the range and number of gazetteers because they shed much light on the diversity in customs, workings of local institutions, varieties of produce and natural resources, and great literary and cultural traditions that reflect the significance of regional differences. Currently 188 selected works from this special collection are available in digital format upon reader request in the Asian Division Reading Room.

Gamble Collection

 Chinese Church Weekly (中國教會新報)

Chinese Church Weekly (中國教會新報)

No.2 Shanghai, July 1869

William Gamble (1830-1886) was a printer with the American Presbyterian Mission Press who developed a number of typographical inventions and improvements for printing Chinese characters during his 11 years in China. While in Ningbo in 1858-1862 and Shanghai in 1862-1869, Mr. Gamble made considerable progress in printing Chinese translations of Christian missionary works and collecting traditional Chinese classics. His valuable collections were stored in the library of the Catholic University of America before being presented to the Library of Congress by the Gamble family in 1938. The Gamble Collection comprises 277 works in Chinese and 135 works in English and other languages. The non-Chinese works include early reports of mission hospitals and other institutions, including The Second Report of the London Missionary Society’s Chinese Hospital at Peking, 1863, records of the mission presses at Ningbo and Shanghai (such as The Annual Report of the Presbyterian Mission Press at Shanghai 1868), bilingual dictionaries and Christian texts in Romanized transcriptions, and documents relating to the history of Shanghai. The works in Chinese include examples of early printed Scriptures, a number of religious tracts, and translations into Chinese of occidental works on geography, astronomy, mathematics, botany, and medicine. Examples of the latter include Ji he yuan ben 幾何原本(Euclid's Elements of Geometry, 1852), Tan tian 談天(Outlines of Astronomy, 1859), Bo wu xin bian 博物新編(Natural Philosophy, 1855), Da mei lian bang zhi lue 大美聯邦志略(Brief Geographical History of the United States of America, 1861), and Xi yi lue lun 西醫略論(Introduction to the Practice of Surgery in the West, 1857).

Military exploits in Southwest China

Military exploits in Southwest China

Copper-plate engravings made during the reign of the Qianlong emperor (r. 1735-1796).

These publications are invaluable research materials for the study of early American missionary work in China, illustrating the important role played by the American Presbyterian Mission in Ningbo and Shanghai in the history of US-China cultural relations. They are also evidence of the significance of “Gamble Characters” in the development of modern Chinese movable type as a means of printing large quantities of publications in small type (in this instance making possible the printing of the Bible in Chinese in one volume). The volumes in this special collection testify to the wide dissemination of Western scientific knowledge, as well as the Bible and Christian tracts in Chinese translation, providing a lens through which to view the American impact on China during the latter part of the 19th century. Records for the Gamble Collection can be found on line at:*&searchType=0&recCount=25&sk=en_US

South Manchuria Railway Company Chinese Collection

The South Manchuria Railway Company (SMR), a quasi-governmental institution, was established by the Japanese after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) in 1906 in Dalian, a major city and seaport in the south of Liaoning Province in China. (Dalian was previously known as Dalniy in Russian and Dairen in Japanese). Japan was then a rapidly expanding nation and sought the rich raw materials of northeast China to fuel its growing industrial economy. The SMR Company was much more than a mere transportation system operated for private profit. The company operated two affiliated organizations, the East Asia Research Institute (EARI, 東亞研究所) and the East Asian Economic Research Bureau (EAERB東亞經濟調查局), that conducted social, economic, and cultural research in specific areas of interest to Japan as the basis for developing long-range economic and political policies in China. In the years before and after the breakout of the Second Sino-Japanese War in July 1937, both the EAERB and EARI collected extensive research materials in Manchuria and other parts of China. All those materials, including a large number of Chinese books seized by Japanese troops in Beijing and Nanjing, were placed in the custody of the 30 SMR libraries then operating in China. The collections in those libraries provided Japanese scholars, government officials, military officers, and young cadets in the Japanese military schools with research and teaching materials and, more importantly, furnished critical data for the advancement of Japan’s aims and policies in China.

As of 1942, the main SMR library in Dalian and three other branches in Northeast China held around 52,000 volumes of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Western language works. These library resources were removed to the U.S.S.R. after northeast China fell to Russian troops in August 1945. At the time of Japan’s surrender, the branch library of the SMR Company in Tokyo held around 100,000 volumes. After the surrender of Japan in September 1945, the Allied Powers and Occupation authorities in Tokyo seized a large quantity of various materials from military organizations, government agencies, and other institutions throughout Japan, including the Tokyo Branch Office of the South Manchuria Railway Company, for the purpose of governing Japan effectively and gathering information for war crimes prosecution.

The SMR collections in Tokyo eventually arrived at the Washington Documentation Center in Washington, D.C. in 1945. An estimated 60,000 volumes were transferred to the Library of Congress, of which 35,000 volumes were removed from the Japanese collection and classified as Western language materials, Chinese and Korean works, or surplus volumes. The Chinese and Korean materials were then transferred to the respective sections’ custody in 1959. By 2005 all of the Chinese materials had been sorted, reviewed, tabulated, evaluated, and recorded, totaling 488 titles in 6,896 volumes. Most of these items are late Qing editions or reprints of Ming editions of Chinese ancient classics. There are also some political, social, and economic studies of China, which had been acquired by SMR officials during the Sino-Japanese War. A catalog of this special collection is available online at [//].


In 1941, the Chinese Ambassador to the United States, Dr. Hu Shih, arranged for the National Library ofPeking to send close to 2,800 rare items packed in 102 boxes to the Library of Congress for safekeeping during the Sino-Japanese War. The Library of Congress, with Dr. Hu Shih’s permission, then launched a four-year (1942-1946) microfilm project. More than 2,700 works were microfilmed. As a result, the Library of Congress can provide access to these materials to researchers from all over the world. The Chinese Materials on Microfilm available from the Library of Congress, compiled by James Chu-yul Soong and published in 1971, lists 3,685 works in microfilm. The present holdings of the Chinese microfilm collection number approximately 3,741 titles:  2,798 of them (CBM) are rare books and manuscripts from the National Library of Peiping, such as Wen xian tong kao,1260-1368 (文獻通考, 元刻本); 111 are Chinese local gazetteers from the Joseph Rock Collection, such as Han zhong fu zhi, 1522-1565 (漢中府志, 明嘉靖年間刻本); 687 are from the Peking Union Medical College medical book collections (CM), such as Jing mai tu kao (經脈圖考, 清刻本); and 145 are selected individual and modern works from the collections in the National Central Library in Taiwan (Microfilm Orien China).


Wang, Chung-ming (王重民), comp. and Yuan, T’ung-li (袁同禮), ed. A Descriptive Catalog of Rare Chinese Books in the Library of Congress (國會圖書館藏中國善本書錄). Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1957.

Fan, Bangjin (范邦瑾), comp. The Continuation of Descriptive Catalog of Rare Chinese Books in the Library of Congress (美國國會圖書館藏中國善本書續錄). Shanghai, China: Shanghai gu ji chu ban she, 2011.

Chu, Shih-chia (朱士嘉), comp. A Catalog of Chinese Local Histories in the Library of Congress (國會圖書館藏中國方志目錄) Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1942.

Soong, James Chu-yul (宋楚瑜), comp. The Chinese Materials on Microfilm available from the Library of Congress. Washington, D.C.: Center for Chinese Research Materials, Association of Research Libraries, 1971.


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  May 9, 2019
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