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Asian Collections: Library of Congress, An Illustrated Guide

HOME  Preface  Introduction  The World of Asian Books  Chinese Beginnings  Tales from the Yunnan Woods  The Diplomat and the Dalai Lama  From the Steppes of Central Asia  The Japanese World  Korean Classics  Homer on the Ganges  White Whales and Bugis Book  Barangays, Friars, and "The Mild Sway of Justice"  The Theravada Tradition  The Southern Mandarins  Modern Asia  East Asia  Inner Asia  South Asia  Southeast Asia and the Pacific  Epilog  Publications on the Asian Collections

The World of Asian Books

Yung Lo Emperor's Great Encyclopedia
The Yung Lo Emperor's Great Encyclopedia
. Compiled for the Yung Lo emperor by some two thousand scholars between 1403 and 1407, this manuscript encyclopedia was the earliest and largest in the history of China. The original was completely destroyed during the final days of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but fortunately a manuscript copy, made between 1562 and 1567, survived. In 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, this copy was largely destroyed by fire with only a few hundred of the original 22,000 volumes surviving. The Library has forty-one volumes, the largest holding outside of China. Shown here is part of a historical map of Hubei province, with a detailed entry describing the history and geography of the province. (Chinese Rare Book Collection, Asian Division)

The Asian Division Reading Room welcomes the visitor with its high ceilings, bookcases of dark wood, tall windows, and polished wooden stairways climbing the book-lined walls. Seated at the handsome reading tables on any given day might be a mix of scholars, students, and perhaps even a saffron-robed Buddhist monk.

This guide offers a glimpse into the Library of Congress Asian collection. Beyond describing the books, however, the following pages also seek to convey something of the story of how they came to this home so far from their origins. The early stages of the story involve a fascinating cast of scholars, diplomats, missionaries, explorers, adventurers, and soldiers. Among them are a former officer in the French Foreign Legion who became America's senior diplomat in China, a naval officer who served as a model for Herman Melville's haunted Captain Ahab, and an explorer who spent much of his life in remote mountainous regions of China where he struggled to maintain some of the comforts of his native Vienna while entrancing readers of National Geographic with his adventures.

Before beginning our exploration of the Asian collection, some introductory comments are in order. The most important concerns the word book. Today many Asian books resemble their Western counterparts, which has not always been the case. Asian books traditionally took quite different forms, and many of the Asian Division's treasures reflect these differences.

Long before paper existed, the written word in China was recorded on bones, stone, bamboo strips, wooden boards, and silk. With the invention of paper in China in about 100 A.D., written material increased dramatically. Because Chinese characters were written with a brush, the ink usually bled through the paper, making it necessary to use only one side. Manuscripts in China initially took the form of scrolls of silk or paper upon which were mounted the individual written sheets of paper. The scrolls opened from right to left, with a ribbon on the right edge to tighten and fasten the scroll and a roller at the end of the scroll. The color of the ribbon sometimes indicated subject matter, and identification labels were attached to the end of the roller. A work usually consisted of several volumes or scrolls that were put together in a protective wrapper or book cloth, often made of silk or bamboo matting, that held about ten rolls. The Asian Division holds many early scrolls. Later, with the development of woodblock printing, individual sheets of paper were folded over, tied together at the back, and bound together into a volume. Again, an individual work or title might require many bound volumes, stored in boxes and labelled with their contents. Traditional Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese books took similar forms.

A Javan in the Court Dress
Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. A Javan in the Court Dress. An official with the British East India Company, Raffles arrived in Penang, now part of Malaysia, in 1805 and went on to become Lieutenant Governor of Java for five years after the British temporarily expelled the Dutch in 1811. Some eight years later, Raffles founded the British colony of Singapore. He was knighted in London in 1817 for his scholarly and comprehensive History of Java. This illustration is taken from a French edition of the book and shows an elegantly dressed member of the Javanese royal court. (Rare Book and Special Collections Division)

Books in India took another form, with texts inscribed on long, narrow pages of palm leaf or paper and loosely stacked together between covers, often made of wood. This type of book spread to many other areas, including Southeast Asia and Tibet. Both forms are found in the Asian collection, especially in the older, classical works.

This guide is divided into sections on "classical" Asia and "modern" Asia. The Library initially concentrated on acquiring the great Asian classics of religion, philosophy, history, geography, science, medicine, and literature. Often rare and of great historical value, many of these books are carefully maintained in the Asian Division's rare book storage areas, but are available to serious users. One of the aims of this guide is to provide a broader audience an opportunity to learn about and see some of these beautiful items. The modern section describes the Asian Division's holdings on contemporary Asia. At the end of World War II, the Library's acquisition policy turned from collecting traditional, often rare, Asian material to obtaining current publications from Asia. With the United States playing an increasingly active role in world affairs, the Library moved to meet the growing demand for information on current conditions. However, the division into classical and modern Asia is not neat or precise. Many of the traditional classics still make their way to the Library, mainly in reprint form or from generous donors, which is especially true for regions such as Southeast and Southern Asia that received only limited attention from the Library before 1945.

Bhagavadgîta
Bhagavadgîta. A cheerful decoration adorns this manuscript of the Bhagavadgîta, perhaps the most popular of all Hindu religious works. Stylized and geometrical rosettes reminiscent of pre-Muslim South Asia styles are combined with floral ornament so typical of Islamic decorative art. Nineteenth-century paper manuscript from North India. (Southern Asian Collection, Asian Division)

There are, of course, limits to this brief survey. The Asian Division's holdings are in the vernacular languages of Asia and no systematic attempt has been made to deal with the huge volume of work on Asia in English or European languages found in the Library's general collections. Nonetheless, many of the Library's other divisions have historically important material about Asia, and some examples of these holdings have been selected to give the reader a sense of the Library's overall holdings on Asia, which include rare Western books, maps, photographs, and manuscripts.

The transliterations used in this guide are primarily those used by the Library itself. Thus, although the Pinyin system is widely used for Chinese today, this guide uses the earlier Wade-Giles system that remains in use in the Library. An effort has also been made to simplify the use of names for a number of countries that have changed over time by using the modern name. For example, "Thailand" is used throughout this guide even though the kingdom was once called "Siam." The text also consistently refers to the "Asian Division" even though this office went through several name changes over the years before taking on its current designation in 1978.


HOME  Preface  Introduction  The World of Asian Books  Chinese Beginnings  Tales from the Yunnan Woods  The Diplomat and the Dalai Lama  From the Steppes of Central Asia  The Japanese World  Korean Classics  Homer on the Ganges  White Whales and Bugis Book  Barangays, Friars, and "The Mild Sway of Justice"  The Theravada Tradition  The Southern Mandarins  Modern Asia  East Asia  Inner Asia  South Asia  Southeast Asia and the Pacific  Epilog  Publications on the Asian Collections


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( November 15, 2010 )
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