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National Library tells ancient-book collections’ private story

We often hear about the great work of public institutions in safeguarding China’s literary heritage, but what about private collectors too? An exhibition by China’s National Library celebrates their contributions.

“Nor war’s quick fire shall burn/ The living record of your memory”. So wrote Shakespeare to his Beloved in his Sonnet 55. The same may be said of Song Dynasty poet Su Shi, whose writings have survived war and fire to reach us today.

And it is thanks to a private collector that the poet’s legacy has been preserved. The Su Shi work is one of 115 books drawn from 30 private collections that are now on display at the National Museum of Classic Books, an affiliate of the National Library of China.

The writings cover various realms of ancient Chinese endeavor — literature, history, religion, philosophy, geomancy, and medicine — and they represent a variety of binding styles: rolled, folded, or linear.

In the great theater of Chinese history, it is surely time to acknowledge the backstage role played by private collectors.