History of Chinese Libraries

China is proud of its record of publishing and printing as well as its archives and libraries that can be traced back more than 2000 years. This table is prepared for the class History of Libraries being taught by Prof. Miriam Kahn in Summer, 2008. It is for reference of the students only.

References and sources:

Libraries and Librarianship in China . By Sharon Chien Lin. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. .Pp. xxii+241. $74.00 (cloth). ISBN 0-313-28937-9

Preserving the past, preparing for the future: Modern Chinese libraries and librarianship, 1898–2000s, by Roy L. Sturgeon. World Library, 14(1), 2004. Available: http://www.worlib.org/vol14no1/sturg_v14n1.shtml

Dynasties in Chinese history, from Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynasties_in_Chinese_history (accessed July 5, 2008)

Chronology of Chinese History

Dynasty Archives/
People &


Three Sovereign Ones and the Five Emperors 三皇五帝     before 2070 BC 628+
Xià Dynasty     2100 BC - 1600 BC 470
Shang Dynasty evidence of a royal library (the media at that time are oracle bones & shells) (1041 BC)   1600 BC - 1046 BC 554
Western Zhou Dynasty 西周     1046 BC - 771 BC 275
Eastern Zhou Dynasty

Traditionally divided into
Spring and Autumn Period
Warring States Period



imperial libraries
Lao tze 老子
-- custodian of the Heavenly Archives
770 BC - 256 BC

722 BC - 476 BC
475 BC - 221 BC


Qin Dynasty

(First Emperor)

"Burning of books and burying of scholars" by the first emperor Qin, 213 B.C.   221 BC - 206 BC 15
Western Han Dynasty 西漢 started a systematic recovery of works

first centralized imperial library
Liu Xiang 刘向 (80-8 B.C.) compiled bibliography Bielu 别录(Separated Records);


His son Liu Xin 刘歆 continued the work and produced a classified catalog, Qilue 七略(Seven Epitomes) (for 603 titles and 13,219 scrolls).
206 BC - 9 AD 215
Eastern Han Dynasty 東漢     25 - 220 195
Three Kingdoms 三國     220 - 265 45
Western Jin Dynasty 西晉     265 - 317 52
Eastern Jin Dynasty 東晉     317 - 420 103
Southern and Northern Dynasties 南北朝     420 - 589 169
Sui Dynasty 300,000 volumes in the imperial library   581 - 618 37
Tang Dynasty block printing (10th C.)

books began to

private libraries
  618 - 907 289
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms 五代十國 many books were destroyed during the wars

collection reduced to 13,900 vols.
  907 - 960 53
Northern Song Dynasty 北宋 built of 3 libraries and recollected books; vols. were doubled.
Chong-wen-yuan (Hall of Promotion of Literature) 崇文院

imperial collection scattered after the invasion of Nu-Zhens (女真族)

library at the imperial academy was open to students
Chong-wen Zong Mu (Chong-wen Annotated Bibliography)
3445 titles, 30669 vols.
960 - 1127 167
Southern Song Dynasty 南宋 started collecting again

built a library in South China

reached 44,486 vols (as recorded in a catalog) + 14843 additional volumes
  1127 - 1279 152
Liao Dynasty     916 - 1125 209
Jin Dynasty     1115 - 1234 119
Yuan Dynasty shipped books back to Beijing   1271 - 1368 97
Ming Dynasty 2000+ scholars to compile a compendium of quotations from books that existed during the Yong-le period (1403-1425); recording 11,919 volumes.

Collection containing 43,200 volumes, 3/10 of which were printed; + thousands of volumes of the annuals and chronicles of Ming emperors compiled by the imperial historiographers
Yong-le Encyclopedia 永乐大典 (1407 completed) 1368 - 1644 276
Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong ordered to build a national library, holding a copy of every standard work in existence

Started collecting very rare and out-of-print materials listed in the Yongle Encyclopedia

Compiled 四库全书, the Complete Collection of the Four Branches of Literature: 3500 titles in 36000 handwritten volumes. Hosted at the Imperial Palace Library, Wen-yuan-ge 文淵閣.

The imperial libraries were open to the scholars.

Libraries of academies
(书院), were accessible by scholars

Private libraries, monastery libraries were open to students under certain conditions
Complete books of the four [imperial] repositories 四库全书 = Siku Quanshu
( 1773-1782)

Classification containing 4 major categories and 44 classes

1783: Six duplicates of Siku Quanshu were ordered to be made, then hosted at 7 imperial libraries, 4 of which survived to the present.

Now only 1/4 (near 800 volumes) exist, distributed at various countries
1644 - 1912 267
1902: proposal of building public libraries and museums

1905-1911 new school system

1905: first public library in Hunan province; followed by 15 in other provinces

1909: first metropolitan (city) library

1910: first library law
1899: Mary Elizabeth Wood came to China as an English teacher at Boone Middle School in Wuhan

Modern China

Republic of China 民国 1913:regulations for libraries

Capital Popular Library 通俗图书馆+ many

(popular libraries = general public;
regular public libraries = academic materials)

1925: National Libraries Association (after local associations were established)

total 2818 libraries in 1935
1910: Wood founded the first school library and opened to the public;

Boone Library, open to the greater Wuhan, also branches in the form of public reading rooms and traveling libraries

1920: Boone Library School 文华图专
People's Republic of China 中华人民共和国 public libraries;

academic libraries;

special libraries under Chinese Academy of Sciences;

private libraries
1953: Boone Library School became the Department of Library Science in Wuhan University 1949  

Restoration of historical materials

Digital Dunhuang project

"Established in the 2nd century BCE, Dunhuang is an oasis town located near the historic junction of the northern and southern routes of the Silk Road, which served as the primary avenue for trade and cultural exchange between China and countries to the west. Dunhuang was also a center for Buddhism, and for a thousand years beginning in the 4th century CE, Buddhist monks carved an extensive series of grotto shrines in the surrounding area.

"Today, more than 490 caves have been preserved, containing 45,000 square meters of wall paintings and over 2000 sculptures. The monks also collected and copied Buddhists texts and scriptures, which were stored, along with ceremonial paintings and ritual objects, in a secret "library cave" discovered in 1900. " -- The Mellon International Dunhuang Archive

1. The Mellon International Dunhuang Archive (MIDA)
High-quality digital reconstructions of the mural paintings and related art and texts associated with the several hundred Buddhist cave shrines in Dunhuang, China, a uniquely important cultural crossroads on the ancient Silk Route in the Gobi Desert.

2. International Dunhuang Project (IDP)

Tens of thousands of images along with catalogues, translations, historical photographs, archaeological site plans and much more are already freely available to all on the IDP DATABASE. This multilingual website and database is hosted by IDP's members in Britain, China, Russia, Japan and Germany.

3. My visit to the project production site (slideshow)

4. Additonal background information
New York Times July 6th 2008 article: Buddha’s Caves by By Holland Cotter

Books showed in the class

The Art of War 孫子兵法 in a "classical" bamboo book, 6th century BC by Sun Tzu.

Chinese dictionary 说文解字 ("Explaining Simple and Analyzing Compound Characters"), 2nd century CE, from the Han Dynasty.

Marcia Zeng copyright 2008