Restoring Ancient Books with Precision
At the Restoration Department of the Cathay Bookshop, restorers repair ancient books using unique craftsmanship as its cultural legacy.
Structures in various styles stand on both sides of Liulichang Cultural Street. Cathay Bookshop’s Liulichang branch, a two- storey building with a red gate and green windows, is located at No. 115 on the street. On the second floor is the Restoration Department established in 1956. At the studios, writing brushes, watering pots and old book pages sit on desks, and several staff are repairing ancient books. Among the few professional institutions for restoring rare books and manuscripts in China, Cathay Bookshop’s Restoration Department has become time-honoured in this sector. Ancient or rare books bitten by mice or worms were sent here for restoration. The department repaired many ancient and rare books and valuable manuscripts, such as the Records of the Grand Historian (Ming Dynasty’s version) and Buddhist scriptures of the Ming ( 1368– 1644) and Qing ( 1644– 1911) dynasties collected at Zhihua Temple.
China has a written history of about 4,000 years, mostly from vast volumes of ancient books. But they were threatened by time, worms, rats, mildew and decay, which gave rise to book restoration. From the Ming Dynasty onwards, it has become a professional skill.
Restorers restore fragile, tattered paper to a better state, winning fame by turning the foul and rotten into the rare and ethereal. They’re called “ancient book doctors”; their craft of restoration continues the skills in valuing ancient books and previous manuscripts.
Xu Xiaojing, the bookshop’s fourth generation inheritor, said that the work requires patience and close attention to detail, as the paper to be restored might be fragile. Before restoration, Xu Xiaojing analyses the causes of damage, and notes details such as the book’s title, edition, number of volumes, pages, paper type and form of binding. She has fixed 30 different types of problems, including mutilated book jackets, breaking thread, damage by worms, signs of mildew, water stains and page adhesion. She first determines plans for repairs.
Conceiving a plan is crucial: whether to keep the paper dry or moistened while peeling, to mend it by patching or pasting and whether or not to dye it. Such items should be listed one by one in the plan, as they are the basis on which the preserver restores these ancient books. After the plan is laid out, the next step is choosing the matching paper; this is a necessary step for each book before restoration. The paper of time- worn books usually has a primitive simplicity, and the cover and wrapped corners also differ from those of modern books in colour. To preserve the original look, to “restore the old as old,” the paper selected must match the ancient book in colour. Meeting this requirement is important, especially when restoring rare books, because using the wrong paper will destroy its original features, and familiarity with materials and properties of paper is also a must.
In the Restoration Department of the Cathay Bookshop, an exclusive storeroom where some old paper of the Ming and Qing dynasties is preserved, there is paper that matches old books in appearance. Xu Xiaojing says that, as there are dozens of commonly used types of paper for restoring books, she must select the matching paper according to colour, texture, thickness and grain, so as to make it match the original book. In 2016, when she started restoring The Analects of Confucius, blockprinted by the Directorate of Imperial Academy during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng (reign: 1723–1736) of the Qing, she found that the problem lack of material. Its cover was made of blue silk from the Imperial Household Department of the Qing Dynasty. To find a good match for the material, she searched through the storeroom, but only found some old beige silk. She tried mixing colours from light to dark, and tried over and over again. She finally turned the beige silk into a blue, which matched the original cover.
Restoring books is a thriving trade. Li Changhong, a fourth generation inheritor of ancient book restoration at Cathay Bookshop, sits at a desk, carefully patching a hole in the page of a tattered book. Under the page is a pad— a piece of vellum. Getting into position, she explains, “Regarding the different types of ancient books, the damage is multifarious; The restorers should focus their attention on the minute details.”
The preparation being finished, Li took up a small watering can, pouring some light water onto the page to make it easier to handle. Then she stroked the hole with a brush dipped in paste, covered the hole swiftly with a piece of patching paper similar to that of the page and tore off the extraneous paper. This patched up the tiny hole. “Before patching, I need to observe the grain of paper at all times:
horizontal or vertical? If the original grain of the book is horizontal, I use horizontally- grained paper to ensure that the pattern is consistent. If you use vertically- grained paper, you can’t tell the difference on the surface; but, after the work is done, the defect will appear. So details are crucial.”
At this point only a third of the work is done.
The making of the paste is also crucial to matching the paste to the conditions of the book; but this requires the restorer to get a good feel for the material. If the paste is too thin, you can still patch the hole, but only temporarily, because the paste will lose its effect in a few years, and the pasted page will come off. This is tantamount to working in vain. If the paste is too thick, you may stick the page to the repairing board, only to produce walnut- like wrinkles; if the book is damaged again, it can’t be restored any longer, as the pasted area can’t be torn off. This will cause greater damage to the book. Even after making the paste with a special starch, Li won’t use it until she mixes the ingredients. Every time she restores a few pages, she will be ready to adjust the viscosity of the paste. The principle of restoring ancient books is to restore them as closely as possible to their original state through proper intervention. On the condition that the paste is too sticky, the thinner, the better. Maintaining the right proportion depends on many years of experience and workmanship.
Mixing the paste, moistening the page, patching the hole, mending the book mouth ( the folding line at the fore- edge of a thread- bound book) and interleaving a piece of paper is a process that is often repeated for each damaged page. From Li’s point of view, these tedious, trivial details guarantee success in restoring ancient books.
Yet the work is far from being finished, for the patched area— being double- layered— is much thicker than before. She then needs to divide the pages into groups, each of which contains more than a dozen pages; put the group on a flat stone, and hammer the patched area or mended book mouth several times until it’s evened out. The book won’t be fully restored until a dozen other procedures are accomplished, such as aligning, pressing, punching holes, mounting covers and binding with thread.
Aside from the traditional handcraft, high-tech methods have been employed to restore ancient books also. A microscope is installed in the repair room. Zhao Yashen, a testing engineer, uses a fibrescope. “The restoration patching paper should be very close in property to that of the original book. But because they’re made from different raw materials, their properties differ in thousands of ways. Even if both are made from bamboo for example, their properties are not entirely consistent.” To identify the paper, former craftsmen depend on sight and touch to find out what the paper is made from: hemp, bamboo, or cotton. But this craft can’t be acquired without long-time practice; even if you’ve mastered the skill, you have to use sound judgment. Today, with the fibrescope, we can put the paper sample under the eyepiece of a microscope to identify its fibre scientifically. Zhao says, “The scientific instrument enables restorers to choose the best plan for restoration after collectors know the problem.”
Another instrument is a pachymeter. The patching paper for restoration should be close to the original thickness of the page, but if the original page is thin, you can’t avoid error only by feeling it. For one page, the error might be slight; but when many pages are patched, the error will be glaring: the patched parts may bulge in the repaired book. The pachymeter is used to gauge the thickness of patching paper and of the original book, to ensure that the patching paper can be chosen more precisely.
High tech plays a major role in furnishing the solution to “acidification”—a worldwide problem of preserving ancient books.
Zhao says, “Ancient people didn’t understand much about paper acidity; when they found the paper brittle, they called it jiaocui (charred brittleness), for the page in their eyes was so brittle that it would split after it was touched. But the root reason is that the decay is caused by the acidification of paper, that is, its fibre structure has been damaged.” He also says that ancient books are different in their degree of acidification due to the region they are from. In the south, where the weather is humid, ancient books are more likely to be damaged by worms or mildew. In the north, where people use coal for heat in the winter, the acidification of books will be accelerated by the acidic gas produced when burning coal. Thus the paper, absorbing acidic gas, will turn yellow and fragile.
“The traditional approach to restoration was tuobiao (mounting the page on paper, cloth or silk) or jinxiangyu ( inserting new paper into the interlayer in the old book), but these methods could only lessen but not solve the problem of acidification. Now, according to a ph detector, we can make an apt decision about what books are in need of deacidification.” It’s easy to test: put a drop of water on the ancient book. Zhao says that to detect the ph is to measure the concentration of hydrogen ions in solution, but a small piece of paper needs to be torn off and put into the solvent. To protect the ancient book, a special ph detector is used to detect non- damage, demonstrating the principle of proper intervention in restoring ancient books.
To exercise professionalism in binding and repairing ancient books, the restorer should be aware of the edition of ancient books, the type of the paper used and information about the binding; he or she should be able to understand deeply the properties of paper; and be proficient in mounting and mending. This imposes stringent professional requirements on the craft, which are handed down and inherited by future generations.
In the workroom on the second floor of the Cathay Bookshop, a golden lacquered board inscribed with the characters “” ( Yiyatang), written by the Chinese calligrapher and professor Qigong ( 1912– 2005) hangs on the wall, indicating that this place has a long and honourable history. Liu Yichen, manager of the Liulichang branch of Cathay Bookshop, said that the board witnessed the inheritance of restoring ancient books. Yiyatang, established by its owner Ding Mengsong in the Guangxu Period ( 1875– 1908) of the Qing Dynasty, was originally located at Shatuyuan of Liulichang. It mainly dealt in ancient books, but also mounted and repaired stone- inscription rubbings, books, scripts and paintings. In the early years of the Republic of China ( 1912– 1949) period, Liulichang became the hub of Beijing’s ancient bookshops, of which— with regard to mounting craft—yiyatang was most widely acclaimed at Liulichang. After its public- private joint management launched in 1958, Cathay Bookshop merged 111 privately- owned stores dealing in ancient books including Yiyatang, becoming a gathering place for craftsmen good at binding and restoring ancient books.
Over the past 60 years, there were four generations of ancient book restorers in the shop, who have restored hundreds of thousands of ancient books for museums, libraries, institutions of cultural relics, national leaders and celebrities.
The bookshop proudly restored Leibian tujing jizhu yanyi bencao (a book proofread by Fang Mingpu of the Yuan Dynasty). The book was overseas for several hundred years and damaged by worms. Cathay Bookshop then purchased the book. Wang Xuejun and Liu Qiuju spent half a year’s time restoring the book to its original state.
Restorers at the Cathay Bookshop apply their traditional craft to restore not only ancient Chinese books but also foreign books brought from overseas collectors, who hold the shop in high regard. In September 2017, a professor came from Japan, who took out a hand- copied book with an imperial edict dating from the period of the Politics of the Japanese Bakufu (1192–1867). Through textual research and criticism, it was proved that the book was the only existing copy that had special value as an historical document. It was so tattered that even Zhang Zhuojia who had worked as a preserver for many years was taken aback: Its pages were so fragile that, when touched, crumpled scraps would fall off; it was seriously damaged by worms, its covers weren’t complete and remains of worms in between pages could still be seen.
“We cannot repair or restore the book until we freeze the worms first.” Zhang explained, “Please look at the sign: Freeze worms first.” The owner of the book, as Zhang said, was a Japanese professor specialising in the histories of the Qing Dynasty, China’s borderland and Sino-japanese cultural exchanges. He came to China before, and frequented the Cathay Bookshop, which had a reputation for elaborate craftsmanship; hence, he came in hopes that it could restore the book by applying its traditional crafts. Zhang said, “It’s a hard nut to crack, but we’ll do our utmost to restore the book to its original state.”
Time and again restorers turned bad into good with their expertise, extending the sixty-year legend of Cathay Bookshop. With the craft of restoring ancient books inherited from their predecessors, they manage to retain the elegance of rare books, preserving a lingering aroma for bibliophiles.
Patching a broken section
Binding a book with thread