Restor­ing An­cient Books with Pre­ci­sion

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Sun Hong­shan Edited by Mark Zuiderveld Pho­tos by Zhang Xin

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.

Iden­ti­fy­ing Prob­lems

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

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