A businessman collects thousands of ancient Chinese books in quest to preserve history. Wang Kaihao reports.
Wei Li’s peers consider him to be a top collector of ancient Chinese books. Weng Lianxi, a researcher at the library in the Palace Museum in Beijing, describes Wei as “a reader, a researcher and the country’s biggest individual book collector”.
Wei, however, prefers to keep a low profile, with little presence on the internet. Media reports say that he owns more than 8,000 volumes or 70,000 copies of ancient books in full editions, of which some 200 are handwritten or block-printed versions from the Song (9601279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties or even earlier.
In China, the majority of ancient books that have survived are from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and it is a dream for book collectors to own even a few rare copies from earlier times.
Nevertheless, Wei, 53, a businessman, tells China Daily he does not have an exact number for his collection.
“I’ve been compiling the inventory of my collection for the past 11 years,” he says, adding that the process is ongoing.
He says what matters is his love for books. However, he adds that today’s tycoons show little interest in collecting ancient books.
“It’s easier to show off an old painting, which is worth tens of millions of yuan, than having a common-looking book, which perhaps is of equal value,” he jokes.
Born in Yuxian county, Hebei province, Wei was interested in ancient books since childhood, when his grandfather, a fan of ancient literature, looked after him.
He attended high school in Beijing, where he first saw a collection of 18th-century prose at an antique store. He then saved some pocket money for four months to buy the book, kicking off his lifelong pursuit.
Many literary treasures were hidden in antique stores in the 1980s. But the market for ancient books has heavily relied on auction houses since the mid-’90s.
Once a manager in a foreign trade company, Wei quit that job to start his own shipping company in the 1990s.
He has now become a parttime investor in financial projects and a full-time researcher and collector of ancient books.
“What makes a collector sad most is not the lack of money, but to witness books pass by,” he says.
In 2012, when the ancient Guoyunlou collection of 1,200 copies went on auction, Wei was told at first that the sum could be paid in parts.
He was confident of buying about 10 copies.
However, the books were finally sold together at a price of more than 210 million yuan ($31 million), the highest recorded single auction turnover of ancient Chinese books ever.
With a majority of ancient books housed in public libraries, collectors get limited opportunities to buy many, he says. However, he can get their reference in academic courses.
Though a photocopy is commonly kept as a recording of an old book, he says the original is irreplaceable.
“Information is lost while copying such books, but it is crucial in comparative studies,” Wei says.
For example, antique dealers in the past would tamper with the written characters to make books look even older and sell them at higher prices.
“Such falsification can only be detected when you study the original,” he says.
Being a part-time researcher at the Palace Museum, and the ancient book conservation center at Fudan University in Shanghai, Wei has published numerous works on ancient books and their auctions.
His latest book, Shulou Mizong, which was released by China CITIC Press in April, focuses on old private libraries, which have been forgotten in the process of urbanization.
The three-volume book follows Wei’s five-year tour of the country, visiting the relics or sites of renowned private libraries.
He says about one-third of the places he went to are not recorded in the book because even the “vestige has disappeared”.
Most former private libraries are not known by local residents, except those that have been developed into tourist destinations.
Many are used as residences and offices.
“But there’s no ancient book in the buildings anymore,” he says of some old library sites.
His visit, however, has helped: Some places were listed as cultural heritage after he wrote about them. East China hub of private libraries in ancient times
Books are the most important recordings of ancient history. The collectors deserve our respect.” Wei Li, collector Wei Li’s latest book
Historical records show the earliest known Chinese private library appeared in the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534), following the spread of papermaking technology.
More than 1,000 major private libraries existed throughout ancient Chinese history.
Founded by Fan Qin, an official of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), in 1561, Tianyi Ge in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, is among the earliest surviving private libraries in the world. It had more than 70,000 volumes of books in its heyday.
The site was renovated in 1933 following a typhoon.
Jiaye Tang in Huzhou, also in Zhejiang, was founded by a business tycoon in 1920, and remains the largest traditional private library in China with its 13,000-square-meter area.
The Taiping Rebellion, a revolt from the 1850s to 1860s against the Manchu rule, stirred social upheaval in areas along the southern banks of the Yangtze River, and collections in many private libraries there, a hub of literary institutions in ancient China, were destroyed or scattered during that time.
“Traditional private libraries have gradually lost their function in modern society,” he says.
“Books are the most important recordings of ancient history. The collectors deserve our respect.”
Wei has turned down many potential buyers of his ancient books.
“I’ve never sold any collection but I will sell them in the end. It’s not because I need money.
“It’s natural for collection get scattered. That is why we can collect these books now.”
Contact the writer at wangkaihao@ chinadaily.com.cn
Tianyi Ge in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, is one of the earliest surviving private libraries in the world.