A busi­ness­man col­lects thou­sands of an­cient Chi­nese books in quest to pre­serve his­tory. Wang Kaihao re­ports.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE -

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.

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