Su Wen­zhu: Read­ing Yes­ter­day To­day

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Yang Yun­qian Pho­tographs by Qin Bin

In May 2017, Su Wen­zhu, di­rec­tor of the Spe­cial Col­lec­tions De­part­ment of He­bei Li­brary and the He­bei An­cient Books Preser­va­tion, learned that she had been elected as one of 63 del­e­gates from He­bei Prov­ince to at­tend the 19th Com­mu­nist Party of China Na­tional Congress. This pleas­ant sur­prise gave her a new sense of mis­sion and re­spon­si­bil­ity.


Spe­cial col­lec­tions re­fer to old doc­u­ments or ma­te­ri­als that are dif­fer­ent from or­di­nary books. They in­clude an­cient books and im­por­tant his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments. A li­brary’s spe­cial col­lec­tions de­part­ment is re­spon­si­ble for col­lect­ing, ar­rang­ing, stor­ing, cir­cu­lat­ing and uti­liz­ing an­cient books and lo­cal doc­u­ments. In 1996, Su Wen­zhu, who had worked for the He­bei Li­brary for nine years, was trans­ferred to the spe­cial col­lec­tions de­part­ment. At the time, only four em­ploy­ees worked in the de­part­ment. Even now, it has only ex­panded to em­ploy eleven.

Gen­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion of an­cient books is the ba­sic task of an­cient books pro­tec­tion. Em­ploy­ees must pro­foundly un­der­stand the doc­u­ments first to cap­i­tal­ize on an­cient book re­sources. In 2007, the Gen­eral Of­fice of the State Coun­cil is­sued opin­ions on fur­ther strength­en­ing the pro­tec­tion of an­cient books and of­fi­cially launched a pro­tec­tion pro­gram. This is the first na­tion­wide an­cient book pro­tec­tion project spon­sored by the State in the his­tory of China. He­bei An­cient Books Preser­va­tion was launched at the He­bei Li­brary in June 2008, and gen­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion of an­cient books com­menced.

As Su re­calls, the team im­me­di­ately en­coun­tered many prob­lems: A great amount of an­cient pa­per was dam­aged by acid, worms and time. Books were not cat­a­logued. Co­or­di­na­tion with many dif­fer­ent units of the prov­ince’s cul­tural sys­tem was re­quired and ev­ery­one lacked per­son­nel, fa­cil­i­ties and funds.

They be­gan train­ing per­son­nel in an­cient book preser­va­tion, res­cu­ing and re­pair­ing an­cient books, and pub­lish­ing, uti­liz­ing and pro­mot­ing an­cient books. In places that were un­able to carry out in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Su would de­ploy staff to help or of­fer lo­cal train­ing. Thanks to the ef­forts of Su and her team, in­ves­ti­ga­tion of an­cient books in He­bei pro­gressed rapidly.

Res­ur­rect­ing An­cient Books

If the vast num­ber of Chi­nese an­cient books are not ef­fec­tively pre­served and cat­a­logued, the coun­try will lose not only price­less his­tor­i­cal records, but also cru­cial cul­tural con­text. In ad­di­tion to preser­va­tion, Su be­gan to con­sider how to pro­mote the books.

Since 2015, He­bei Li­brary has spon­sored a “pro­tec­tion and pro­mo­tion month of an­cient books” three years in a row. Lec­tures on the pro­tec­tion of an­cient books, tra­di­tional cul­ture, and ex­hi­bi­tion of tech­niques for an­cient books preser­va­tion were of­fered. The “Her­itage • Mem­ory • Ac­ti­va­tion -- Maker@li­brary” in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage pro­mo­tion cam­paign in June 2016 was par­tic­u­larly well re­ceived. Read­ers saw the pro­duc­tion process for an­cient books and live demon­stra­tions of re­pair and block-print­ing tech­niques.

“Some spec­ta­tors were sur­prised that an­cient books could be pre­served so well af­ter hun­dreds of years,” said Su. “Some were amazed by the del­i­cate re­pair tech- niques to mend dam­aged books. Oth­ers were con­sumed by the pa­per­mak­ing and print­ing tech­nolo­gies. Many young peo­ple to­day have a sense of dis­tance from an­cient books, and such ac­tiv­i­ties bridge the gap.”

To­day, He­bei prov­ince has six an­cient and mod­ern pro­tec­tion units that pro­vide con­stant tem­per­a­ture and hu­mid­ity con­di­tions, com­plete fire pro­tec­tion and a com­pre­hen­sive mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem. “In ad­di­tion to pro­fes­sional cul­tural units, more and more peo­ple are get­ting se­duced by an­cient books.” Su be­lieves that in re­cent years, the coun­try has been ad­vo­cat­ing soft cul­tural power, and the ex­cel­lent tra­di­tional cul­ture buried in an­cient Chi­nese books has deeply in­flu­enced the sen­ti­ments and moral­ity of mod­ern peo­ple, mak­ing them tremen­dously im­por­tant in the pro­mo­tion of Chi­nese cul­ture.

In Septem­ber 2017, the Min­istry of Cul­ture is­sued the first five-year plan to pro­tect an­cient Chi­nese books. It is the first “top-level de­sign” for pro­tec­tion of an­cient books. The plan de­fines the ba­sic tenets of “ad­her­ing to the prin­ci­ples of pri­mary pro­tec­tion, preser­va­tion, ra­tio­nal uti­liza­tion of an­cient books and strength­ened man­age­ment.” Su’s mis­sion in the spe­cial col­lec­tions de­part­ment has just be­gun.

True to Form

In 1987, Su Wen­zhu grad­u­ated from the His­tory De­part­ment of Shan­dong Uni­ver­sity, and joined the He­bei Li­brary. She was ex­cited by the po­si­tion be­cause she en­joyed read­ing so much. But when she ar­rived, she over­saw pa­trons’ bor­row­ing and re­turn­ing of books. Ev­ery day, she saw thou­sands of books but had no time to read them.

“At first, I felt very un­com­fort­able be­cause I couldn’t read the books,” she ad­mits. “But I was happy to see so many peo­ple read­ing. This is prob­a­bly why some peo­ple like work­ing in li­braries.” As a li­brary staffer, Su be­lieves that read­ing not only en­hances ed­u­ca­tion, but also cul­ti­vates moral char­ac­ter and mo­ti­va­tion.

To­day, in the frag­mented read­ing era, He­bei Li­brary is con­stantly brain­storm­ing ideas to at­tracts read­ers to the li­brary. As a mem­ber of the China Writ­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, Su set up space in the lo­cal lit­er­a­ture read­ing room and in­vited lo­cal writ­ers to speak at pubs. She also or­ga­nized a “love chant­ing” vol­un­teer po­etry recita­tion group. Su liked the group be­cause even peo­ple who were afraid to speak pub­licly some­how found the courage to step up the stage to re­cite a few lines of po­etry.

“Per­haps such ac­tiv­i­ties fan the cul­tural flames in the hearts of the peo­ple,” says Su. To­day, more than 70 peo­ple have joined the li­brary’s po­etry recita­tion Wechat group, and the group is still grow­ing. Af­ter the ren­o­va­tion and ex­pan­sion project of He­bei Li­brary was com­pleted in 2011, the up­graded hard­ware and a richer col­lec­tion of books and ac­tiv­i­ties drew long lines at the li­brary be­fore it opened ev­ery morn­ing. On week­ends, nary an empty seat could be found. In Su’s view, a schol­arly so­ci­ety and po­etic life is not a dis­tant con­cept, but can be eas­ily achieved.

“Since the 18th Na­tional Congress of Com­mu­nist Party of China, gen­eral sec­re­tary Xi Jin­ping has dis­cussed cul­ture at length,” Su adds. “With changes in the so­cial cli­mate cou­pled with our ef­forts at the grass­roots level, more and more peo­ple are get­ting into read­ing.” As a li­brar­ian, Su is happy as a lark.

Su Wen­zhu is the di­rec­tor of the Spe­cial Col­lec­tions Depar­ment of He­bei Li­brary and He­bei An­cient Books Preser­va­tion.

Reg­is­tra­tion is an im­por­tant step of gen­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion of an­cient books.

Su talks with Mr. Zhang, who over­sees restor­ing an­cient books. Restora­tion of an­cient books re­quires unimag­in­able pa­tience.

Due to im­pacts of the en­vi­ron­ment and hu­man ac­tion, an­cient books be­come acidized or dam­aged by worms, a sit­u­a­tion that re­stor­ers call book “ill­ness.” The process of treat­ment is just like treat­ing a dis­ease.

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