skip to content

The Chinese collections of Cambridge University Library are among the finest of their kind outside China. They include inscribed oracle bones dating from the 13th century BC; 350,000 printed monograph titles, the earliest of which dates from the 12th century AD; manuscripts, paintings, rubbings and other artefacts.

The first Chinese book, an odd fascicle of a medical treatise, entered the Library as early as 1632, part of a gift from the then Duke of Buckingham, and a few random accessions followed thereafter.

The first substantial holdings of Chinese books came with the donation of 4,304 volumes by Sir Thomas Wade (1818-1895), first Professor of Chinese in the University from 1888 until his death. Wade had collected these books during forty years' residence in China, including ten years as British Minister at Peking. As his working library, Wade's collection contains many reference books as well as works on history, law and diplomacy. There is also, however, a number of rarities, such as the unique Illustrated Chronicle of Strange Lands (I yü t'u chih) (c. 1489), a 17th century manuscript of the Veritable Records of the Ming Dynasty (Ming shih lu), the very rare manuscript Manchu version of Moral Exemplars Illustrated (Tob be hûwašabure nirugan suhe gisun-i bithe), and many unique pamphlets and ephemera relating to the mid-19th century T'ai-p'ing insurrection.

A further 1,300 volumes, including some formerly in the possession of Sir Edmund Backhouse (1873-1944) are recorded by H. A. Giles (1845-1935), from 1897 to 1932 Wade's successor in the Chair of Chinese, in the supplement published in 1915 to his Catalogue of Chinese and Manchu Books in the Library of the University of Cambridge (1898).

Significant additions to the Library's Chinese holdings came in the years immediately following the Second World War. They included books formerly belonging to, among others, Sir J. H. Stewart Lockhart (1858-1937), Ernest Alabaster (1872-1950), A. C. Moule (1873-1957), Professor of Chinese 1933-38, and Gustav Haloun (1898-1951), Professor of Chinese from 1938 until his death.

Microfilms of 2,715 rare titles from the National Library of China in Peking and of the complete set of Chinese materials from Tun-huang now held by the British Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and the National Library of China were also acquired.

An important bequest was received in 1952 by the will of L. C. Hopkins (1854-1952), comprising his celebrated collection of over 800 Chinese inscribed oracle bones, more than three thousand years old and by far the oldest documents in the Library.

The Library holds a set of the Imperial Encyclopaedia (Ch'in ting Ku chin t'u shu chi ch'eng) in 5,000 fascicles, deposited on loan by the China Society of London, to which it was presented by the Emperor of China in 1908. The Library also possesses two of the 11,095 fascicles which originally constituted the famous encyclopaedic work Yung-lo ta tien; they were salvaged from the fire in Peking which in 1900 destroyed most of what then remained of the sole surviving copy.

In 1949 Prof. Haloun travelled to China and purchased over 10,000 volumes with a grant from the British Government. Important gifts were obtained from China through the mediation of Dr. Joseph Needham (1900-95). Profs. Haloun and P. van der Loon drew up the special classification scheme for Chinese books used in the Library, and systematic purchasing of new publications from mainland China (whenever possible), Hong Kong and Taiwan continued under their guidance.

The strengths of the Chinese collection lie in traditional culture, history, literature and the arts. Of late, more attention has also been paid to modern history and politics. The collection contains over 2,000 Chinese serial titles, some 900 of which are current.

Generous bequests and gifts continue to be received. In 1986, 4,468 volumes were presented by the Government of the People's Republic of China, and a set of the 18th century manuscriptImperial Compendium of Literature (Ssu k'u ch'üan shu hui yao), reprinted in 500 volumes, was donated in 1988 by the National Palace Museum in Taiwan.

The Chinese collection is catalogued in three ways:

1. The entire Chinese collection is catalogued on cards, arranged according to the Wade-Giles system of romanisation, which are kept separate from the main Library catalogue and may be found in the East Asian Reading Room. No further cards have been added to this catalogue since June 2002.

2. Romanised records for Chinese books and serials (using the Pinyin system) are included in iDiscover. For Chinese serial titles see also the Cambridge University Union Lists of Chinese Serials.

3. Full vernacular script catalogues, based on Chinese MARC records, are under development and also available to readers.