On July 22, 1620, the Jesuit priest Nicolas Trigault arrived in Macao with a veritable treasure trove in tow: 7,000 books in various languages that he had spent three years meticulously collecting. It was a colossal achievement. The Bibliothèque du Roi, the precursor to France’s national library, had fewer than 6,000 works in its entire collection at the time. This was Trigault’s second trip to China, and he and the other Jesuit missionaries hoped the library could help introduce European knowledge — and Christian teachings — into the country.
That dream would never be realized: Apart from a handful of books which found their way to the Jesuits’ library in Beijing — and later the collection of the Pei-T’ang Library — the majority of Trigualt’s collection would vanish without a trace. But Trigault’s mission was merely the first in a long line of attempts to bring Western learning and religion to China.
One of the best known of these later missions, also a Jesuit project, has had a more lasting legacy. In 1842, the Jesuits returned to China with a new mission. In 1847, the order established themselves in Shanghai’s Xujiahui neighborhood, chosen because it was also home to the grave of Xu Guangqi, a prominent Ming dynasty (1368-1644) Catholic scholar-official and close associate of the missionary Matteo Ricci. Many of Xu’s descendants had remained in the area, and continued to practice Catholicism. The Jesuits’ Xujiahui outpost soon featured a dedicated library with a wide-ranging collection, from the Bible to the works of Hegel, Galen, and Isaac Newton, as well as basic Chinese language learning materials and Latin translations of Confucian classics.
Intentionally or otherwise, by the end of the 19th century, the library would become a symbolic bridge between East and West. And while the upheavals of the 20th century would largely sever that bridge, the library would not suffer the same fate as Trigault’s all those centuries ago. Indeed, it would be expanded, and since the turn of the 21st century, China has sought to burnish the library’s heritage as a site of cross-cultural exchange.
In 1921, Xu Zongze — a Jesuit and an 11th-generation descendant of Xu Guangqi — returned to China after obtaining his doctorate in Europe. In 1924, he became head of the Chinese language section of what was by then known as the Bibliotheca Zi-Ka-Wei. (Zi-Ka-Wei is a Romanization of Xujiahui’s pronunciation in the local Shanghai dialect.) A passionate and motivated worker, Xu collected avidly, bringing in new tomes from overseas and organizing and reprinting works dating back to the late 16th century when Matteo Ricci and Xu Guangqi were still alive. An article published in the Ta Kung Pao newspaper in 1936 stated that the library contained over 80,000 works in foreign languages, 120,000 Chinese works, and 2,400 local gazettes. Among the collection’s prizes were over 1,000 valuable works of Sinology, including “Sapientia Sinica” from 1662, “Dell’historia della China” from 1586, and a hand-copied edition of a Chinese-Latin dictionary from 1723.
In an interview with a Ta Kung Pao reporter, Xu Zongze expressed his hope for greater cooperation with the outside world, and said he wanted to expand the size of the library’s collection. In 1956, nine years after Xu’s death, his wish came true in a rather surprising manner: The Bibliotheca Zi-Ka-Wei and its building were merged into the Shanghai Library system. The collections of several other organizations in Shanghai were subsequently transferred there, including that of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, the library of the Shanghai Municipal Council, and the Haiguang Library. The Royal Asiatic Society library, in particular, was popularly known as the “most professional Sinology library between the Suez Canal and the Bering Strait.” Its addition to the Bibliotheca Zi-Ka-Wei’s collection increased the library’s size to over 500,000 items.
In 2002, the Shanghai Library refurbished the Bibliotheca Zi-Ka-Wei building and designated it an “Information Institute for Sino-Western Cultural Communication.” As part of this, librarians were tasked with sorting through rare works left behind from 500 years of East-West exchange, cataloguing and researching each item, restoring and refurbishing what they could, and of course, digitizing everything.
Books on display at the Bibliotheca Zi-Ka-Wei in Shanghai, Jan. 21, 2021. Shi Yangkun/Sixth ToneThe goal was to recover the historical and cultural value of these rare books. The Bibliotheca Zi-Ka-Wei’s collection of Chinese-language Catholic books, in terms of quantity and quality, is on par with that of the National Library of France or the Vatican Library. The 34-volume “Sequel to the Chinese Christian Texts from the Zi-Ka-Wei Library,” published in 2013, offers a rich vein of research materials for those interested in the history of Christianity in China. The works contained in the collection have more than just religious or historical value, however: A vernacular Chinese version of the Bible produced in the 1790s contains traces of contemporary Beijing dialect, making it a valuable resource for linguists as well as historians.
One of the library’s goals is to serve not only researchers, but also ordinary readers. Many people from overseas visit the library in search of stories about family members. For example, a visitor from Australia uncovered records relating to his Jewish grandparents who had fled to Shanghai from Central Europe as refugees. Another elderly émigré unearthed their father’s high-school yearbook — and discovered that the man’s grades were not quite as outstanding as he’d been told growing up.
Last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread, the Bibliotheca was shuttered as a precautionary measure, only reopening its doors this month. International travel remains an iffy proposition these days, but readers from around the world will hopefully be able explore this unique monument to Chinese and global history again before long.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait Artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: An interior view of the Bibliotheca Zi-Ka-Wei in Shanghai, Jan. 21, 2021. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone)