The National Library of China Ancient Books Section


A review of the National Library of China Ancient Books Section (中國國家圖書館古籍館)

In China, the majority of central government archives of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) are housed in the First Historical Archives. However, for various reasons, many documents and their copies generated by private agencies went to the Ancient Books Section (Guji guan古籍館) in the National Library of China, which is often overlooked by scholars. Currently, there is no comprehensive catalog of Qing archives in the NLC, but many items can be located via the online catalog on the NLC website. The catalog of historical maps in the NLC is available on Academia Sinica’s website:

Separated from other NLC sections at Zhongguan south avenue 中關南大街, the Ancient Books Section is at Wenjin street 文津街no. 7. You need to deposit bag(s) at the registry next to the gate of the office complex, but electronic devices are permitted in the reading room, which is on the second floor of the main building. Before one enters the room, the staff behind the counter will ask for library card and ID documents. If it is your first time visiting the NLC, you can acquire a library card in the registration office downstairs with your passport or government ID. One can request two items each time, no matter whether they are hardcopies or microfilms. If microfilms are available, your chance of getting the original documents is slim. There are two options for duplication: copying by hand or ordering photocopies. Photocopy is a more efficient and reliable method, but photocopying certain manuscripts could be very expensive. Furthermore, the staff may turn down the request if the pages that you order exceed one third of the entire text. If it is a multi-volume text, one may not be able to photocopy more than one third of each volume.

The NLC’s Ancient Books Section has rich holdings of archives of the Qing central government. It contains numerous documents of the Imperial Household Department (Neiwufu 內務府) on the internal decoration of imperial architectures, such as the furnishing archives (chenshe dang 陳設檔) of the Chengguang hall 承光殿, Wanshan Hall 萬善殿, Shouhuang hall 壽皇殿, Shuqing hall 淑清殿, and Jingqing studio 鏡清齋. The archives of other central-government offices include the Grand Council (Junji chu 軍機處), Grand Secretariat (Neige內閣), State History Office (Guoshi guan國史館), Office of Veritable Records (Shilu guan 實錄館), Office of Collected Statues (Huidian guan 會典館), and so forth. Moreover, there are archives of the Eight Banners. The two population registers I discovered in the NLC are about the Gioro (Ch. jueluo 覺羅) under the supervision of the company commanders (Ch. zuoling 佐領, Ma. niru) of Enxun 恩勳 and Kuangmao寬茂in the Bordered Red and Plain White banners in the late nineteenth century. In the Qing dynasty, “zongshi” 宗室 was confined to the descendants of Taksi, Nurhaci’s father, while “Gioro” referred to the imperial kinsmen from other lineage branches, who were distantly related to the ruling house.

In addition to original government documents, the NLC has copies produced by individuals or commercial publishers. The collection of memorials entitled “Shengjing jiangjun zoushi zhe dang” 盛京將軍奏事摺檔(Records of memorials by the general of Shengjing) I examined is a bilingual manuscript. A fraction of it is written in Manchu, while a considerable portion of it is in Chinese. The original documents in this compilation were generated by the officials in Shengjing, that is, Mukden, in the 1840s, but its compiler remains unknown. One of the NLC’s richest holdings is court gazettes (dibao邸報). “Court gazette” is a generic term referring to the bulletins published by the government or private institutions that covered the important activities of the government and events across the empire. The NLC holds about one hundred volumes of the court gazette entitled “Tizou shijian” 題奏事件(Events in routine and palace memorials), which span 1770 to 1801. Each volume is three to four pages in length, comprising excerpts from routine memorials (tiben 題本) and palace memorials (zouzhe 奏摺) on state rituals, personnel transfer, civil service examinations, criminal cases, infrastructure construction, etc. 

In recent years, the NLC has published a large number of Qing archives. For example, in 2011, the NLC published its holding of archives of the Bureau of Ascendant Peace (Shengping shu 昇平衙). The bureau was the office in charge of the theatrical performance in the inner court (neiting 內廷) during the Qing. The NLC collection spans 1821 to 1919, including the archives of rewards (enshang dang恩賞檔), personnel (huaming dang 花名檔), imperial edicts (zhiyi dang 旨意檔), silver reserve (kuyin dang 庫銀檔), distributing roles (sanjiao dang 散角檔), and so forth. Additionally, many digitized archives are accessible to the public in the Chinese Ancient Books Database (Zhonghua guji ziyuan ku 中華古籍資源庫): One gains full access to the database only by logging in with your library account. 

Xue Zhang
Department of East Asian Studies, Princeton University

Image: The Reading Room of the Ancient Books Section in the NLC. Photograph by author.

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