News Feature

Taking a closer look at Chinese oldest library Tianyi Ge

Taking a closer look at Chinese oldest library Tianyi Ge

The Qin's Ancestral Hall at the Chinese oldest library, Tianyige Museum or Tianyi Pavilion, in the city of Ningbo, Zhejiang Province in China. (ANTARA/Yuni Arisandy)

A land steeped in history and culture and a city of learning and tradition best describe Ningbo, a sub-provincial city in northeast Zhejiang Province, the People's Republic of China.

Rich in history and culture, it was here in Ningbo that the Hemudu culture thrived seven thousand years ago. It was in the city that philosophers, such as Wang Yangming and Huang Zongxi, created the East Zhejiang School of Confucian philosophy of pragmatism and rationality.

All through history, the city has always been known as the birthplace of men of great learning, producing multiple scholars, who excelled at the "Imperial Chinese Examination" that selected the best educated people for civil service.

In recent times, the city has produced 116 national academicians, including Tu Youyou, the first Chinese scientist to win a Nobel Prize.

The city is also known for its tradition of book collection. The people of Ningbo not only derive pleasure from reading but also take pride in collecting books.

Hence, Ningbo City has become home to over 150 well-known book collectors and over 200 noted private libraries. Their collections are among the best in China and the world in terms of size, quality, and scope of subject matter.

Tianyi Ge
Hence, it comes as no surprise that Ningbo is also the city where the Tianyi Ge -- the Chinese oldest library -- was founded.

The Tianyi Ge library lies in proximity to Moon Lake and was built over 450 years ago, thereby making it the oldest existing library in Asia, and one of the three oldest private libraries in the world.

The name Tian Yi pertains to the concept of cosmic unity first described in a Han dynasty commentary to the Book of Changes. In Chinese alchemy, Tianyi is linked to the element of water, thus it was believed that giving a watery name would protect the library from fire damage.

Built between 1561 and 1566 AD, Tianyi Ge was once the residence of Fan Qin, a high-ranking military official from the Ming Dynasty. Fan Qin, who is the founder of the oldest library, had been appointed as an official in several cities around China.
The statue of Fan Qin, the founder of the Chinese oldest library, Tianyi Ge or Tianyi Pavilion, in the city of Ningbo, Zhejiang Province in China. (ANTARA/Yuni Arisandy)

Tianyi Ge initially housed the personal book collection of Fan Qin. Fan Qin’s adoration for books prompted him to store his book collection in a special library.

Fan Qin collected local records on Jinshi -- the highest and final degree in the imperial examination in Imperial China -- of various dynasties and contemporary anthologies.

Books given by Fan's friends and handwritten copies of books were a crucial part of the collection. Owing to his efforts, the library already had 70 thousand volumes at the time of his death.

Unfortunately, after the Second Opium War, the British took several books from the libraries’ collection of geography and history texts. Adding to such losses were further thefts by local thieves. By 1940, the collection dipped to below 20 thousand volumes.

Only 13 thousand volumes remained at the time of the foundation of the People's Republic of China, as a great many of them were either expropriated by the bureaucracies, stolen, or fell into decay.

After the founding of the People's Republic of China, owing to governmental efforts and donations by private collectors, the collection recovered somewhat to some 30 thousand volumes, mostly rare antique Ming Dynasty-printed and hand-copied volumes.

Continue preserving
Today, the well-preserved Tianyi Ge library is part of the Tianyige Museum that was established to carry forward the tradition of preserving the book-collecting culture. Tianyige Museum, located on Tianyi Street No.10, Haishu District, Ningbo, currently stands on an area of 31 thousand square meters.

Tianyi Ge library has until now never ceased to expand its collection in the past four-and-a-half centuries. It is recognized as a national site of cultural heritage and ancient book collection.

The Tianyige Museum currently houses over 300 thousand volumes of ancient books in 22 thousand different categories. These 30 thousand volumes, spanning five thousand different categories, are rare editions.
Some ancient Chinese book collections at the Chinese oldest library, Tianyi Ge or Tianyi Pavilion, in the city of Ningbo, Zhejiang Province in China. (ANTARA/Yuni Arisandy)
With such a huge collection of books, the museum has garnered the reputation of being the greatest library in Southern China.

The recent generations were committed to the protection and expansion of the library.

Tianyi Ge currently has several ancient book collections that are rare editions and yet in good condition.

The temperature in the library is always maintained to keep all books safe. Furthermore, a ban on smoking around the library was also imposed to prevent the risk of fires.

Camphor is also used in the library to repel bookworms, termites, and other insects from causing any damage to the books, particularly the primeval book collections.

Fan Qin's books containing records of local history and imperial examination are kept in a room under strict security and special care. For instance, the books were placed in wooden cabinets made of Cinnamomum Camphora trees. The champor wood has a distinctive aroma that can protect books from bookworms and termites.

Furthermore, Fan Qin's family and descendants adopted a discipline that no family member was allowed to claim any book as his or her own property, and the books were prohibited from being taken out of the Tianyi Pavilion.

In addition to the library, which is the main attraction of the Tianyige Museum, visitors can view the plethora of collections of some eight thousand artifacts and ancient relics, such as the bridal sedan chair of Ningbo and Mahjong collections.

Some ancient Mahjong collections at the Chinese oldest library, Tianyi Ge or Tianyi Pavilion, in the city of Ningbo, Zhejiang province in China. (ANTARA/Yuni Arisandy)
Visitors can also get to witness a row of Mahjong collections in another part of the building called the Chen Ancestral House. This area holds dozens of types of Mahjong, a gamble game in ancient China.

Ningbo City is known as the place where the Mahjong game originated.

Travelers keen to study the history of civilization and culture of a nation, the Tianyige Museum in Ningbo can be one of the must-visit tourist attractions during their visit to China.

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