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Asian Collections at the Library of Congress: An Overview

Chinese Collection

Yizong Jinjian (Complete Survey of Medical Knowledge). Beijing Imperial Edition, 1743. Library of Congress Asian Division.

One of the largest in the world outside of China, the Chinese collection of the Library of Congress began in 1869 when the Library received ten works in 933 volumes from Emperor Tongzhi (1862-1874), part of an exchange authorized by Congress. A Division of Chinese Literature was established in 1928 with the approval of the Congress. Arthur W. Hummel, Sr., a renowned Sinologist, was appointed as the first Chief of the Division. The collection has since then grown to over 1,200,000 volumes. Along with Chinese language materials, the collection also houses several thousand volumes in Manchu, Naxi and other minority languages.

The Collection covers all subject areas, with its strength in the humanities and social sciences, among them classical Chinese literature, archival materials of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and the Republican period (1911-1949), and Chinese medicine. It owns about 4,000 local and regional gazetteers from the Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as those published since the 1980s, and is especially strong on Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu and Sichuan provinces. A unique Chinese rare book collection of more than 5,000 titles includes a Buddhist sutra printed in 975 A.D., the oldest printed specimen in the Library of Congress, and about 1,500 imprints of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The collection also owns 41 of the surviving volumes, the largest number outside of China, of Yongle da dian [Great Encyclopedia of the Ming Emperor Yongle], the earliest and largest encyclopedia in China. Chinese publications can also be found in other Library collections, with Chinese law materials in the Law Library and Chinese maps, including rare ones, as part of Arthur W. Hummel collection in the Geography and Map Division

Since the second half of the 20th century, the Chinese collection has focused on collecting from Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and overseas areas, contemporary publications of the People’s Republic of China. It has expanded its collection scope to encompass all aspects of contemporary China, such as economy, business, finance, law, science and technology, social studies, environment, Western Region development, international relations, Communist Party history, American studies in China, military affairs and national defense, and minority affairs.

Today, the Library's contemporary China collection has been developed to have unparalleled depth and breadth on all aspects of contemporary China studies from areas that include Mainland China, Taiwan, and major overseas areas. Major full-text electronic databases and resources are available to the patrons of the Asian Reading Room. Currently, the collection is growing rapidly and has gained in stature as a national asset for the United States as well as one of the principal contemporary China collections in the world.

To learn more about the history of the Chinese collection, please see The Development of the Chinese Collection in the Library of Congress by Shu Chao Hu, which is available in the Chinese reference section of the Asian Reading Room.

Digital Collections

Selections from the Naxi Manuscript Collection features ceremonial writings of the Naxi people of Yunnan Province, China. The Library of Congress’s Naxi collection of over 3,000 manuscripts is the largest outside of China and is considered one of the finest in the world. The Naxi language is the only pictographic writing system still in use today. The Library’s collection was acquired between 1924 and 1945 from Joseph Rock, Quentin Roosevelt II, and Virginia Harrison.  This online presentation features 185 manuscripts, a 39½ -foot funerary scroll, and an annotated catalog of the entire collection. 

Named after the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368 AD - 1644 AD), The Yongle Encyclopedia was compiled from 1403 to 1408. As the largest Chinese encyclopedia of all time, it comprised 22,937 entries in 11,095 volumes. Disbursed all over the world, only 420 volumes survive nowadays. Among these, Asian Division of the Library of Congress holds 41 unique volumes. Acquired by the Library during the early 20th century via purchase and donation, they form the largest collection of the Encyclopedia outside Asia. The Library of Congress has released online part of an exceptional Library collection: 37 volumes of The Yongle Encyclopedia (Yongle Da Dian). The remaining 4 volumes will be available online in the near future.

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