The Problem of Access in the World of Chinese Learning

Joseph P. McDermott

in A Social History of the Chinese Book

Published by Hong Kong University Press

Published in print April 2006 | ISBN: 9789622097810
Published online September 2011 | e-ISBN: 9789882206557 | DOI:
The Problem of Access in the World of Chinese Learning

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This chapter discusses the issue of literati and scholars' access to book collections, primarily in the Yangzi delta, from the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries. After a brief comparative survey of the problem in both pre-modern Western Europe and the Middle East, the focus falls on government libraries in China, especially their problems of management, rather than strictly access, at both the central and local levels. It also reviews the larger private collections, describing their restrictive policies for reading and borrowing their books, especially, but not exclusively, their rare and old books. The aim is less to judge these practices than to explain and assess their extensive impact on the world of learning during these centuries, particularly for the formation and maintenance of any broad “community of learning” outside of state institutions. It is concluded that, as literacy levels rose over the course of the Ming period, the private collections fell under increasing pressure to function as public, or institutional, libraries in a society whose government was not willing to make such an institutional commitment.

Keywords: Chinese learning; Yangzi delta; book collections; literati; book access; government libraries; China; private collections; community of learning

Chapter.  13513 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Asian History

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