European Association of Sinological Librarians


BEASL Number 9

The Current State of the Beitang Collection
Report from a Fact- finding Mission to the National Library of China

by Lars Laamann

Bibliophiles and researchers with a specific interest in the history of the Catholic missions to China have doubtlessly held a copy in their hands: the Catalogue de la Bibliotheque du Pe- Tang by H. Verhaeren, completed in 1949 - only months before events on the Chinese mainland forced all remaining missionaries to leave.
The origins and development of the Collection illustrate the history of the missionary presence in China. Let us recall that the Catholic mission in Beijing had - with minor and major periods of stagnation and repression - for a period surpassing three hundred years been accommodated in four churches. These missionary centres had been accommodated to the geographical (and geomantic) conditions of the capital and positioned according to the four directions of the compass
1. The Northern Cathedral _ó (Beitang, in older versions seen as Pei- t'ang or Pe- Tang) was founded in the year 1693, when the Chinese imperial government still regarded Christianity favourably. It is dedicated to Jesus the Saviour, its library hence bears the official title Bibliotheca Sancti Salvatoris. The missionaries stationed at the Beitang were directly subject to the changes in official attitude towards Christianity, missionaries and foreigners in general, in particular after the edict of 1724 issued by the Yongzheng emperor, banning all missionary activities outside the capital area. The tragic consequences of the Rites Controversy exacerbated the fate of the Mission, transferred into the hands of the Lazarist order after the Society of Jesus had been disbanded. In order to prevent an irreversible dispersion of Western printed materials in Beijing, it was decided to concentrate the holdings all missionary libraries in the Library of the Sacred Saviour. The newly stocked library included the holdings of the four capital cathedrals, of several private book collections extracted from the possessions of former missionaries in the capital area, of around one dozen libraries belonging to missionary outposts in the provinces, in addition to a considerable number of titles of unclear origin. Western monographs in the Beitang collection comprise titles composed in the following European languages: French, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Greek, Dutch, English, Hebrew, Polish and "Slavonic" (organized in this order in Verhaeren's catalogue). Of the once considerable Chinese collection only handlists of the titles have survived, which can be consulted as manuscripts in the collections of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.2 The book collection survived all the disturbances of the following two centuries without major damage, though not without some arduous journeys: the latter inclnded a temporary retuge in a Christian cemetery in Beijing, a sojourn to a small Lazarist parish in Inner Mongolia, followed by years of administration by the Russian Orthodox mission. Only after the militarily enforced treaty of 1860 (one of the infamous Unequal Treaties of the nineteenth century) could a transfer back into the original setting to the north of the Forbidden City be attempted. The Beitang Library was to remain in this location until the decades of warfare came to a close, and the Communist forces under Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949. In accordance with the new government's policy of secularisation and renationalisation of foreign property, most of the contents3 of the Beitang library were integrated into the holdings of the National Library of China (_ÊϮÀ]). After its transfer into the new library building in the western districts of Beijing, the collections became part of the Department of Rare Books. Readers interested in the Beitang collection be warned that the books are not considered "safe" for public viewing, i.e. require a special permission by the library management.4

1 Christian churches are known in Chinese as "Halls of Teaching" аó jiaotang, hence the Catholic cathedrals in Beijing all add the character ó after each character representing the four directions. Apart from the Northern Beitang cathedral, which played host to the missionaries from the French province of the Society of Jesus, the following three "Halls" were of significance: the cathedrals of the South and East (nó Nantang and Fó Dongtang, founded in 1605 and in 1655, respectively) accommodating the Portuguese Jesuits and the Western cathedral èó Xitang, consecrated in 1701), where the missionaries of the Vatican were located.

2 Regretfully, even less can be said for the manuscriyt collection, which fell victim to a fire in 1864. Rumours concerning the existence of a recently discovered cache of archival materials were ill founded, as I could see with my own eyes. The papers were indubitably not examples of the expected missionary correspondence, diaries, or similar items but simply the hand- written filing cards for a catalogue (probably Verhaeren's, compiled between 1940 and 1943).

3 One of the (rather accidental) results of my journey was the discovery of an unquantifiable portion of the collection in the buildings of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Knowing the inclination of Chinese institutions to resist compromise, I consider a return of these books to their original collection as rather unlikely.

4 I would be more than happy to help anybody interested in me collection with attempts to gain access to the _óѮw. You can contact me either in writing (British Library (OIOC), Chinese Acquisitions,

197 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8NG, England) or by e- mail