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Bulletin of the European Association of Sinological Librarians

BEASL Number 10

In the world of Chinese characters
Readers of Chinese in the Royal Library of Denmark

by Bent L. Perdersen

Readers || Types of material lent by the three groups of readers || Researchers || Students || Ethnic Chinese

The Royal Library of Denmark, situated in Copenhagen, houses the Oriental Department where, among others, books and journals in Chinese are kept. It is the largest collection of Chinese language material in Denmark. There are two universities in Denmark (Copenhagen and Aarhus Universities) teaching Chinese language and they both have a small library - the biggest of the two in Copenhagen University.

The Chinese Collection of the Oriental Department purchases books and journals covering social sciences and humanities in Chinese language. The budget is not very large but each year the collection increases with about 700 new book titles and in addition the department subscribes to approximately 300 journals and 100 yearbooks. Total holdings amount to ca. 35.000 titels in ca. 55.000 volumes.

Books and journals published in this century are generally allowed to be taken out of the Royal Library for reading (up to a maximum of six months). Older books can only be used in the reading rooms. There are some further restrictions in lending expensive books, reference books, books including loose leafs, unbound journals, etc.

In the last five years the average number of Chinese titles lent out has alternated between 1500-1800 per year. The amount of material delivered to the reading rooms fluctuated between 300 titles to over 800 per year. It is not possible to estimate how much the Chinese reference collection is used since it is kept on open shelves.


Who is the usual reader of Chinese books and journals in Denmark?

There are - as a manner of speaking - three types of readers: a) research workers, b) students and c) ethnic Chinese: people who are neither researchers nor students. Researchers are usually connected either to universities or to other research institutions such as museums. Among the research workers there are two to three visiting Chinese researchers each year. The group of students consists mainly of university students and includes also some Chinese students studying in Denmark for a shorter or longer period. The ethnic Chinese are a mixed group, representing various professions from restaurant workers to chemists, from housewives to physicians.

In 1994 the author of this article made a statistical study of the lending of Chinese books and journals in the years 1992-1993. When this statistical material is combined with knowledge gained through long practical experience as a librarian, it is possible to describe the needs of the typical reader of Chinese material and find indications on their fields of interest.

First of all, 20% of all the material taken out consisted of journals. Material used in the reading rooms is not registered according to type, but journals are fairly popular in the reading rooms as well, and form perhaps 60-70 % of all the material used.

Ethnic Chinese take about 43 % of all lent Chinese material and form the largest group of readers. Second are researchers with about 39 % of the lent material, whereas students amount to only 17%. It is not surprising that students take relatively few books home, since their immediate needs are covered by their own institute libraries. If research workers and students are considered as one group, they take 56 % of the Chinese books and journals out of the Library. This corresponds well to the aim of the Department to serve mainly the needs of study and research.

The relatively high percentage of ethnic Chinese users derives from the circumstance that the Department, to a certain extent, acts as a stop-gap for the public libraries. Although Denmark has fairly well-stocked public libraries that cater for a variety of interests, their collections of Far Eastern literature are rather modest.

Types of material lent by the three groups of readers

1) Researchers

Researchers seem to be most interested in historical material as this theme covers one third of all of their lendings. Second in popularity are philosophy and religion (16%), whereas literature takes only about 6%. Art and architecture are also fairly popular with about 10%. Social sciences constitute 14% and economics 9% of all lendings.

History, of course, is a subject relevant to the work of any researcher in the Chinese culture, ancient or new. Researchers take 60% of all the lent historical material and 68% of all archaeological material. Archaeology does not, however, constitute more than 2,5% of their total lendings. Philosophy and religion are traditional subjects, which is reflected by the fact that researchers take 53% of all lendings in these two topics. Put together, students and researchers require a full 92% of all lendings in these fields.

Chinese philology and linguistics are much less in demand and only about 5% of all lent material deals with these subjects. Not surprisingly 87% of philological and linguistic material is lent by researchers.

Lending statistics reflect an increasing interest in recent political and social developments. Topics such as law, economics and social sciences cover 25 % of all lendings, which they did not fifteen years ago. Especially various yearbooks and statistics have proven to be extremely popular among readers in the past five years.

It is somewhat surprising that art and architecture cover as much as 10% of the material requested by researchers. One explanation is that this material can be used both as primary material and as a source of illustrations.

Historical sources and primary material in philosophy and religion are of course very important from a researcher's point of view; a clear majority of the lent books deal with these subjects. Especially texts covering periods of changes or presenting doctrinal innovations seem to rouse the interest of scholars, e.g. material from the Eastern Zhou period and the time from Sanguo to the Eastern Jin.

Five years ago Buddhist studies were quite popular in Denmark but now interest has shifted - according to the lending statistics - to Confucianism and Taoism. Texts discussing or commenting Yijing and texts from Daozang are frequently lent out. Also studies in popular religion from the Ming period up to the present have the attention of scholars. There seem to be changing fashions in research topics just as there are in fiction, cinema, or even dress.

The average researcher is mainly interested in primary sources and to a lesser degree in secondary material in Chinese. Articles in Chinese journals seem to be fairly popular when it comes to consulting Chinese research results.

2) Students

The lending activities of students correspond to those of researchers. There is a natural relationship between students and their teachers, many of whom belong to the group of researchers. Historical subjects and religio-philosophical topics cover respectively 35% and 27% of student lendings. Of all lendings these figures are 30% in history and 39% in religion/philosophy.


Students borrow relatively few works on social sciences, law, economic and linguistics - 12%, 0%, 13% and 3% respectively. The reason is that only advanced students have gained such a level in written Chinese language that they are able to read these subjects in Chinese.

The Oriental Department has very little material that can be used in teaching Chinese, because university institutes themselves are responsible for providing such material. As to dictionaries, most of them are included in the reference collection and cannot be borrowed.

In the field of Chinese literature, students seem to take out books and journals slightly more often than researchers - 7% against 6%. Students are mainly interested in modern literature, especially literature written after the Cultural Revolution. The interest of students is focused on fiction describing life in contemporary Chinese society. Women studies have started to gain ground among students, as is shown by the increased lending in subjects such as amendments in the Marriage Act, women's position in family and society etc.

If the present lending behaviour of students is taken as an indication of a future lending profile, one can expect a growing interest in subjects dealing with modern China, whereas interest in historical studies will be waning. But maybe a new fashion will change this picture.

The average student reads both primary sources and secondary literature. At the moment students focus on present-day society. Fiction is mainly viewed as a source of modern life and is not really studied as an art form.

3) Ethnic Chinese

This group consists of eager readers of fiction. Of the total amount of lent literature, 87% is borrowed by this group. In the past 5 or 6 years, contemporary fiction has been very popular, although classic novels such as Jin Ping Mei and Fengshen yanyi still have their readers. The action novels, wuxia, are quite popular, but we have only very few of these in our collection. In the 1980's poetry, mostly classics from the Tang and Song periods, had constant readers, but today readers of poetry prefer modern poems published in current magazines or journals. Among modern authors, Wang Shuo and Jia Ping'ao presently enjoy a special standing. Their descriptions of the darker (and more exiting?) aspects of life are attractive to both ethnic Chinese and students.

Ethnic Chinese are also interested in modern Chinese society and require about 46% of all the books and journals in this area. The journal most in demand is the monthly political and cultural magazine Jiushi niandai (The Nineties), published in Hong Kong. Memoirs by 19th and 20th century Chinese also have their audience in Denmark. These books are probably liked because they describe the development of modern Chinese society. Biographies of famous personalities such as Liang Qichao, Zhang Zuolin, Sun Zhongshan are also often requested.

Traditional life still seems to be of interest to Chinese living in Denmark. Especially books on Chinese herbal medicine and Taijiquan make for popular reading, but because the Royal Library is a humanistic library, the number of works on natural and medical sciences is limited.

The average ethnic Chinese is an avid reader of fiction. He or she also reads books or journals describing modern life in China. Female readers seem to be somewhat more eager to borrow fiction than male readers.

Of course, there is no such thing as a typical reader of Chinese material and all readers have their individual spheres of interest. The Chinese collection in the Royal Library cannot satisfy all demands, but is broad enough to give a base for research and study of Chinese history and culture. The needs of specialists cannot always be met, but in occurring cases we have successfully requested the help of other European libraries.


© EASL 2013
Matthias Kaun

established 1995