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62nd IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 25-31, 1996

The Provision and Use of Information on Chinese Art in London Libraries

Haiyao Zheng


The study and appreciation of Chinese art in the West has a long history. China first became known in Europe through the exploration of medieval travellers like Marco Polo (even if as Frances Wood argues, he probably never visited China), (Wood 1995), and Chinese art objects appeared in Europe before the end of the 16th century. Ever since then there has been a steady development of trade and influence, which can be seen both in the export of Chinese artefacts to European markets and in the many ways in which a taste of oriental styles has led Western manufacturers to imitate the wares of the East (Dawson 1967).

Many major European and American collections of Chinese art were developed during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the flow of objects out of China was facilitated by the political turmoil of the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, and the collapse of the Qing Empire. Widespread popular appreciation of these collections was encouraged through major exhibitions like the Great Exhibition at B urlington House in London in 1935-6, and the Marco Polo Exhibition in Venice in 1954. More recently, there has been considerable western interest in the excavations of ancient Chinese tombs (Sullivan 1964).

Along with the interest in collecting Chinese art objects, Chinese art became a subject for study and research. London is one of the most important centres for study and research on Chinese art outside China because of its fine museums and private collections, its internationally active auction houses and art dealers, and also because of its world-acclaimed scholarship in universities and cura torial departments of museums. A small community has been formed around these institutions. Art historians, researchers, lecturers, museum curators, auction house professionals, private art dealers and students are the main components of this community. This paper focuses on them, assessing their requirements and the information available in London to meet their needs.

Services and resources available in London

Libraries in London which provide information on Chinese Art can be grouped into several different types: 1) National libraries, such as the Chinese Collections of the British Library (BLCC) and the National Art Library (NAL). 2) Academic libraries, such as the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). 3) Special libraries of professional bodies, such as the libraries o f the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art (PDF), the Royal Asiatic Society (RAS) and the Great Britain China Centre (GBCC). 4) Public libraries, such as the Westminster Reference Library and Charing Cross Road public library. 5) Working libraries, such as those of auction houses and museum departments. Among these libraries BLCC, PDF, SOAS and NAL form the major resources in London for th e study of Chinese art.

British Library Chinese Collection

The British Library was founded in 1973 by bringing several libraries together. Before that date its collection of Chinese books belonged to the Department of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts of the British Museum (BM). Chinese items were included from as far back as the foundation of the BM in the Sloane Collection. The BM library grew rapidly during the 19th century. For example, larg e collections of late Ming and early Qing illustrated works of fiction were bought from a Paris bookseller. A Department of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts was established in 1892. It started to have its own specialists, and began to acquire Chinese books in a fairly systematic way. From that time booksellers specialising in Chinese books emerged in Europe and many books were bought fro m Paris. The BM also bought books through the British Embassy in Beijing. In the early 20th century, Sir Auriel Stein's adventures in the north-western part of China brought great benefits to the BLCC and manuscripts from Dunhuang became the most treasured items in this collection.

The collection includes such important items as Jin Gang Jing (the Diamond Sutra) and other Dunhuang manuscripts from the Stein collection; Couling-chafant collections of around 500 oracle bones; some Song, Ming and Qing editions of printed books and illustrated fiction; Shi Zu Zhai Shu Hua Pu (Ten Bamboo Studio painting manual); Yong Le Da Dian (Great Dictionary of Yong Le) and scroll of the Pa goda of Leifeng.

The majority of the materials in the BLCC are in Chinese (about 90%) but it also acquires materials published in other languages with about 8% in English and 2% in other languages. The library also buys anything related to Dunhuang. The acquisition policy of BLCC "aims to maintain a very broad coverage of the humanities and social sciences in the Chinese language obtained from the People's Repu blic of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore" (Wood 1987).

The Library of the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art

The PDF hosts one of the finest collections of Chinese ceramics in the world, and it also has a library of East Asian and Western books relating to Chinese art. Both were presented to the University of London by the late Sir Percival David. 95% of the books in the library are on Chinese art and culture. Of the various subjects in Chinese art the main area is ceramics. PDF is also a teaching library for the Department of Art and Archeology in SOAS.

40-50% of the books in the collection are pre-19th century books, including many rare books from the Ming Dynasty; 50-60% are 20th century and contemporary. Roderick Whitfield's booklet "Chinese rare books in the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art" lists 21 items which include Ge Gu Yao Lun (Essential criteria of antiquities) and Gu Shi Hua Pu (Gu's Album of painting). Other important it ems in the PDF library are "Zhong Guo Tao Ci Tu Lu - Chinese pottery and porcelain in the David Collection" by R. L. Hobson, "Shi Jie Tao Ci Quan Ji" (The world collection of porcelain) and "Tian Min Lou Cang Ci" (Porcelain collected in House of Tian Min). The library does not intend to expand and there is only a small budget to buy books. Chinese ceramics will be the main concern if any books are bought.

The Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies

The School of Oriental and African Studies, founded in 1917, adopted its present name in 1938. The nucleus of the Library was formed from a collection of oriental books owned by the London Institute, which contained, among the printed books and manuscripts, about 15,000 Chinese items collected by the missionary Robert Morrison when he worked in China during the early part of the 19th century. Many other collections entered the library as well, such as the rare volumes and unique items presented to King's College in 1835 by the orientalist William Marsden, including some works in Chinese and old travel books relating to China. A further collection was donated by Mr Yu Binghan and Mr Zheng Liangyu through their English friend Mr F. Anderson in the twenties. Sir John Jordan, the then B ritish Minister in Beijing, arranged to purchase 12,500 volumes of Chinese books on behalf of SOAS, which forms the "Anderson - Yu Ping Han - Chun Liang Yue collection". In 1935 Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston bequeathed his library to SOAS. He was the private tutor of the last Emperor, Pu Yi, from 1918-1925, and a professor of Chinese at SOAS between 1931 and 1937. His library, one of the fine st collections of Chinese and Far Eastern books in the country, consists of over 16,000 volumes. Another great leap in developing the Chinese collection in SOAS was made by Professor Walter Simon who visited the Far East between 1948-49 expressly to buy books (d'Orban 1988).

The Library of SOAS has over 750,000 volumes in its bookstock and currently receives about 5,000 periodicals. "It aims to acquire the important contributions to Asian and African scholarship published anywhere in the world in the humanities and social sciences as well as representative collections of literature written in Asian and African languages." (Introduction to SOAS Library). Its acquis ition policy follows the range of subjects taught in the School. The art and archaeology section of the library was established in 1957 when the Courtauld Institute of Art Library deposited their Asian collection on permanent loan with SOAS. This collection includes many gifts and bequests and amounts to some 3,750 volumes of books and approximately 15,000 photographs, slides and other material s. The main areas of the Courtauld collection were art and archeology in the Far East and also included many volumes of Chinese and Japanese texts. Altogether there are about 8,500 volumes of books on Chinese art in SOAS library. The important items include the photographic archive of the Palace and Central Museums' Collection; 32 studies of Chinese paintings of flowers, insects, birds, fish a nd fruit, and 11 late Qing cartoon pictures of Chinese life; the Johnston Collection of Chinese paintings which includes an album of flower paintings by Chen Shu signed and presented to Johnston by Pu Yi on 6th July 1926; and more than 60 Chinese popular prints and over 30 rubbings.

SOAS’ acquisitions policy has changed in recent years because its budget for art books has become very tight. Today it spends more money on Western language materials than on Chinese language books. Acquisitions depend very much on the on-going courses; books suggested on tutor's reading lists, reference books, and books needed either by the tutors or by the students, are priorities for acquis ition.

The National Art Library of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The NAL originated as the Library of the School of Design at Somerset House which was set up in 1837, under the auspices of the Board of Trade. Its aim was to train craftsmen in practical techniques and to stimulate in them a knowledge of art. Henry Cole moved the School and its Library to Marlborough House in 1852 and appointed the first full-time Librarian. The small teaching collection of objects grew rapidly, following acquisitions made from the Great Exhibition in 1851. In 1857 the Library and the evolving Museum moved to its present site in South Kensington, and the Library began to attract rich donations and rare works, such as the collection of Alexander Dyce and John Forster. The Library moved into a purpose-built range of rooms in 1884 and since then its collection has be en continually expanding (Esteve-Coll 1986).

The Library's collection policy is closely connected with the mission of the Museum which is to increase the understanding and enjoyment of art, craft and design through its collections. The stock includes prints, drawings and paintings, furniture and woodwork, textiles and dress, ceramics and glass, metalwork, sculpture, the art and design of the Far East, India and South East Asia; the Librar y also collects material charting the history of the art, craft and design of the book (van der Wateren & Watson 1993). Since the Far Eastern Collection of the V&A is one of the eight collecting departments of the V&A, books on Chinese art are within the scope of the NAL's collecting policy.

There are about 1600 volumes on Chinese art in Chinese, and about another 800 volumes in other languages covering various subjects in Chinese art.

Departmental libraries of museums and working libraries of auction houses

Departmental libraries of museums and working libraries of auction houses form extremely important resources of information for museum curators and auction house professionals. They are very specialised and geared specially for the staff who work there. They usually have very good collections of books related to the subject specialism of the institution. For example, the book collection in th e Department of Oriental Antiquities of the British Museum is very comprehensive, covering broad subjects in Chinese art and with strong holdings in subjects such as bronzes, ceramics, jades and Chinese painting. The collection in the Far Eastern Collection of the V&A is strong in subjects such as ceramics, Chinese decorative art, dress and textiles. The main specialism in the library of Chris tie's is ceramics, followed by jade, bronze and painting and reflects trends of the Chinese art market in the West.

Public libraries and others

Westminster Reference Library has the biggest art collection of all public libraries in London. Its collection of books on Chinese art is reasonable but basic. Of the 32,000 volumes in stock about 300 volumes focus on Chinese art. There are no Chinese language materials in the collection and most of the books on Chinese art are in English, with some other European languages. Almost all of th em were published in this century, many are introductory monographs, and some are exhibition catalogues. They generally meet the public's need, because most of the users of this subject-collection are school children and some college students. The biggest collection of Chinese books in a public library is held at Charing Cross Road library. They have about 9,000 volumes of Chinese books, about 150 volumes of which are texts on art. Most of them are basic text books, such as books on how to draw a tree, or how to study landscape paintings. The readership is the general public from the Chinese community.

Other institutions whose libraries have some books on Chinese art include the Great Britain China Centre and the Royal Asiatic Society. Both have small collections of books on Chinese art - about 200 volumes each - to suit general interests. Most of these are in English and published this century. Both are open to members only. Some art colleges in London also have a few general books on Chi nese art, such as Central St. Martins College of Art and Design, and Chelsea College of Art. The latter are available only to the students of the college.

Indexes and catalogues

Libraries which provide information on Chinese art have different indexing and cataloguing systems. Some libraries are partly automated, such as the library of BLCC, SOAS and NAL, but most of the libraries are still using a card cataloguing system. The computerised system used by SOAS and NAL is designed for cataloguing Western rather than Chinese books. The BLCC uses the Allegore-C Chinese database system for new acquisitions and is networked with Leeds University Library and the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The PDF library has not been automated, although some books and periodicals are catalogued on the SOAS computer. None of the libraries of museum departments or auction houses have been automated and they are not staffed by professional librarians. Some of these libraries hav e card catalogues, others have no catalogue at all. There is no intention to computerise the libraries of the auction houses. However, in the V&A Far Eastern Department and the British Museum Department of Oriental Antiquities curators hope that one day their library will be computer catalogued and networked. The NAL will eventually catalogue the books in the V&A’s Far Eastern Department on th e NAL system, and the BM’s Department of Oriental Antiquities has been thinking of having an in-house database (preferably Paradox) for a long time. Curators in both FEC and OA feel an urgent need for better organised and computerised libraries. Automation of the catalogue would enhance access to the collections for staff, and might eliminate the acquisition of duplicate material. In terms of actual cataloguing of Chinese books, most librarians find that dividing and grouping Romanised Chinese characters and cataloguing cu shu (serials) are the most difficult tasks.

Book are shelved in different ways in the various libraries. BLCC and NAL do not provide readers with open access to their book stacks, and shelve books according to size rather than subject in order to save space. Readers at these institutions have to allow a certain amount of time for the books to be retrieved. Books in SOAS, PDF and other libraries are shelved more or less according to sub ject, and SOAS also separates books according to language and size. Here readers can access bookshelves freely, excepting some books in special collections. Libraries of museum departments and auction houses are also shelved by subject, and the shelves are arranged for the convenience of the people who work there.


In order to gain a perspective of users’ views I conducted a research project by sending out postal questionnaires, conducting interviews and undertaking case studies. The research results show that users of materials on Chinese art in London libraries include students and lecturers from institutions which have courses on Chinese art, curators from those museums which have Chinese collections, dealers and collectors who are interested in the Chinese art market, and the general public. Their interest areas cover a wide range of subjects. Most of the research students, museum curators, lecturers and Chinese art historians have fair Chinese language skills. Other types of readers, such as undergraduate students, art dealers and collectors, have very limited Chinese language skills. Wh en users look for materials, language and date of publication are usually not a primary concern. Journals and general reference books are considered to be the most used types of material. The next most popular materials are exhibition catalogues, followed by research monographs, sales catalogues, rare books and manuscripts.

Generally, the majority of users were satisfied with information provision on Chinese art in London libraries. However, the degree of satisfaction differs from one person to another and depends on what research they are carrying out, and to what degree they need the information. Some worries and concerns were expressed by readers, especially when comparing information provision in London to th at in other European and American libraries, and also in view of the fast-growing Chinese publishing industry. They generally felt that the collections in London were very good for old material, but due to economic constraints, new materials and technology were not as good as those in Germany and the USA, and the London libraries did not keep up with the pace of new publications in China.

Another problem for users relates to access to Chinese art-related materials provided by library catalogues. I can best illustrate this by describing a particular case study which I carried out as part of my survey, when I accompanied a Chinese PhD student, currently studying early Taoist sculpture at SOAS, on a visit to the SOAS library. He was looking for books on ancient Chinese mirrors. He walked straight to the shelves of the art section, ignoring the computer and card catalogues. He did not know the pressmarks of the books he was seeking, but he knew roughly where they would be found on the shelves, and after five minutes or so he discovered them. As a librarian, I was baffled by his steadfast refusal to consult the catalogue, which should in principle have saved him time an d effort. When challenged, he gave a number of reasons to explain why the catalogue was of little use to him. The difficulties which European cataloguers face in Romanising and translating the Chinese language have led to all kinds of inconsistencies and inaccuracies, making the use of the catalogue a very hit and miss affair. The problems are compounded by the existence of two different roman ising systems, Wade-Giles and Pinyin, both of which are found at different points in the SOAS catalogue. My user searched for "gu jing", the Chinese word for "ancient mirror", as subject keywords in the SOAS OPAC, but many of the titles suggested were irrelevant and featured words which have the same pronunciations as "gu" and "jing", but are different characters in Chinese.

The difficulty of producing user-friendly and consistent catalogues for researchers using Chinese language material is considerable and no London library seems to have found an adequate solution. This problem is likely to affect serious academic researchers more than general readers.

Other comments and suggestions from readers are made from different angles. Some are related to the accessibility of the collections. Most of the readers consider it very important to have open access shelving system in all libraries, all the books on the same subject being kept together for readers to browse through. They consider this extremely important for art-related subjects. Many read ers complained that the BLCC and the NAL were too difficult to gain access to, and then they have to wait a long time for the books to be delivered. Some readers suggested that librarians should have more specialist subject knowledge. Complaints were also made by teaching staff in SOAS about insufficient copies of basic text-books for students; and that the SOAS Library needs to work more close ly with the Department of Art and Archaeology. Many readers hope to access all libraries' catalogues of holdings through one computer terminal and suggested that co-ordination and co-operation should be set up between the libraries.


The four main libraries which provide information on Chinese art in London all have their different strengths and weaknesses. SOAS library is the best information provider on Chinese art. The BLCC is needed for its national collection of Chinese books and it acts as a library of last resort. The NAL's strengths are its provision of exhibition catalogues, and general books on both Western and Eastern art and art theories. The PDF specialises in providing substantial materials on Chinese ceramics. However, many aspects can be improved in order to allow thesse resources to be fully used, such as standardizing cataloguing systems, carrying out co-operation between libraries, creating a union list of holdings and keeping consistency in the romanisation of the Chinese script. London is s till an important centre for studying Chinese art, and it is vital that more effort and money should be spent on its resources in order to maintain this crucial role.


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