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Chinese language collections: History and scope

This page describes the historical Chinese language collections held in the Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections of the British Library. See the page on catalogues and guides for details of how to find items in these collections.

Earliest acquisitions

The earliest acquisitions of Chinese books were from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum (established in 1753). Further Chinese volumes came from the Harleian, Old Royal and Landsdowne bequests.

In the early 19th century there were such donations as: 'A collection of books and manuscripts in the Sanskrit, Chinese and other oriental languages bequeathed by the late Joseph Fowler who died at Sigaur in India, December 1825'; and, most prominently, the 11,500 works in the collection of John Robert Morrison (1814-43), Chinese Secretary to the Colonial Secretariat in Hong Kong.

Diamond Sutra

The most important printed item in the Chinese collections is the Diamond Sutra (Jingang jing) of 868 AD, the earliest extant, complete and dated 'book' in the world. It is part of the Stein Collection.

Stein Collection

The most important items in the Chinese language collections are

* the unique groups of Buddhist and secular paper documents, of the 5th-11th centuries AD, found in the walled-up library of a Buddhist cave temple at Dunhuang, in Chinese Central Asia, and
* the woodslip administrative documents (approximately 5,000) from Chinese garrisions in the Gobi Desert, which are 2,000 years old.
These were acquired by Aurel Stein after three expeditions to Chinese Central Asia. His finds also included many manuscripts in other languages, along with archaeological artefacts, textiles and paintings. They were divided between the British Museum, India Office Library and the Museum of Central Asian Antiquities, Delhi. There is also textile material in the V&A Museum. They are curated by the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) in the British Library.

With the founding of the British Library in 1973, the Stein finds were further sub-divided between the British Library (mainly manuscript sutras and woodslips) and British Museum (mainly paintings and artefacts). All the Stein and other Central Asian materials in institutions worldwide are being digitised and being made freely available online through IDP.

Morrison Collection

This comprises manuscript maps from the collection of John Robert Morrison (Morrison the Younger), son of Robert Morrison, missionary and compiler of the famous Chinese dictionary, which was deposited in 1846.

Gordon Papers

Two family collections relating to the career of General Charles ('Chinese') Gordon and the 'Ever Victorious Army', which helped to suppress the Taiping rebels in the mid- 19th century. 

Deposited in 1881 and 1887, the papers include letters from Chinese government officials, such as Li Hongzhang, and from several Taiping leaders.

Boxer Collection

After the Boxer uprising of 1900, 45 juan of the Ming period (1368-1644) encyclopaedic manuscript compilation Yongle dadian were 'rescued from the fire of the Hanlin Academy', in Beijing, and deposited with the Library. Several more juan have been acquired subsequently.

Tiananmen Archive

A collection of original documents, photographs, photocopies and related publications has been assembled since June 4th, 1989.

Oracle bones

The Couling-Chalfant collection of Shang period oracle bones (c. 1600-1050 BC) was made in China during the early years of the 20th century, and subsequently divided between the British Library, Cambridge University Library and the National Museums of Scotland. These are the oldest items in the British Library.

Other manuscripts

There are numerous other manuscripts whose value lies in their illustrations. For example, one commemorates the Qianlong emperor's tour of the south, in the 18th century. Others illustrate Chinese trades and occupations and the national minority peoples of China.

India Office Library (IOL)

The small collection of Chinese items in the India Office Library was developed gradually on the basis of 'parcels from members of the factory at Canton...'. In 1858, after the publication of Stanislaus Julien's work on Xuanzang, the great Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, H. H. Wilson procured 'from China the voluminous Buddhist works' which form the greater part of the collection.

The earliest acquisitions include interesting and important publications such as two Jesuit works printed in China, the Sapienta Sinica of Da Costa and Intorcetto (Jianchang, 1662) and Daodejing with 'Latin translation, paraphrastic rendering and notes' by Joseph de Grammont, SJ (1736-1812), mathematician and musician to the court at Beijing. These were part of the small collection of books presented to the India Office Library by the Royal Society.

The bulk of the IOL Chinese collection comprises woodblock printed, mainly Buddhist texts of the late Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) periods, many of which are illustrated.

India Office Records (IOR)

The India Office Records contain a considerable amount of information on, for example, aspects of China's trade, Western attempts to penetrate it by means of the factories in Japan (1612-23), Taiwan and Xiamen (Amoy, 1672-85), and the Courteen voyage to Guangzhou (Canton, 1637). The Records also include materials on the political history of the border areas of China. 

The main series of China Factory Records, comprising some 360 volumes, covers the East India Company's trade at Guangzhou between 1721 and the end of its monopoly in 1833. The subsequent shift of emphasis from trade to politics is documented in the several thousand files or other gatherings among the various series of India Office Departmental Papers. For instance, in the Political and Secret Department, Letters and Enclosures from India for 1875 alone include 19 items (totalling 450 pages) relating to Kashgaria and Yunnan, and Annual Files 1912-13 contain 769 files of 'China interest'.

Prints and drawings

The Prints, Drawings and Photographs Section of the Asia, Pacific and African Collections possesses some noteworthy albums of drawings and paintings made for the East India Company, illustrating Chinese furniture, architecture, and trades and occupations. The most interesting items are the 'Alexander sketchbooks', by William Alexander, the artist who accompanied Lord Macartney's embassy to China in 1792-4.

William Alexander's diary and Macartney and Barrow manuscripts are held in the Department of Manuscripts.


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