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

Destruction Of Chinese Books In The Peking Siege Of 1900

Donald G. Davis, Jr.
University of Texas at Austin, USA

Cheng Huanwen
Zhongshan University, PRC


The destruction of cultural treasures has attracted the fascination of scholars for centuries and no more than in modern times. Since before Alexandria, the effects of natural and human disasters on books and libraries have received attention in lamentation, if not in description and explanation. In instances of expropriation and theft, cultural treasures may sometimes be returned to their pla ce of ownership; in cases of loss to fire, flood, and other elements, there is little to be done.i Individual incidents may include both kinds of threats. In the post-colonial and post-Cold War era of the past quarter-century delicate questions about cultural artifacts and books have been raised and addressed, sometimes for the first time in a serious manner.

The destruction and dispersal of the bibliographic contents of the Hanlin Yuan (or Hanlin Academy, imperial center for scholarly studies) in Peking in 1900 is one such event that has stirred the curiosity of some library historians. The 1996 IFLA Conference in Beijing would seem to be a memorable opportunity to open and discuss the matter. Thus, this paper seeks to outline the historical conte xt of the event, review the actions leading to actual destruction, describe the significance of the collection concerned, assess the extent and consequences of the loss, and in conclusion, place the event in modern library history.

The Boxer Uprising and Western Interests

The siege of the Allied Legations by the Boxers, known in China as the Yihetuan Movement, in the summer of 1900 was not an isolated series of events. It must be seen as one expression of mounting tension between the Chinese people and government and the Western powers with their commercial, military, and religious aspirations. Because the siege involved diplomatic missions of European nations, the United States, and Japan, it attracted worldwide attention in a way that previous incidents had not. For the Chinese, however, the two-month episode was, in the words of one historian, "of trivial significance," because it was eclipsed by the aftermath of humiliating concessions and crushing reparations.ii

Nineteenth-Century China witnessed a recurring cycle of "fragmentation and reform" as the Great Britain and other powers resisted efforts of the Chinese to curb the opium trade, commercial exploitation, and missionary activity.iii Far too complex to detail here, one can recall the Opium Wars of 1839-1842 and 1857-1858 in the southeast, the Taiping Movement of 1851-1866 in the central region and centered in Nanjing, the Muslim Revolts of 1855-1873 in the northwest and southwest, along with the loss of satellite states. All contributed to the effort to strengthen the imperial government through military preparedness and limited reforms. This program suffered setbacks later in the century in disastrous wars with France (1880s) and Japan (1894-1895), as well as ominous threats from Russia.

The carving up of the periphery of the Chinese empire, and the Yangzi River with treaty ports and concession regions brought both some adaptation of Western administrative practices and much antipathy to reflective Chinese citizens. A brief attempt at reform by Emperor Guangxu under the leadership of Kang Youwei in the summer of 1898 was stifled by the empress dowager Cixi who had in effect rul ed China for the Qing dynasty since the 1860s. The cumulative frustrations of all these factors seemed set to break out again.

Shandong province that had seen perhaps the greatest degree of recent encroachment by Western powers was the source a revived popular movement against foreigners in general, missionaries in particular, and most of all Chinese who had adopted Christianity. Beginning in 1898--the "Fists United in Righteousness," as they called themselves, or "Boxers," as they were known in the West--drew upon secret-society and magical rites, reminiscent of the Small Sword Society, Red Lantern groups, and the White Lotus sect of earlier times. Claiming to be invulnerable to bullets and swords and believing in folk mythologies that involved religion and street rituals, the Boxers called for the revocation of special considerations enjoyed by Chinese and European Christians and by 1899 had begun to destroy property and kill converts as well as foreigners in Shandong and Hebei provinces.iv At the same time a massive Yellow River flood seemed to call for desperate measures against nature and the foreigners.

The Western powers were shocked by Boxer Uprising but saw in the crisis an opportunity to extend their influence and ensure their security. Thus, they looked to the Qing Government to employ serious strategies to quell the Yihetuan Movement, on the one hand, while at the same time through negotiation (28-20 May) they prepared their own forces to take action. On 31 May more than 400 men of the Allied forces entered Beijing to "protect the Legations."v Shortly thereafter the Boxers entered the capital, preceded by scores of Western missionaries and thousands of Chinese converts. On 10 June the Allied force--consisting of 2,064 men representing Austria-Hungary, France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States of America under the leadership of British Admir al Seymour--landed at Dagu, Tianjin. The next day the Boxers killed a Japanese diplomat; and the following day the Allied force took the forts at Dagu that guarded the entrance to Tianjin, the lifeline and railhead to Beijing. On 20 June a German minister was killed on his way to the the ZongliYamen [Office for the Management of Business of All Foreign Countries--or Foreign Commerce Office] in the the capital. The next day the Qing Government felt compelled to declare war on the Allied forces and ordered the imperial Qing soldiers and the Boxers, some 200,000 strong, to lay siege to the Legation Quarter, defended by about 450 guards. The siege would last until relief from an expeditionary force that entered the capital on 14 August.vi

The Siege and Destruction of the Hanlin

The Siege of Peking--called by one historian, "the episode best remembered abroad" of the Boxer Uprising--was a dramatic event that captured worldwide attention that minor incidents did not.vii It is not within the scope of this paper to recount the actual siege, its lifting, or its aftermath--exciting though it may be. Once the attacks began in earnest with the encouragement o f the Empress Dowager, the Allied hostages and their Christian Chinese converts, prepared for a siege of unknown duration, by consolidating their small area of control and fortification by withdrawing from the exposed extremities and resettling nearly 3,000 people into the remaining quarters.

Not long after the first assault when Sir Claude MacDonald emerged as commander-in-chief, on Saturday, 23 June, the Chinese tested the perimeter of the western side of the enclave by burning an area of native dwellings south of the British Legation. Fire became a new frightening tactic. To the north of the Legation was situated the Hanlin Yuan, a complex of courtyards and buildings that housed "the quintessence of Chinese scholarship . . . the oldest and richest library in the world."viii A late morning fire there was quelled and the compound cleared of Chinese troops.ix The British became worried that the incendiary intentions of the attackers might include this vulnerable site, the buildings at some point being only an arm's length from the British building walls. On th e other hand the Allies, knowing of the Chinese veneration for their cultural heritage, felt that they would face no destructive threat from that direction.x

Yet, on Sunday, 24 June, when the winds shifted to come strongly from the north, the unanticipated happened: the buildings of Hanlin, and the Library that abutted the British building, began burning on a bigger scale than that of the previous day. As Fleming summarizes contemporary descriptions, "The old buildings burned like tinder with a roar which drowned the steady rattle of musketry as Tung Fu-shiang's Moslems fired wildly through the smoke from upper windows." Through a hole in their own wall that was near one of the Hanlin cloisters, the British Royal Marines hastened through the breach, followed by a motley crew of others who formed a human bucket brigade. To quote Flemming again,

Some of the incendiaries were shot down, but the buildings were an inferno and the old trees standing round them blazed like torches. It seemed as if nothing could save the British Legation, on whose security the whole defence depended. But at the last minute the wind veered to the north-west and the worst of the danger was over.

The fire-fighters had already demolished the nearest of Hanlin halls. The next one was the library.

An eyewitness, Lancelot Giles, son of Herbert A. Giles, described the situation as follows: "An attempt was made to save the famous Yung Lo Ta Tien [now spelled Yong Lo Da Dia], but heaps of volumes had been destroyed, so the attempt was given up. I secured vol. [section] 13,345 for myself."xi

The Chinese have suggested that the British destroyed the library as a defensive measure; however, the British account, noting the direction of the wind, have maintained that the "Chinese set fire to the Hanlin, working systematically from one courtyard to the next." Important as this issue is, it is eclipsed by the significance of the Hanlin library itself and of its destruction to f ire and booty collectors.

The Contents of the Hanlin Library

The exact contents of the Hanlin Library is not known with certainty. No record of its collections survives. What is known is that the materials housed in it were irreplaceable. Among the collections was the noted encyclopedic collection of volumes, Yong Lo Da Dia, commissioned by the Ming Dynasty's emperor in the early Fifteenth Century, and the original texts of Siku Quan Shu, the Four Treas ure Library, to be discussed below.xii One of the largest works of its kind ever produced, the first encyclopedia was compiled between 1403 and 1407 by the Yung Lo Emperor, Chu Ti (1403-1424), and consisted of 22,937 sections (or chuan) of which sixty were the table of contents. Altogether the 22,937 sections (chuan) or works in 11,095 handwritten folio volumes contained more than 370 m illion words--or twelve times Diderot's famous encyclopedia of the Eighteenth Century.xiii

After a bloody accession and at the suggestion of chancellor Hsieh Chin, the Emperor, a patron of literature, authorized and implemented the collection and copying of the literary treasures of China's past and gave his chancellor the task of oversight. Headquartered in the imperial library at Nanjing, more than two thousand scholars and many imperial officials participated in the compilation wo rk and some of them scoured the countryside for texts that the had not been seen in the imperial library nor replicated since the ancient times; ultimately some eight thousand books from the ancient times through the early Ming Dynasties were included in the vast compilation. They covered an array of subjects, including agriculture, art, astronomy, drama, geology, history, literature, medicine, natural sciences, religion, and, technology, as well as descriptions of unusual natural events.

Because of the cost of woodblock cutting, the encyclopedia was never printed, but existed in a single manuscript copy in Nanjing and then moved with the capital to Beijing in 1421 and housed in the emperor's palace in the Forbidden City. After being threatened in a fire in 1557, a second set was produced in the 1560s and housed in the Huang Shi Chen (the imperial Archive), and then moved to the Hanlin Library during the period of the Emperor Yong Zheng (1723-1736). The original texts of Yong Lo Da Dia in Nanjing possibly perished by fire in 1449, and the first manuscript copy possibly perished in the collapse of the Ming Dynasty.xiv The remaining copy was than housed in the Hanlin Yuan where, although venerated by scholars and emperors, it was gradually diminished through a variety o f circumstances. Some items were subject to theft by collectors or speculators seeking precious items to keep or sell. Other items were lost to poor preservation and fell prey to environmental conditions, insects, and rodents. Warfare and fire accounted for another segment of the collection. Some calculations suggest that of the 11,095 volumes existing in 1407, only about 800 remained in 1900 --the greatest number of losses occurring in the late Nineteenth Century.

Assessment of Destruction and Loss

During and after the several hours in which the Hanlin library burned and smoldered, the British and other Legation personnel entered the library and rescued or simply removed some of the volumes that were left intact. Fleming relates:

A few undamaged books and manuscripts were salvaged more or less at random by sinologues. Some of the hand-carved wooden blocks on which works of great antiquity were preserved found their way into the British Legation; they were used by the Marines for shuttering up loopholes and by the children, among whom "Boxers" was now the only fashionable game, for constructing miniature barri cades.

Otherwise, the Hanlin and its treasures, laboriously accumulated down the centuries, perished in a few hours. Vandalism so wanton and so decisive would have been hard to forgive if it had ben committed in a conquered city as an act of retribution. History affords no comparable example of cultural felo de se.xv

No doubt during the remainder of the siege, as destruction of intervening buildings drew the lines drew closer, both Chinese and Allied fighters obtained additional artifacts as souvenirs.xvi

A later series of classic books, the Siku Quan Shu (the Four Treasure Library) was completed in 1782 during the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty. It consisted of some 3,500 selected titles in 36,000 manuscript volumes and included 385 books drawn from the Yong Lo Da Dia.xvii Several copies of this set have survived. But the bulk of the Fifteenth-Century collection and thee original texts of Siku Quan Sh u were irretrievably lost.

In the waning years of the Qing Dynasty established a national library that developed further with the coming of the Republic in 1912. That institution, known by various names, initiated an effort to recover as many volumes from the collection as possible. Throughout this century, more than 370 volumes, or about 810 sections (chuan) were accounted for in China and elsewhere. In the early 1950 s the Soviet Union returned 64 volumes from various repositories; East Germany returned three volumes in 1955. By 1959 the Peking Library possessed 216 volumes. There are currently 41 volumes in the United States at the Library of Congress. Chinese authorities have photocopied all known exemplars of the collection that were not in China, Two projects have begun publishing the extant works. Z hong Hua Shu Ju (Chinese Press) has published 797 sections (chuan) since 1959; the Taiwanese published 742 sections (chuan) of the collection in 100 volumes in 1962.xviii How many more volumes from this unique collection exist in European and Japanese research libraries or are in private hands is a matter of speculation. How many souvenir volumes, carried home by persons in the Allied Legation s in 1900 and hidden away in attic trunks, is unknown. Some could yet appear.


The destruction of what remained of the Hanlin library in 1900 through fire and pillage is more than just an interesting story. It has symbolic significance. First, it portrays the fragile nature of a civilization's written heritage. Vast compilations seem to devalue the originals on which they were based; that is, what was not chosen to be copied and passed on was most often lost. Second, in the case of China, it illustrates the threat of a modernity that causes antiquarian interests to suffer when practical relevance is unknown or at least unclear; that is, when a society seems to be moving ahead to a new era, the artifactual legacies of the ancient or even recent past seem of little interest except as curiosities. Third, in times of national upheaval, such as the Boxer Uprising, cultural treasures can fall prey to popular mass movements that do not appreciate them and even view their destruction as a positive thing; that is, unlettered groups destroy or allow to be destroyed, books that represent to them the accoutrements of oppression. Finally, this event, albeit a minor episode in national and world history for many, contains in microcosm the elements of the conflict of national cultures and the industrial powers of Nineteenth Century; that is, indigenous culture tends to suffer for a variety of reasons when other interests with greater power seriously threaten it.

In summary, this episode illustrates one of the results of a great nation's disintegrating cultural structure--a system that had governed it for centuries--that encountered the modern world. It contains all the explosive drama of the East-West encounter; elements of commercial exploitation, missionary zeal, and diplomatic interests; and military history combined with the emergence of new techno logies. In short, the loss of the Hanlin library symbolizes more than can be suggested in this short paper.


i. Jeannette Greenfield, The Return of Cultural Treasures (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

ii. Henry McAleavy, The Modern History of China (New York: Praeger, 1967), p. 166. Chapter 11 concerns "The Boxer Rising." A contemporary, historical perspective is the chronological treatment of Edwin Emerson, Jr., A History of The Nineteenth Century Year by Year, 3 vols. (New York: P.F. Collier and Son, 1901), vol. 3, pp. 1882-1895.

iii. Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990) provides thorough current treatment and perspective of this period in Section II, "Fragmentation and Reform," pp. 137-268. This supplements earlier standard works, such as Immanuel C. Y. Hsu, The Rise of Modern China, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), Part III, "Self-Strengthening in an Age of A ccelerated Foreign Imperialism, 1861-95," and Part IV, "Reform and Revolution, 1898-1912."

iv. The standard treatments of the subject in English are Joseph Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987); Victor Purcell, The Boxer Uprising: A Background Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963); and Chester C. Tan, The Boxer Catastrophe (New York: W. W. Norton, 1955). A source from contemporary Chinese sources is The Boxer Ri sing: A History of the Boxer Trouble in China, "Reprinted from the 'Shanghai Mercury,'" (New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp., 1967) in which there is a reference to official engagement in "plunder and incendiarism" that included the Hanlin (p. 51). Chinese treatments include the Historical Society of China, The Yihetuan [Movement], 4 vols. (Shanghai: Shanghai People Press, 1957); Ming and Ch ing Archive, The Archival Data of Yihetuan, 2 vols. (Beijing: Chinese Press, 1959) with Supplement, 2 vols. (1990); and The Historical Data of the Yihetuan, edited by the Institute for the History in the Modern Times, the Social Science Academy of China (Beijing: China Social Science Press, 1982).

v. The eleven legations included those of Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, Russia, Spain, and the United States of America.

vi. Yuan Yishu, A New Compilation of the History of China in the Modern Times, 3 vols. ((Beijing: People Press, 1986), vol. 2, pp. 638-655.

vii. Although commercial and missionary enterprises and their personnel had been in serious risk for some time, the danger of the diplomatic community brought the focus of the emerging global press. Though many participants wrote their memoirs of the event, perhaps the most engaging single volume in English is Peter Fleming, The Siege at Peking (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1959), reissued with introduction by David Bonavia (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1983) and in several printings since that time. It is the major English account used in this paper.

viii. Fleming, Siege, pp. 121-122. Unless otherwise noted, the direct quotations describing the Hanlin Yuan destruction come from this source. ix. Lancelot Giles, The Siege of the Peking Legations: A Diary (Nedlands, Aust.: University of Western Australia Press, 1970), pp. 125-127. This authentic account is one of the best British first-person narratives. Another informative narrative in the form of letters is B. L. Putnam Weale [pseudonym for Bertram Lenox Simpson], Indiscreet Letters from Peking: Being the Notes of an Eye-Witness . . . 1900, the Great Year of Tribulation (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1907, pp. 136-143, pt. 2, chapt. 3, "Fires and Food;" a Chinese translation of part 2 by Chen Yi Xiang and Chen Li Tai appears in The Yihetuan [Movement], vol. 2, pp. 199-394, and an ed ition published by Taibei: Wen Hai Publishing Company, 1970.

x. Richard O'Connor, The Spirit Soldiers: A Historical Narrative of the Boxer Rebellion (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1973), p. 134, emphasizes the incredulity that the Chinese would allow "use the Hanlin Library--which was not only a library but the premier academy of the empire, the Chinese Oxford/Heidelberg/ Sorbonne--as an instrument of military operations." The point is supported by Hen ry Keown-Boyd, The Fists of Righteous Harmony: A History of the Boxer Uprising in China in the Year 1900 (London: Lee Cooper, 1991), p.106-107.

xi. Herbert A. Giles, History of Chinese Literature (New York: Appleton-Century Company. 1937), p. XX. Giles, L. Siege, between pp. 128-129, has some of the few contemporary, printed photographs of the Hanlin building exteriors and a interior shot of the library.

xii. Brief mentions occur in survey articles by K. T. Wu, "China, Libraries in the People's Republic of," in Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science 4: (1974): 630; and Sharon Seymour, "China, People's Republic of," in Encyclopedia of Library History (New York: Garland Publishing, 1994), p. 134. I am indebted to a research paper by Hua Li, "The Story of Yung Lo Ta Tien," prepared for a graduate seminar, Library and Information Science Since 1500, GSLIS, University of Texas at Austin, Spring 1989, which is the source of otherwise undocumented information. See also Huang Aiping, A Study on the Compilation of Siku Quan Shu (Beijing: Chinese People University Press, 1989), pp. 280-282.

xiii. Zhang Chensi, A History of the Yong Lo Da Dia [Yung Lo Ta Tien] (Beijing: Chinese Press, 1986), pp. 3-4.

xiv. Zhang Chensi, Yong Lo Da Dia, pp. 12-13.xv. Fleming, Siege, pp. 122-123.

xvi. O'Connor, Spirit Soldiers, p. 135, relates the eyewitness account of Bertram Simpson, whose colleagues apparently did not appreciate his candor. Simpson describes an occasional "sinologue" who would select an armful of rarities and dash back through the flames only to be met by marines "with stern order to stop such literary looting." However, he thought that some copies must have found t heir way out of the library and "may be someday resurrected in strange lands."

xvii. These included 66 from the Confucian canon, 41 of history, 103 of philosophy, and 175 of poetry, according to Hua Li.

xviii. The University of Texas at Austin, among many other research libraries, has a copy of this set.