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Gems from the National Palace Museum’s Collection of Rare and Antiquarian Books

  • #Rare Books & Documents


Before the advent of the digital age, books were unquestionably the most important vessels for the knowledge that propelled the advance of history and expanded the boundaries of cultures and civilizations. The interrelationships of books has always been marked by complexity and mutual entanglement. Thus, regardless of where and how one cuts into any historical timeline, the patterns of interactions between multitudes of differing ideas are always on display, calling out for deeper understanding. When people of the present day come into close contact with the writings of the past, it is as though we are joining an extraordinary conversation that spans the ages. We may even find that this conversation connects profoundly to our lives in the present moment.

The National Palace Museum holds over 210,000 volumes of rare and antiquarian books from the past ages. The lion’s share of this collection came from the printed books and manuscripts formerly held in the Qing dynasty Forbidden City, which travelled from Beijing to Taiwan during the NPM’s southbound migration. Other titles were later donated or entrusted to the museum by collectors of all walks, or acquired over the years as a part of the museum’s ongoing search for worthy additions to its collection. Although in terms of quantity the NPM’s collection of ancient books is far from enormous, in terms of the diversity of its contents, its wealth of historical evidence, and its abundance of artistic and literary source material, the collection is a veritable treasure trove of East Asian history and civilization. The collection is a crucial resource for all who seek to confirm the authenticity and accuracy of ancient books, or simply to engage in scholastic contemplation; it is where one can explore material culture, trace the historical spread of the written word, and place one’s finger on the pulse of ancient works’ transmission and collection.

This exhibition is divided into five sections that highlight most outstanding aspects of the NPM’s book collection. These sections include: “The Tianlu Linlang Library of Rare Books,” which was the first imperial special collection of rare and antiquarian books established in China’s history; the “Complete Library of the Four Treasuries,” one of the NPM’s most distinctive and venerable national treasures; the complete Buddhist Canons in the Manchu and Tibetan languages, which were consecrated by the imperial palaces of the Ming and Qing dynasties; Yang Shoujing’s “The Hall of Gazing Upon the Sea,” which showcases dynamic interactions in East Asian scholastic and publishing traditions; and finally, a section exploring the diverse, epoch-spanning collection of rare and antiquarian books held in the former National Beiping Library. In addition to giving a broad variety of printed books and manuscripts the chance to reveal themselves and speak in their own voices, this exhibition sheds light upon the knowledge, craftsmanship, and aesthetics inherent in literary artifacts. In glimpsing these exhibits, we are better able to grasp how the editing, producing, collecting, and reading of books reveals a spirit of seeking truth and glorifying excellence woven deeply into the intergenerational transmission of culture and values.

May this exhibition serve as a trail leading us into the timeless terrain of bibliophilia, where awe-inspiring vistas abound. Let your eyes feast upon the beautiful items on display as you enjoy a pleasant stroll through this forest of letters!