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Chinese art

Chinese Collection

Our Chinese Collections span more than 500 printed books and manuscripts and 1,000 watercolour paintings, from 18th and 19th century China to the second largest Mo-So collection in Europe which contains over 100 pictographic and syllabic texts from a remote area close to Tibet.  Much of this extraordinary collection of over 500 printed books and manuscripts was acquired by Enriqueta Rylands in 1901 through her purchase of the Crawford Collection, and represents a classical Chinese library.

The collection includes histories; geographical works and narratives of travels; biographies; ceremonials; dictionaries; encyclopaedias; botanical and medical treatises; grammar books; compendia of poetry and prose literature; and works on calligraphy in Chinese, English, French and Latin. The collection is also noteworthy for the comparatively small number of imperfect works. Many items contain beautiful woodcut illustrations.

Particularly exciting is a large-folio album of copperplate engravings, hailed as the UK’s finest example of the art, containing a very rare complete set of ‘Twenty views of the European palaces in the Garden of Perfect Brightness’. There are only four known complete sets of this album in the world and ours uniquely includes an additional unfinished coloured painting.

The Mo-So collection consists of notebooks made by dto-mbas (shamans) for the performance of secret ceremonies and was acquired between 1916 and 1920 from the botanist George Forrest, one of the few Europeans to have lived with the Naxi community in the ancient Mo-So capital, LiKiang.  The Mo-So collection provides unparalleled insights into the way a remote community lived in and understood the world and presents the development of an ancient civilisation and a unique pictographic writing system. The city of LiKiang and its writing have been recognised as part of our World Heritage and World Memory Legacy by UNESCO.

Work to date

We have recently digitised an album of copperplate engravings of European palaces. Each individual plate was digitally stitched; and these high quality images are now available online. These prints offer a unique picture of the original appearance of the palaces which were looted and burned during the Second Opium War in 1860.

Working with leading Chinese scholars from around the world we have undertaken a pilot project to look more closely at the printed books and manuscript collection so that we can better appreciate its international significance.

Future Projects

There are only a handful of people left in the world today who can read the texts in the Mo-So collection, and because these texts were written on handmade paper and hand bound, urgent conservation work is required to prevent the collection being irrevocably damaged by the processes of ageing and handling. 

Through detailed appraisal of these collections researchers working in the Library will be able to fill gaps in current knowledge, forge collaborative research relationships, expand the network of scholars in this field and make their findings available to wider audiences. Moreover, intensive study of these collections will further promote Chinese Studies as a research field within The University of Manchester and the UK today.