Introducing our Chinese collections
Chinese books have been part of the Bodleian Libraries’ collections since the Library’s foundation in 1602.
The first known acquisition of a Chinese book dates to 1604. Our founder – Sir Thomas Bodley – was instrumental in starting this collection, even though he did not speak or understand Chinese. His handwriting appears in the 1604 book.
The collection grew over the following four centuries and it continues to grow today.
It is now one of the most significant Chinese rare book and manuscript collections outside China, containing the largest number of Chinese books that arrived in Europe in 17th century.
As part of a ten-year project funded by Chung Hon Dak Foundation, we have digitised over 1,800 items, as well as worked with the local Chinese community to explore our collections in more detail.
Here you can explore six highlight objects and themes introducing the collections.
Explore the digitised Chinese collections on Digital Bodleian
Selden Map of China
The Selden Map of China was one of the first Chinese maps to reach Europe. It came into the Bodleian Library in 1659 from the estate of the London lawyer John Selden.
Its importance was recognised in 2008 by Professor Robert Batchelor who noted two distinguishing factors.
Firstly, it did not just show China at the centre of the map but the whole of East and Southeast Asia. Secondly, it is the earliest example Chinese merchant shipping routes – showing China's exchange with the rest of the world at a time when it was supposed to be isolated.
Explore the map in more detail on Digital Bodleian
Journey to the West – otherwise known as The Monkey King – is one of the great Chinese novels. It tells the story of a Buddhist monk's travels to the Western regions and his trials and adventures as part of this journey.
This version is one of the earliest editions of the book. It has been in the Bodleian Libraries' collections since the mid-seventeenth century.
Written in colloquial Chinese language, this particular edition was for popular consumption.
It is the only known copy to have survived anywhere in the world.
Explore the novel in more detail on Digital Bodleian
This is the story of how the first recorded Chinese visitor to Britain ended up in Oxford in 1687.
At that time, the Bodleian Library had about 100 books in Chinese, but no one at the library could read or understand them.
Sheng Fuzong was brought to the Library by the then Bodley's Librarian – Thomas Hyde – to help understand the collections.
There follows a story of one of the earliest recorded exchanges between Chinese and English scholars.
The Bodleian Libraries' collections contains several copies of the Four Books (Shishu).
These books are the authoritative books of Confucianism.
This film explore both the significance of the Four Books in Chinese culture, but also the particular significance of an early surviving edition which made its way to Europe and was bought by our founder – Sir Thomas Bodley – in 1604.
Even without being able to read it, Bodley felt it was an important book to collect and bring back to the Library.
Explore the copy bought by Sir Thomas Bodley in Digital Bodleian
These two items – an acupuncture chart and a herbal medicine book – explore the theme of Chinese medicine.
The items themselves date from the seventeenth century, but they are still recognised in Chinese medicinal practice today.
The antimalarial drug – artemisinin – derives from traditional Chinese medicine.
There is ongoing research into the science behind the effectiveness of both herbal medicine and on acupuncture.
Explore the acupuncture chart in more detail on Digital Bodleian
This illustrated album was made in 1817.
It includes illustrations of the people living in Yunnan, in China's south west border.
The album was made on the orders of the Chinese Emperor to discover what was happening in that area of the Chinese Empire at the time.
It depicts the traditions and cultures of minority groups in China at that time.
Explore the album in Digital Bodleian
This project has been made possible thanks to funding from Chung Hon Dak Fund.