Newsletter No. 53 (December 2008)

Fang Collection at National Library of Australia

Andrew Gosling

Former Chief Librarian (1985-2003)
Asian Collections, National Library of Australia

The latest print and online National Library of Australia News, December 2008, contains an article by Andrew Gosling on the Fang Collection about China's history and culture, including the oldest printed work held by the National Library, a Chinese Buddhist volume dated 1162 http://www.nla.gov.au/pub/nlanews/2008/dec08/story-1.pdf

Chaoying Fang (Fang Zhaoying), 1908-1985, was a distinguished historian and bibliographer, whose collection of around 6,000 books in Chinese and Western languages was acquired by the National Library in 1961. The article briefly outlines Fang's life in China, the United States and the period he spent at the Australian National University (1961-1963). It also describes his collection, particularly the 1162 Chinese volume from the Da ban ruo bo luo mi duo jing ('Greater sutra of the perfection of transcendent wisdom') as well as rare early European works on China. It should be noted that Fang's books were integrated into the Library's Chinese and Western holdings many years ago and are not shelved together as a formed collection. Around half are in Chinese and the rest is in English or in other Western languages. The range of subjects is broad. His primary interests were Chinese history and biography, especially of the Qing dynasty and the twentieth century. Other topics include Chinese art, archaeology, literature and philosophy. There are also works about neighbouring parts of East Asia, particularly Japan and Korea.

It is not known when and where Fang acquired the Buddhist volume dated 1162. It is a major exposition of Mahayana Buddhist doctrine. The famous pilgrim monk, Xuanzang, translated it from Sanskrit into Chinese between 660 and 663. Xuanzang had travelled through Central Asia to India, bringing back many Buddhist texts and he devoted the rest of his life to translating them. His travels also formed the basis for the well-known Chinese novel known in English as Monkey or Journey to the West. While the complete sutra consists of 600 volumes, the Library holds only volume 42, containing Fang's Chinese seal in red ink. A digitised version of this volume is now available at nla.gov.au/nla.gen-vn934588.

Although the National Library had long known that this work was rare, there were doubts about its real age. As part of my current project on the Library's Asian treasures, the book was inspected by experts and, in early 2008, Emeritus Professor Liu Ts'un-yan, an internationally renowned scholar on Chinese rare texts, at the Australian National University, stated that it was indeed from 1162. This was later confirmed by another specialist, Professor Lee Cheuk Yin, from the National University of Singapore, and by the Rare Books Department at the National Library of China.

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