A short walk from Yuehu Park will take you to Ningbo’s most famous landmark: Tianyige Library. As the oldest private library in China, it has stood in the city center for more than 450 years, passing from generation to generation after it was built by Fan Qin, a vice minister of war in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The two-story wooden structure was the blueprint for royal libraries, including the one in the Forbidden City built in Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The historic library’s books have been moved to a nearby modern facility for better protection, but you can still have a look at the building itself, feeling the contrast between its ancient appearance and how surprisingly well it protected its books for centuries. If you are a fan of mahjong, there is a mahjong museum next to the library, explaining the history and development of the most popular board game in China.
Tianyige(Chinese: 天一阁) Library , the largest private library in China, got its name from “I Ching,” or the “Book of Changes.” According to this classic book of yin and yang, which may date back to the second millennium BC, a combination of “tian” (sky) and “yi” (one) gives birth to water.
This magical name has protected the library and its books from fire for more than 400 years.
Before the trip, I’d heard a lot about Tianyige, such as it’s the oldest private library in China and has more than 300,000 historical books.
However, the building itself was quite different from what I’d imagined — a modest two-story wooden structure.
From its appearance, it could be taken for an ordinary residence of a big family.
The library pavilion was built in 1561 as a private study for Fan Qin, who served as secretary of defense during Emperor Jiajing’s reign in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It was not uncommon for ancient Chinese scholars to possess private libraries. Books were a sign of wealth and cultural status, and Fan was an avid collector.
The Fan family adopted a discipline that no one in the family was allowed to claim any of the books as personal property, and books were prohibited from being taken out of the pavilion. The collection today is the most extensive accumulation of information on the education, economic development, literary and revolutionary history of Ningbo.
Tianyige Museum, which includes the library, a living area and the garden of the Fan family, covers over 31,000 square meters. Some of the rooms have been transformed into exhibition halls, where ancient Chinese manuscripts are available for public viewing. The garden itself is worth a visit. Its traditional style provides tranquil solace for all who walk there.
The modern museum is now home to around 300,000 volumes — and rising. With high-tech temperature and humidity control equipment and huge modern shelves, these historic books are finally safe.
One third of the books are already digitalized so book lovers can flip through the yellowed pages on the museum’s website without touching the actual volume.
Located in the city of Ningbo, Zhejiang province, Tian Yi Ge Museum is China’s oldest private library existing today. It is also Asia’s oldest library.
The construction of Tian Yi Ge, started in 1561 and finished in 1586, was led by Fan Qing, a government official during the mid-Ming Dynasty.
Fan Qing loved collecting ancient books. After receiving the collection from Wanjuan Tower in Jin County, he had a total collection of more than 70,000 books. In 1772, Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty ordered the compilation of the Si Ku Quan Shu (Complete Library in the Four Branches of Literature) to be made. Fan Maozhu, a descendant of Fan Qing, contributed 638 books.
Although there are many book collectors, not so many of them can preserve their collections for more than 100 years. The reason why Fan’s collection is still preserved to this day is closely related to his way of management. One of the early rules of Tian Yi Ge was that no one outside the Fan family should be admitted into the library, keeping it unknown from the outside word. It was not until 1673 that Huang Zongxi, a great philosopher and historian, became the first “outsider” to have the privilege of going into the library and reading the many books in the collection. After the visit, Huang listed the books, which were not circulated in society, and wrote an article documenting his visit to the library.