Although they may not have seen a single book, visitors to Tianyige, the most ancient private library in China, nonetheless can feel that they are in a place conducive to reading and contemplation.
"The rule established by its original owner was that outsiders were not allowed to enter the library," Hu Ruizhi, a tour guide told her guests. "And none of the books could be taken out," she emphasized.
Although no longer a private library, Tianyige still follows the tradition of its original owner to ensure the preservation of the books in the library's collection.
Hidden in greenery next to Moon Lake in downtown Ningbo City, in east China's Zhejiang Province, Tianyige has survived for more than 430 years with its history, unique architectural design, and particularly valuable collections of ancient books and texts of past dynasties.
The two-story simple structure now houses over 300,000 volumes of ancient books and manuscripts, among which 640 volumes are the only existing copies, including woodcut copies and handwritten copies of works from the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911).
"The collection is a rich source of local chronicles and imperial examinations and precious materials for the study of history, people, and social customs and habits," said Luo Zhaoping, a research fellow with the Tianyige Museum, who published a paper focusing on the development of this private library, when it celebrated the 430th anniversary of its founding in 1996.
How has this library managed to survive for over four centuries is a question asked by many visitors.
"The library still stands thanks to the strict management of Fan Qin (1506-1585), the founder of the library," says Mao Zhenfang, a researcher with the library of Ningbo University. "And the 12 generations of his successors, who fully understood the founder's will and also shared his passion -- his love for books."
Born in 1506, Fan Qin lived in the reign of Ming Emperor Jiajing (1522-1566). He became an official at the age of 27 after he passed the highest imperial examination.
After that he worked in many places across the country, including today's Shaanxi and Henan provinces in the north, Guangdong, Guangxi and Yunnan in the south, and Fujian and Jiangxi in the east. He later became the vice-minister of National Defense of the Ming court.
But Fan had a special passion for books. Wherever he went, he never forgot his book collection. He paid special attention to the collection of local annals, records of political affairs and examination papers. He was also interested in poetry and prose engraved or printed by officials in various places around the country during the Ming Dynasty. Fan himself liked to make copies if he had rare prints.
At the age of 55, he retired and began the construction of his library. Five years later when his library was opened, Fan had already collected over 70,000 volumes.
According to historical records, there were at least 500 private libraries south of the Yangtze River. The Ming Dynasty was in its heyday at the time. But none of these libraries was as successful as Fan Qin's.
"Apart from living in a stable and prosperous society, there were at least three other criteria necessary for a successful curator of books," said Mao Zhenfang. "He had to love books, be rich enough to buy books, and have opportunities to acquire more books," he said.
"But what made Fan Qin particularly successful was his strict management system for the preservation of his books."
According to the rules of the library, the book resources belonged to all family members who should take care of them together. Every branch of the family had a key, but they were not to unlock the library unless all branches of the family were present."
Any family member who violated the rules would not be allowed to worship his ancestors, which was believed to be a serious punishment for a person in feudal society.
If anyone dared to sell a single book, he would be expelled from the family.
Before his death in 1585, Fan Qin wrote a will -- one son inherited all the books and the other Fan's money. At his father's bedside, Fan Dachong, the eldest son, promised he would look after the books. Since that time, Fan Dachong's descendants have observed the family rules and taken great pains to preserve the collection.
Tianyige witnessed the glories and the turbulence of past dynasties as well as its own triumphs and setbacks.
"Between Ming Emperor Jiajing and the early years of Qing Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795), Tianyige enjoyed its most glorious period, which lasted about 230 years," said Luo.
It came across its first setback when Qing Emperor Qianlong was searching for precious books for the compilation of his grand Sikuquanshu, or Complete Texts of the Four Repositories between 1773 and 1782 under the editorship of Ji Yun and Lu Xixiong.
In 1773, Fan Maozhu, the 8th generation descendant of Fan Qin, had to hand over 638 books, of which 96 were included in the Sikuquanshu.
Although the Qing court promised to return the books, only a small number of them were actually returned to the library.
When the Opium War (1840-42) broke out, Tianyige was repeatedly plundered by both foreign invaders and local thieves.
After hundreds of years of vicissitude, by the 1940s, there were only 13,000 volumes left in Tianyige.
It is only since the founding of new China in 1949, particularly since the 1980s, when the local government began to renovate Tianyige and rebuild its collection of ancient books and texts that Tianyige has revived.
"Not only famous for its rich collection of books, Tianyige set the example for the construction of many other private and royal libraries with its functional architecture and surrounding landscaping," said Lin Shimin, a research fellow with the Ningbo Bureau of Archaeology.
"Tianyi," the name of the library, taken from the Book of Changes, was a spring that was supposed to produce water that could prevent fires.
In front of the building, there is a small pond surrounded with rocks and trees. On both sides of the building, there is a narrow lane with a brick wall to separate the library from other buildings for protection from fire.
The ground floor was actually used as a reading room where Fan Qin liked to invite his friends. The second floor where all the books were kept, was divided into six parts with book shelves. It was said the Fans had a special grass that drove away moths. They also regularly aired the books because of the humid weather in the south.
During the reign of Qing Emperor Qian Long, Tianyige became a model for the construction of seven imperial libraries when the emperor undertook the compilation of his Sikuquanshu.
Emulating the style of Tianyige, the seven libraries were used to store all the books collected for the compilation of Sikuquanshu.
Nowadays, Tianyige is a major historical and cultural site under state protection. It has become a museum covering an area of 26,000 square meters including the library, a garden where the Fan family used to live, a calligraphy hall and a local chronicles hall. It also encompasses its two neighbors, the Ancestral Hall of the Chen family and the Branch Ancestral Hall of the Qing family.
(China Daily June 12, 2002)