Chinese Studies

The first relatively large collection of Chinese books accessioned at Columbia University Libraries came from William Barclay Parsons, a professor at the School of Mines and a University Trustee, who led a team of American specialists to conduct a railroad survey in China. The book plate reads: "Given by William Barclay Parsons. This collection of Chinese classics is a memorial of the visit of Mr. Parsons to China." Professor Parsons proposed the Department of Chinese to be established in the university library.

In 1901, President Seth Low received a simple letter: “I send you herewith a deposit check for $12,000 as a contribution to the fund for Chinese learning in your university,” signed by “Dean Lung, a Chinese person.” Dean Lung was the valet of Horace Walpole Carpentier, another University Trustee. The letter prompted Carpentier to give additional donations of a $250,000 in honor of his friend and employee and create the Dean Lung Professorship of Chinese, the first endowment for Chinese studies at Columbia. In 1902, the noted Columbia anthropologist Franz Boas made a plea to establish “a great Oriental school” that would “imbue the public with a greater respect for the achievements of Chinese civilization.” That year, following a series of influential public lectures on Chinese history and culture at Columbia by Herbert Allen Giles of Cambridge University, the Department of Chinese was created and Friedrich Hirth from University of Munich was appointed as the first Dean Lung Professor and Chair.
Also in 1902, the Manchu government of China gave Columbia a massive collection of 5,044 encyclopedic books and the Chinese Library was founded, with Friedrich Hirth concurrently appointed as the first curator. The collection included excerpts and copies of most of the Chinese historical and literary legacy, representing the finest of classical scholarship in Chinese history. The Chinese Library is the earliest of its kind in North America. In the following decades, with the support of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as the exchange of librarians and publications with Chinese libraries--particularly the National Peking Library, which then played the role of National Library of China, managed by Columbia alumni--Columbia’s Chinese collection became a major American resource along with the collections at the Library of Congress and Harvard University. By the mid-1950s, the holdings contained important works in Manchu, Tibetan, and Mongolian languages.

The growth of the library also resulted from wide, active collaborative partnerships with domestic and international institutions. The library exchanged materials with almost all important university and government libraries and archives in Taiwan and China until the early 2000s when Columbia University Libraries discontinued the exchange department and discouraged materials exchange. But international collaboration with academic Taiwanese and Chinese institutions continues in creative ways, such as exchanging digitized materials in order for the Libraries to maximize the acquisition of and access to electronic content.

Students from Asia began to study at Columbia since the late 1800s. In the early decades of the 20th century, compared to its peer universities, Columbia attracted the largest number of Chinese students, with the Department of Chinese and the Chinese Library as contributing factors. The success of numerous theses, dissertations, and research projects depended largely on the availability of Chinese collection materials. Many Chinese students later became major figures in Chinese government, diplomacy, education, and numerous other academic disciplines. For instance, Hu Shih became a leader of the literary renaissance in Republican China. V.K. Wellington Koo was the top Chinese (later Taiwanese) diplomat for over half a century. Hu and Koo, and many other alumni as well, supported Columbia and the library in one way or another. Hu and Koo accommodated interviews for the Chinese Oral History Project of Columbia’s East Asian Institute and donated their personal papers and book collections. They also initiated fundraising by the Columbia Alumni Association of China to create a ten-year fund to annually match the library budgetary appropriations for Chinese collection development.

Over nearly twelve decades of development, the Chinese collection has become very strong in almost all subjects of humanities and social sciences. Traditionally, the four categories of old Chinese knowledge classification--namely classics, history, philosophy, and belles-lettre--were emphasized and in-depth and extensive collections were developed in line with the conventional concentrations of teaching and research. Thus, the traditional subject materials constitute the majority of the rich collection of Chinese rare books and special collections. In particular, local gazetteers, genealogies, and legal history collections, among others, represent the nation’s best. Chinese oral histories and archives at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML), Chinese missionary archives at the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, and Chinese textbooks at Teachers College are valuable unique and special resources.

In recent decades, however, along with the rise of China in the world and the growth of Chinese studies programs and enrollments at Columbia, the needs of Chinese studies faculty, researchers, and students have evolved to include interdisciplinary and contemporary studies. The library has responded by actively developing collections in the subjects of social sciences and cross-disciplinary studies, particularly in Chinese politics, economics, cultural, and film studies, in addition to traditional studies.

While print resources continue to grow rapidly, with the onset of the digital age and continued growth of digital contents and data, the library has actively collected electronic resources, particularly e-books, e-journals, numeric and spatial data, and comprehensive databases, since the early 2000s. The e-resources acquired have since surpassed the print holdings.

Besides print and digital collections, there are significant amounts of important microform collections and object material collections. Such materials are acquired very selectively.

Generally speaking, most of the library materials are acquired from the Greater China area (mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau). The primary language of the collection is in Chinese.

The print collection covers science and technology very selectively. But the e-resources cover Chinese science, engineering, and technology so as to meet the increasing need to study Chinese scientific knowledge and the development of science and technology at Columbia.

a. Undergraduate

Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures: Undergraduate major and minor in East Asian studies and the Chinese Language Program 

Department of Asian & Middle Eastern Cultures, Barnard College (Note: The numbers of course offerings and students writing theses on Chinese studies have been increasing.)

Department of Religion undergraduate program

Joint Bachelor's degree program between City University of Hong Kong and Columbia University, School of General Studies

b. Graduate & Professional Schools

Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures: MA and PhD programs in Chinese studies

Weatherhead East Asian Institute, including the Master of Arts in Regional Studies-East Asia (MARSEA) and the Modern Tibetan Studies Program

Columbia-Harvard China and the World Program

Department of Religion: Center for Buddhism and East Asian Religion

Center for Chinese Legal Studies, Law School

China Center for Social Policy, School of Social Work

Center on Chinese Education, Teachers College

Tang Center for Early China

School of International and Public Affairs

Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation

School of the Arts

APEC Study Center, Columbia Business School

School of Professional Studies

c. Institutes, Interdisciplinary Programs, etc.

Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race 

Columbia Global Centers, East Asia (Beijing)

Greater China Initiative (GCI), School of International and Public Affairs

Expanding East Asian Studies (ExEAS) Initiative, Columbia University

Asia for Educators (AFE), Weatherhead East Asian Institute

Institute for Comparative Literature and Society

University Seminars: Modern China Seminar, Early China Seminar, and Neo-Confucian Studies Seminar

Heyman Center for the Humanities

US-China Arts Exchange

d. Course Reserves

The Librarian tries the best to make needed materials available in course reserves specified by faculty members. 

a. Print 

Print materials, including monographs and serials, in all subjects of humanities and social science related to Chinese studies are collected both intensively and extensively. Politics and government, history, literature, economics, art history, archaeology, anthropology, international relations, diplomacy, film studies, religion, sociology, social work, philosophy, and the history of science and technology are very actively collected. 

Expensive books on art and finance, expensive sets of collectanea and encyclopedias are collected selectively in collaboration with partners such as Princeton University, East Asian libraries in the Ivy Plus Library Confederation, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. School and college textbooks and books of legal cases are not collected. Pure science and engineering are not collected. 

Valuable and useful independent and private publications, normally without ISNs, ranging from the lowest-level gazetteers, such as township and village gazetteers, to genealogies, to self-printed publications are selectively collected. 

English language or English-Chinese bilingual publications and materials published in leading minority ethnic languages in China are also selectively collected. 

b. Digital Collections

Electronic resources, including databases, e-books, e-journals, numeric, and spatial datasets (sometimes in collaboration with Research Data Services), are acquired. Very expensive or unique e-resources are acquired in collaboration with library partners and/or academic departments. For instance, the library exchanged Columbia’s digitized materials and microforms for access to an enormous amount of digital content from Scripta Sinica of Academia Sinica and the Taiwan and China Academic Digital Associative Library (CADAL) of the Chinese Ministry of Education. The digitization of the library’s holdings of Ling Long women’s magazine was completed and enriched with some issues only available in and supplied through a collaborative arrangement with the University of Heidelberg.

A significant amount of print holdings have been scanned to facilitate access and to increase digital content. 

c. Media

Regularly-published print and digital resources are acquired. There are significant amounts of important microforms and special material collections in the collection. Microform and object material collections are acquired very selectively. 

Audiovisual materials particularly in popularly accessible formats like DVD are actively acquired. 

d. Languages Collected

The primary language is in Chinese. Materials in languages of important minority nationalities and in Western languages published in the Greater China area are also selectively collected. English and bilingual materials from the Greater China area are also collected.

Translations of Western works of a general and popular nature are not collected.

e. Chronological Focus

Regular current and recent imprints are collected, but valuable and useful materials of any time period are considered. Rare books are seldom acquired because, normally,Chinese rare books are too expensive to afford and faculty members’ needs for rare books in market and auction have been limited. 

Special collections are acquired through gift or purchase. Though there are no specific chronological limitations, those that directly meet the needs of teaching and research, are wanted by faculty members, and/or are financially supported in part by the academic department through purchase are always prioritized in acquisition. 

f. Geographical Focus

The library materials are mainly acquired from the Greater China area (mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau) and, to a much lesser extent, other East Asian and Southeast Asian countries. 

Appropriate Chinese language materials created in North America and other non-Chinese-speaking regions are also collected.

g. Imprint Dates Collected

Normally, current and recent imprints are collected. When items are requested by faculty and students, the date of the publications is not a factor for consideration; the library tries its best to meet the needs of faculty and students. When rare books and special collections are acquired, no specific dates are set in advance. 

Distinctive and special collections are acquired primarily through donation and purchase following the Libraries’ policy. Recent accepted donations of distinctive and special collections include the Papers of China Institute in America, Myron Cohen’s Formosa/Taiwan Land/Field Data & Records, Zhang Xueliang (Peter H. L. Chang), and Yu Fengchi Collection, Kiachi and Patricia Koo Tsien Collection, Weng Wan-go Film Reel Collection, Tsuyee Pei Papers, T. K. Tong Papers, and Ta Chun Hsu Papers. 

Chinese rare books are seldom purchased from auction because they are not affordable. The purchase of relatively expensive special collections from market or from private owners is often done in collaboration with academic departments, particularly the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, which partially paid for the cost of a number of collections. It is helpful that several rounds of applications for the Libraries’ Primary Resource Grant were accepted and the awarded grants partially covered the costs of purchased collections. Recently-purchased special collections include Contemporary Chinese Genealogies, Cultural Revolution Propaganda Art Collection, Photo Albums of the Italian Expedition to China 1900, and the Ephemera Collection on Chinese Science, Technology, Law, and Society.  

a. Consortia and Collaborative Collecting with Other Institutions

Besides Libraries’ participation in Borrow Direct, Interlibrary Loan, the Manhattan Research Library Initiative (MaRLI), the library collaborates with the following partners:

  • Ivy League Chinese big sets coordination: To reduce orders of the same multi-volume sets by different libraries and to increase the diversity of the materials so as to maximize the collections and access among Ivy League libraries.
  • Ivy Plus Group for Chinese databases: To negotiate for the best-possible price and service through group bargain and action.
  • Coordination and collaboration with Princeton University Library: Mainly to avoid purchasing the same large sets and regular materials for ReCAP.
  • 2CUL program: Chinese purchasing plan of Columbia and Cornell University in collaboration with the National Library of China bookstore in Beijing and the University of Hong Kong Library so as to acquire shelf-ready books in the subjects of art, economics, and law.
  • Ivy Plus Library Confederation Web Resources Collection Program: The Digital Archive of #MeToo and Women's Rights Movement in China in collaboration with peer librarian of Harvard-Yenching Library has been approved.
  • Coordination and collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art Library in collection development in Chinese art and art history.
  • Shanghai Library document delivery: Historical serial articles that could not be found in print and digital collections in North America are provided online at a reasonable fee, mainly in association with the acquired China National Index to Chinese Newspapers and Periodicals (1833--1949). 

b. Location Decisions and Selection for ReCAP

First and foremost, depending on the amount of physical space available, selection of materials for ReCAP is done according to quota instruction. Overall, the majority of the collection is stored in ReCAP. 

Generally, most newly-acquired multi-volume sets, new books that are not expected to be immediately used by faculty and students, and specially-sized materials are sent directly to off-site storage. Audiovisual materials such as DVDs and microforms are processed for ReCAP according to the Libraries’ policy. Serials older than the current year and books that have not been circulated for ten years are sent to off-site storage.

The Librarian coordinates with ReCAP partners in order to reduce duplication of multi-volume sets and journals stored in that facility. 

c. Deaccessioning

When titles of either the regular collections or the rare book collections are lost or no longer serviceable, the title is deaccessioned. Some seemingly duplicate titles have been withdrawn and deaccessioned by colleagues. 

d. Digitization and Preservation

Only a relatively small number of rare books and special collections have been digitized. The digitization orders requested by users and the participation in Google Books resulted in the scanning of a number of multi-volume rare books. Digitized files are often hosted by and made accessible through Internet Archive, as in the case of Ling Long women’s magazine and other user-requested scanned images of rare books. 

The library has collaborated with Chinese publishers so that publishers pay Columbia for the scanning and digitization of rare books or special collections, following which the publishers then have the rights to market the digitized content in book format. For instance, the library worked with Shanghai Bookstore Press to digitize one set of bound ephemera from the Evans Carlson Collection on War China (1937--1945).

A relatively small but significant amount of conservation work is also noteworthy. Included are Chinese paintings, rubbings, and Taoism canon and others.  

Chengzhi Wang

Chengzhi Wang

Collection Development/Reference Librarian (Chinese)

  • Starr East Asian Library

(212) 854-3721
C.V. Starr East Asian Library - 307M Kent Hall

Related subject policies and references:

The C.V. Starr East Asian Library: Starr’s East Asian, Japanese, Korean, and Tibetan Studies librarians: Early source materials are shared on the scholarship of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean studies; 70% of Tibetan studies materials are Chinese source materials, according to a Tibetan studies professor.

  • Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML): RBML holds the Chinese Oral History Project oral histories and related archives, other special collections related to Chinese studies, and Chinese rare books and scrolls, including the earliest Chinese publications at Columbia, which are a sample collection of books from the Song Dynasty (960--1279) and the Dunhuang scrolls of the Tang dynasty (618--907, or even earlier).

  • Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary: The Missionary Research Library, which contains a large amount of China-related materials, was merged into the Burke Library decades ago. The Burke Library holds Chinese missionary archives and other China-related collections, of which about seventy collections have been processed and made accessible to researchers.  

  • Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library: A Chinese language journal package on architecture was acquired for many years ago. Select Chinese language architecture books and special collections are also collected. 

Gifts-In-Kind Policy

Columbia University Libraries Preservation Policy