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Breathing new life into tomes of heritage

"BOOK doctor" Du Weisheng restores ancient books, some dating back to the 5th century, others including more than 100 volumes of a rare encyclopedia. It is a daily grind but the job is increasingly important, as Fu Shuangqi and Zuo Yuanfeng discover.

Du Weisheng calls himself a "book doctor." In a 35-year career, he's saved many old tomes that got drenched, were nibbled by rats, became rotten in damp storage areas or started to fall apart through simple old age.

China held its largest-ever exhibition of intangible cultural heritage items in Beijing recently, and Du was there. While other craftsmen displayed beautiful stitchwork, paintings and silver jewellery, his booth showcased a worn, old book. Almost every visitor regarded the tome skeptically. Could it be saved?

The thread-bound antique volume had obviously been soaked a long time ago and was never properly dried. Most of its pages were stuck together and many were fragile and frayed.

"I can fix it," Du told visitors. He showed some of them how to peel a fragile leaf from the book with a thin piece of bamboo.

"I do not like to do it with so many people watching. It is a delicate job that requires concentration," he said. "But I do it here so that more people will return home with some knowledge of book repair."

Du joined the rare book division of the National Library of China in 1974. In the years since, he has helped restore the 161 volumes of the 600-year-old Yongle Encyclopedia, as well as manuscripts recovered from Dunhuang written between the 5th and 11th centuries.

Dunhuang, a famed cave on the Silk Road, was discovered more than a century ago and was found to contain tens of thousands of relics.

"When I joined the library at the age of 22, I knew little about book repair, but I did love books. I spent lots of time in secondhand bookshops as a kid," he said. "My first idea when I got the job was that I could read books freely."

He soon realized how wrong he was. "This job is a painstaking art. It requires no less concentration than that shown by a real surgeon," he said. "You won't have time to read the books before they are fully restored."

For about three years, he learned from two older masters before being entrusted to repair a book on his own.

Actually, that kind of apprenticeship was the traditional method of teaching book repair.

"Now, universities offer book repair courses. That's good because students can learn the whole set of skills systematically," he said.

"An apprentice will inherit both skills and flaws from his teacher, even a bias against other schools of repair techniques," Du said. "It's best to get systematic training in a school and then follow a master for further education."

Book repair has a long history in China, but it's a low-profile profession. "It only gets attention when society is prosperous and there's extra money," he said.

"People don't care about the condition of books when they're hungry."

For years, book repairing was a minor division in libraries. And as new books got cheaper, there were fewer secondhand bookshops, which were the major sources of book repair work.

But as Du honed his skills in the quiet library studio, out of the public eye, the world outside changed.

The government and public became more aware that antique books were an important part of China's heritage and needed better preservation.

In 2007, the country started a national project to preserve millions of ancient books.

A state-level rare book restoration center was established in the National Library of China for protection and education.

The center has held seven short-term training programs for book repair staff of museums and libraries nationwide. Du taught some of the courses.

"The training is free. We plan to train about 500 people," he said.

The State Council, China's Cabinet, released in March after a nationwide survey a list of the first 2,392 books in the National Rare Ancient Book Directory.

But increasing attention has also led to misused resources.

"There are about 20 colleges nationwide that train book repair staff. They usually take high school graduates and give them three-year courses.

"But there are not so many positions in libraries and museums," Du said, adding "it would be better to provide postgraduate courses.

"Investment in education should be increased but the money should be spent on a limited number of people to provide quality training."

First, he said, a person must love books instead of just wanting a job.

"Unlike my generation, young people now have less affection for books in general, not to mention ancient books," he said.

"You can't sit there eight hours a day, doing repetitive work, without a passion for books and knowledge of their content."

But for those who really love the printed word, "this is the best time ever for this business," Du said.


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