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February 14, 2011

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The Ningbo man who loved books

SCHOLAR and minister Fan Qin had a dream - to build a great private library in China, and in 1561 he did just that. Today the Tianyi Pavilion library is the oldest private collection in Asia and a testament to the man who loved learning. Tan Weiyun turns the page.

Ningbo in Zhejiang Province is famous as a destination for seafood lovers, especially during the summer seafood festival when people from around China visit the busy trading port.

But Ningbo, just 150 kilometers south of Shanghai, has other pleasures for winter visitors, including a world-famous private library, interesting temples and well-preserved buildings.

While the downtown area is modern and busy, there's an older and more charming part of Ningbo that's perfect for strolling or bicycling. Even Shanghai visitors who think they know it all can find a few surprises in Ningbo. The older area has narrow lanes, older buildings - fortunately no high-rises - and more greenery and old trees.

Private library

Asia's oldest private library, Tianyi Pavilion, which is now a museum, is hidden away west of Moon Lake in a tranquil and older part of the downtown area.

Today it has around 300,000 volumes, about 80,000 of which are considered to be rare. At the time of the founder's death in 1585, there were around 70,000 rare books; in the late 1940s, there were only 13,000; over the years, many had been stolen or pillaged, some had been "borrowed" by the emperor and some expropriated by bureaucrats.

Today they are locked away on the second floor for use by scholars. A few are on display.

Tianyi Pavilion is an appealing collection of ornate stones and brick pavilions, some with gilded wood, set in traditional gardens. There are meandering stone paths, thickets of pines and bamboos, rockeries and placid streams - intended to keep the collection safe from fire. The site was built in 1561 and covers 26,000 square meters.

The owner and builder was Fan Qin, assistant defense minister of the royal court in the mid-Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). For years scholars had attempted to assemble a significant private library but failed because of unrest, insufficient finance and other reasons.

Fan succeeded, however, in preserving a splendid but tiny part of Chinese culture. His collection went back to the 11th century and included woodblock and handwritten copies of the Confucian classics, tablets, rare local histories and lists of the candidates successful in imperial examinations, among other texts. Many were gifts.

Fire was the collector's greatest enemy, and that's why water is to be found everywhere. The name "Tianyi" (literary meaning "heaven") comes from a line in the "I Ching" ("Book of Changes"): "Tianyi gives birth to water," which suggests an eternal spring and expresses Fan's hope that his library would be spared from fire.

The main pavilion was surrounded by gardens that acted as buffers; brick walls around other structures isolated them in case of fire. In front of the pavilion is a pond linked by canal with Moon Lake.

Fan was so passionate about his collection and so determined to preserve its record of Chinese culture that he established many strict regulations, passed down through generations.

Strict rules

No one was allowed inside after smoking or drinking; women (who had low status and were incapable of appreciating books) were strictly forbidden; books would not be lent to friends or relatives but must be kept in the pavilion; no one could enter without Fan's permission. Every branch of the family had a key but they were not to unlock it unless the whole family was present.

Any family member who violated the rules would be barred from joining the family worship of ancestors - considered serious punishment in the then feudal society.

If anyone dared to sell a single book, he would be expelled from the family.

All of this was written down. Before his death in 1585, Fan Qin wrote a will: The eldest son Fan Dachong inherited all the books, and the other sons inherited his money. Since that time, Fan Dachong's descendants have observed the family rules and taken great pains to preserve the collection.

So has the legend that Qian Xiuyun, a learned woman and niece of the Ningbo governor, married Fan Bangzhu, Fan Qin's son, in order to enter the pavilion and read the books.

But she didn't know women were barred because of their "inferior" nature. She died in grief over being denied the opportunity to gaze upon male scholarship. She asked her husband (who would not bend the rules) to bury her beside the library pavilion, so that in the afterlife she, though a mere female, would be close to the immortal writings of great men.

In 1673, the great Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) scholar Huang Zongxi was the first outsider permitted to enter the library that had been closed to outsiders for more than a century. He took off his shoes at the threshold to show his respect for the books. Eventually he compiled a complete index.

After that, a new regulation opened the library to scholars, but only a small number, and women were still not allowed.

Within the past 400 years, no more than 500 scholars were admitted to Tianyi Pavilion.


Tianyi's glory days, around 230 years, were the period from Ming Emperor Jiajing's reign (1522-1566) to the early years of Qing Emperor Qianlong's reign (1736-1795).

It suffered its first setback when Emperor Qianlong required the library to hand over 638 books, including 96 for his own grand collection.

When the first Opium War (1840-1842) broke out, both foreign invaders and local thieves repeatedly plundered Tianyi. When the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, there were only around 13,000 volumes left. Some had been expropriated by bureaucracies and many had decayed. In the 1950s some books were found and others were donated by local book collectors.

In the 1980s the library and grounds were renovated and efforts were made to expand the collection to the 300,000 volumes it has today.

How to get there

There are frequent train and bus services linking Shanghai and Ningbo. Or you can drive along Shanghai-Hangzhou Highway, take Hangzhou Bay Bridge to Cixi, then to Yuyao, to Hangzhou-Ningbo Highway. The ride takes around 2 1/2 hours.

Where to stay

Shangri-La Hotel, Ningbo's biggest luxury hotel, is in the heart of the commercial district and overlooks the confluence of three rivers. Views are spectacular.

Open: daily, 8am-5:30pm (April 21-October 21); 8am-5pm (October 22-April 20)

Address: 5 Tianyi Rd

Admission: 15 yuan for students or children, 30 yuan for adults

Other attractions in Ningbo

Xuedou Mountain and Temple

This is the highest peak (800 meters) of the Siming Range and Xuedou Temple at the summit is dedicated to the Maitreya Buddha, or the Smiling Buddha. The mountain has a 186-meter waterfall and spectacular scenery.

Address: Xikou Town

Admission: 90 yuan

Tiantong Temple

This Buddhist temple at the foot of Taibai Mountain in eastern Ningbo has 999 palaces, halls, towers and pavilions. It was built during the Western Jin Dynasty in AD 300.

Address: Foot of Taibai Mountain

Admission: 10 yuan

Moon Lake Plaza

The plaza by Moon Lake features old Ningbo-style buildings. More than half have been developed into boutiques, teahouses and cafes. Visitors can walk through the old houses and enjoy a cup of tea.


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