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Lair of oracle bone collector

A famous banker in the 1930s who struck it rich in lottery savings turned his wealth to collecting books, artifacts and oracular "dragon bones" once used for divination. Michelle Qiao divines the truth in his library.

The impression of a Shanghai architectural gem is often a Western classic villa graced by a nice garden and huge, milk-white Ionic columns.

While reading an album about the newly identified relics in Jing'an District, I was enamored by an octagonal building topped with green Chinese tiles, which glisten among a sea of neoclassic houses.

However, it's not easy to approach the mysterious building, which formerly belonged to banker and bibliophile Liu Huizhi, who used it as his private library.

It's all a matter of good luck. At first I was pleased to see a copper plaque with a brief introduction of the house on Xinzha Road but was quickly disappointed to find a big iron gate barring the way. Vaguely the green tiles twinkled at me under sunlight from a garden deep inside the gate.

Fortunately a gatekeeper came out for a smoke, left the gate open and gave me an opportunity to walk in. Compared with bustling Xinzha Road, behind the gate was another world, featuring a spacious, tranquil garden and an arched Chinese garden door leading to a much smaller yard.

The even quieter space is planted with red flowers, white magnolia, orange trees and grapefruit trees bearing fat golden fruit. The garden serves as a perfect backdrop for the green-tiled house.

The two-story building in a rare octagonal shape looks like a shorter pagoda or a Chinese pavilion with pale yellow walls. Every green tile is delicately embossed with a lucky animal's head. Meter-high white stone posts surround the yellow wall at intervals. Black-and-white mosaic on the ground adds some Western elements to this very Chinese building.

The owner of the strange "pavilion" used to be the Shanghai branch manager of the National Industrial Bank of China.

According to historian Song Luxia's book "Prominent Families in Shanghai," Liu was the fourth son of a powerful general in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Unlike his father, Liu did not fight a battle or attend imperial examination for a political career. Instead, he seized opportunities to become a successful banker.

Smart as he was, he initiated an eight-year "lottery savings" scheme, which was extremely popular in the 1920s and attracted a lot of cash.

But soon his success aroused jealousy from powerful officials and state-owned banks, which later pushed Liu aside. He then resigned from the bank and focused his time and wealth on collecting books and antiques.

His collection grew so large that he had to build the green-tiled building in 1934 only to keep his precious volumes and artifacts.

By the late 1940s the private library was home to more than 500 cartons of ancient thread-bound Chinese books, tens of thousands of ancient ink sticks, and hundreds of ancient weapons and instruments. It was among the largest private collections in the 20th century in Shanghai.

The most precious among the precious were the oracle bones carved with one of the oldest languages of China, which was the main clue in Chinese-American author Amy Tan's best-selling novel "The Bonesetter's Daughter."

According to the late oracle expert Hu Houxuan from Shanghai's Fudan University, Liu had a collection of more than 28,000 high-quality oracle bones (pieces of tortoise shell or animal bones bearing inscriptions, sometimes used for divination). It represented a significant proportion of the total findings of fewer than 160,000 oracle bones around the world.

In Zhen Zhong's book "Famous Collectors in Shanghai," expert Hu had described collector Liu as a real master.

"At the age of 80, Liu studied every day and wrote a diary in seal characters. Generous as he was, he not only allowed me to often come to his 'library' to study oracle bones but also gave me valuable books for reference," Hu said.

In 1953 Liu donated the oracle bones to the National Bureau of Cultural Relics. Before he passed away in 1962, he had donated almost all of his collections.

The green-tiled "library" is now shared by five families. It's hard to imagine that tons of precious items, especially "dragon bones" bearing ancient language, had been collected by a banker.

Only a few people in the world live their lives to the fullest.

Whether as a money-counting banker or a history-searching collector, Liu seems to have lived fully.


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