The Smithsonian's Freer-Sackler Library features numerous items related to the Tian Yi Ge Library Museum in Ningbo, China, the private library of the Fan family dating back to the early 16th century Ming Dynasty.
Now a public museum, the Tian Yi Ge (pronounced Tiān Yī Gé, written 天一閣, literally Heaven One Pavilion) is widely recognized as a highlight of Chinese book culture. The Fan family collected books for 13 generations, building a collection known for its regional gazetteers and rare editions of classics and literary compilations.
To ensure the collection's preservation, strict rules were established. Keys were kept only by male family members, who could only unlock the door when all branches of the family were present. It was prohibited to remove books or lend them, and anyone who sold a book would be disowned from the family. The buildings were built with brick and ponds constructed nearby to prevent fire, and extensive symbolism referencing water was used in the design for the same purpose.
In the latter half of the 18th century, the Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong started an imperial book project that set out to encompass all known knowledge at the time: the Four Treasures Complete Library (Sì Kù Quán Shū, 四庫全書) . "Four Treasures" refers to the four traditional classes of knowledge in ancient China: classics, history, philosophy (including the sciences), and miscellaneous literature (including poems and fiction).
The Qianlong Emperor decreed that collectors across China send their books to Beijing to be examined and perhaps copied into the collection. Recognizing the special importance of the Tian Yi Ge collection, some of the Tian Yi Ge's rare editions of the classics were used as the standard copies for textual correction in the Four Treasures Library.
Eventually, seven copies of the Four Treasures Library were created and housed in specially designed pavilions in seven different locations throughout the country: two in Beijing, and one each in the cities of Chengde, Shenyang, Hangzhou, Yangzhou, and Zhenjiang. These pavilions were modeled on the Tian Yi Ge in both architectural design and the organizational structure of their bookcases—Mike Smith
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At the Freer-Sackler Library, a searchable database of the Four Treasures Library is also available for public use.
Scholar Stephen Allee using the Four Treasures database at the Freer-Sackler Library
Pavilion built to hold a set of the Four Treasures Library in Hangzhou, China, currently under renovation (with Librarian Mike Smith)
The Tian Yi Ge Library Museum in Ningbo, China