Why a Western Library in China?

Globalization of commerce and technology has been accelerating during the last decade, and is now recognized as an irreversible trend. Together with the globalization of trade and information comes the globalization of culture. This development, perhaps in an unexpected way, has caused imbalances in the distribution and accessibility to the cultural legacy of mankind.

In spite of the nowadays diminished importance of the humanities in the civilization of the Western world, we see that many of the Western countries and regions still increase their already very important cultural resources. On the basis of a rich legacy from former times, European and North American countries continue nowadays to spend vast sums of money for the building of great public libraries , museums, art schools and public facilities for cultural advancement. More and more, these enterprises tend to be universal in nature, that is, not only the culture of the own country is taken into account, but all cultures of the world.

In short, people in Europe and North America today have abundant access to the sources of human civilization, with all the benefits this entails for their intellectual development. Indeed, history shows that whenever new forms of culture have emerged, these always were the result of the interaction of different cultural traditions, the consequence of interplay between different civilizations obtained through the combination, the mixing and blending, the hybridization even, of elements from various origins. In this way, the humanities and their vast documentary resources function as what one of us has termed a "gene bank of culture.


In our reading room

We do not have to delve deeply into the present situation in China to see that this essential condition for cultural development is not yet fully available there. China was for many centuries the greatest civilization in the world, and produced magnificent cultural treasures. However, many precious works of art and science have been taken out of China, and are now in museums and libraries in the West, while very little of comparable value has come back. One can admire the greatest Chinese painters in museums in the Europe and North America, one can find the most precious ancient Chinese books in their libraries, whereas China has yet to acquire any great painting, sculpture or set of books of exceptional value from the West. A survey of the existing libraries in China shows that many of the written sources of Western civilization can not yet be found in their original versions.

In contrast, the situation in the West is very different. Nowadays any interested person in the Netherlands, France, England or Canada, whether belonging to an academic community or not, can have almost immediate access to a wealth of Chinese sources, either in Chinese or in translation. France, Germany, Great Britain, Canada and the United States all can be proud of the fact that their great universities and institutions of learning have large and very complete Chinese libraries. In China today, in the great centers of Beijing and Shanghai or, for that matter, in the sprawling city of Fuzhou (formerly written Foochow, the capital of the maritime province of Fujian) only few people have similar access to the written sources of Western traditions.

The present situation is the result of a combination of historical contingencies, and these belong to the past. It should therefore not be irremediable, and might be easily changed. There exists in China a great tradition of scholarly learning that developed long before the West critical methods of text analysis, diachronic linguistics, critical historiography, ethnographical observation, etc. Moreover, there has always been in China a keen curiosity for other cultures. History teaches us that China has adopted and absorbed many foreign traditions. Today, all signs point to the fact that the time has come where the great intellectual tradition of China is ready to engage itself on the literary and scholarly works of the West. From this intellectual exchange, we may expect important contributions, and some, especially in the area of the arts, are already been made today. In this context, the example of Japan may also be useful. For many years now, the study of Western literature and philosophy are greatly developed in Japan, and Japanese scholarship in Western literature, philosophy and history rank among the best of the world. Japanese culture and science have benefited immensely from this. Why not China? For all these reasons it seems essential that an adequate Western library be set up in China, in order for this essential need be met. The aim of the Library of the Western Belvedere is just that: to create a home base of resources of global civilization and make it available, through all means at our disposal, including electronic communication networks, to the Chinese public.

The main holdings of the library are related to the liberal arts or the humanities. Areas of priority are literature, history, art and archaeology, philosophy, religion, law and general reference works. Modern scientific disciplines of the social sciences such as psychology, economics, anthropology, political science and sociology are also collected as far as their founding texts and important studies are concerned. A main sector is devoted to Western studies of the Far East and of China in particular. Finally, it has seemed important to add a small collection of Western art works. Given our budgetary restraints, we have chosen to collect graphic art (drawings. Etchings, lithographs, etc.) of ancient and modern Western artists and put them on display in our exhibition room.

The library holds books without a preference for any given Western language. The classical texts such as the Greek philosophers and the Latin treatises are collected in their original versions, as well as in major translations in English, French and German. Fundamental studies on these texts are also collected. The main works of medieval literature are all held in their original versions as well as in translations, so that they remain accessible. As much as possible, collection of books is systematic, using bibliographies and checklists as guidelines (see below, Acquisition policy).

A question that is frequently heard is: "Given that the knowledge of Western languages is as yet still not very widespread in China, what is the use of a library with books in Latin and Greek, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, etcetera? The answer is simple. As long as there are no books in these languages available in China, there is no incentive to learn the skills to read them. Once interesting and important sources become accessible in a large way, in a country as vast as China, we are confident people will come forward who are willing to invest time and effort to acquire these skills. 


Library of the Western Belvedere.Fuzhou.fujian.350002 P.R.China
Telephone:(0591)87892731 and Fax:(0591)83702769
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