The National Library of China is an absolute whopper! Home to 37 million items, open 365 days a year, and the front looks like the deck of the SS Enterprise. I visited it in 2016 and have finally got around to sharing the experience.
Beijing is the third largest city in the world with a population of over 21 million people. Sheltered on three sides by mountains and a certain wall, it’s been the political centre of China for most of the last 8 centuries.
People visit Beijing for various reasons. It’s home to 91 universities, the Forbidden City, and the bird’s nest stadium, created for the 2008 Olympic Games. Then there’s Tian’anmen Square, where citizens can see the embalmed body of Chairman Mao, although I remember it for the man armed with two shopping bags, who stopped a tank in 1989.
But what I wanted to see most during my visit was the National Library of China, home to 37 million items – with an additional million items added each year. Fortunately, it’s open 365 days a year, although to get to it you need to cross an 8 lane highway that’s pretty chocker. Tranquil gardens calm you down at the entrance, but solitude is soon lost to the honking cars in rush hour traffic. Air pollution is a real problem in Beijing. Fortunately, there was no red warning during my visit in May 2016 as there would be towards the end of the year when a thick blanket of smog engulfed the city for five days.
The library is divided into levels. The base level contains the contemporary library with reading rooms and reference works. Its oldest collections are the inscriptions on animal bones and tortoise shells, known as the Oracle Bones. These date back 3,000 years. But you can also find epigraphs and rubbings, ancient maps, documents in 123 foreign languages, and dissertations prescribed by the State Council.
Above this is a digital library whose resources exceed 1000Tera byte. This number is increased by 100 Tera byte each year. One digital element that stands out is the China Memory Project, which collects visual historical data and other new types of literature on major modern events and important figures in China. But if you do visit this, have a read of Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years – a dystopian narrative that you won’t find in any Chinese library, and which addresses a different aspect of Chinese memory – collective amnesia.
The long glass fronted top deck of the library faces the highway, making it stand out to passing traffic, presumably to lure you in. It’s a bit like the front of the SS Enterprise, with an earthquake-proof steel canopy keeping you secure.
Although the design is sleek, it’s defining characteristic is functional – presumably in order to accommodate the 12,000 visitors it receives each day. Everything in China is huge, and so too are the reading and research rooms. This is epitomised by the central study area as you enter the building. Books, file cabinets and draws adorn the outer perimeters, with seating areas out front looking down into the abyss. This is then repeated on descending levels until you reach the basement where rows of tables are perfectly aligned and constrained. It is basically an inflexible grid, a slave to mathematics and functionalism. If we are all products of our environment, then this environment demands discipline, logic and conformity.
As I made my way up the escalator to film the library I was immediately followed by some guards. But nobody stopped and asked me what I was doing. Presumably, I looked like an excited tourist and hadn’t broken any laws. Sometimes at iconic locations in China random people will come up to you and take a photograph whether you like it or not. Many are tourists themselves from other provinces and have never seen Westerners before, and so you find yourself a bit of a novelty. But in the library, people were only interested in the books. Always a good sign.
Libraries started to take off in China around the turn of the 20th century against the backdrop of reform, with the government of the Qing dynasty sent on diplomatic missions to Europe to understand the value of these intellectual spaces. Prominent exile Liang Qichao was particularly impressed by readers who did not steal books they had borrowed. I wonder what he would make of some British libraries today, who have adopted the attitude that if someone steals a book, they must really need it. Punitive measures are a waste of time.
The Metropolitan Library was established in 1909, with the Qing government realising the opportunities to promote national culture. Situated in the Beijing Guanghua temple, it was opened to the public on 27 August 1912, receiving its first legal deposits of publications in 1916. It would later be known as the National Peking Library, then Beijing Library, before it was moved to north of Purple Bamboo Park in Haidian District in 1989. It was renamed the National Library of China on 12 December 1998. Today it’s the third largest national library in the world, covering 280,000 square meters, costing 1 billion 235 million dollars to complete.
If you fancy visiting, get the subway unless you want to sit in traffic for hours. Lines 4 and 9 will deliver you calmly to this gigantic, beautiful modern library.
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