The Librairie Française and the Manchu books at Capital Library, Beijing

The Librairie Française and the Manchu books at Capital Library, Beijing

Mårten Söderblom Saarela, Ph.D. Candidate, Princeton University

As the former imperial capital, Beijing is home to many of the greatest collections of Manchu literature in China. Students of Qing history will all be familiar with the First Historical Archives and the almost-as-inaccessible National Palace Museum Library in the Forbidden City. The reportedly largest collection of Manchu books in Beijing, that of the National Library, will perhaps remain known to us currently in the grad school pipeline only through hearsay, since their program of reorganization and digitization of all the books in the “ethnic classification” (mínzú lèi 民族類) seems to be dragging on indefinitely.


By contrast, one of the Manchu collections most accessible to the researcher is found at Capital Library (Shǒudū Túshūguǎn 首都圖書館) in the South-East of Beijing. The library’s older bathroom-tiled building has in the past year or so been complemented with a nice glass and steel extension, where anybody with a Chinese ID or foreign passport can register for a reader’s card. The expansion notwithstanding, the historical documents reading room is, as before, housed in the basement of the old building. Though not much frequented by researchers, it is staffed by a group of very helpful librarians; the basement holds a vast rare book collection, of which 84,203 volumes (prefixed by 乙 in the library catalog)—including more than 190 volumes of Manchu, Mongolian, and Tibetan books[1]—come from the Librairie Française, a Republican-era institution of legendary proportions. Although the details of the history of the collection are to the best of my knowledge still largely unknown, it is clear that its presence at the Capital Library can be attributed to the efforts and ultimate tragedy of an enterprising bookseller and publisher, Henri Vetch (1898–1978).


Born in France, Vetch served in World War I and spent much of his early life in the larger colonial orbit of the Third Republic. Vetch’s father had established himself in the 1920s as a bookseller and publisher in Tianjin and Beijing (called Beiping at the time), and Vetch fils started to invest all his energies in the venture from 1928. From that time until after the end of the war, the Librairie Française (confusingly translated as Fǎwén Túshūguǎn 法文圖書館 in Chinese) sold foreign books and published some of the great works of early 20th-century Sinology, in addition to reprints of Séraphin Couvreur’s (1835–1919) dictionary of Classical Chinese and Ivan Zakharov’s (1817–1885) dictionary of Manchu. Alongside publishing and distribution, Vetch and his company also collected Chinese and Manchu books.


When the outbreak of the Korean War radically changed the dynamics of the interactions between the Communist authorities and the foreign community, Vetch was arrested for alleged involvement in an equally alleged plot to murder Chairman Mao with a trench mortar during a military parade. According to Vetch’s biographer Keith Stevens, by mid-1951 it was estimated that half of the non-communist, non-diplomatic foreigners in Beijing had disappeared into official custody. Stevens also asserted that the major aim of the arrests was to “bring home to the Chinese people the extreme dangers of contact with foreigners. Only two foreigners would appear to have been executed … whereas during the campaign a great many Chinese suffered the same fate.”[2] Vetch was released in 1954 after having served three years of a ten-year sentence and deported to Hong Kong. Sometime before his departure for the British colony, tens of thousands of thread-bound Chinese volumes previously in his possession were moved to Capital Library. Local library lore holds that the books were “donated,” but the circumstances of Vetch’s departure from Beijing suggest that this is a euphemism for what was in fact a confiscation of his personal property.


My personal experience with the collection began in 2012, when I first consulted it for its many Manchu dictionaries. My doubtlessly impressionistic view is that the collection contains a relatively large number of well-preserved printed Manchu books, including many duplicates; the notebooks, private manuscripts, and fragmentary copies found in such great abundance elsewhere are rare in the Capital Library collection. This would, of course, be congruent with a collection assembled by a book vendor catering to the tastes of collectors prevalent at the time.


A very interesting aspect of Vetch’s collection, which as far as I know has not been investigated in depth, are the typewritten précis that adorn the inside of every box of books. The précis, written in (sometimes awkward) English, give relevant historical information on the book and its authors, replete with references to relevant bibliographical literature, including the Giles catalogue of the Wade Collection at Cambridge in the U.K. (1898) and the conspectus of Manchu literature authored by the German Manjurist Walter Fuchs (1902–1979), Beiträge zur Mandjurischen Bibliographie und Literatur, published in 1936. Who wrote these notes? Vetch himself could not have written them. Not only would he not have had the time, but he would also probably have been unable to do so, not having learned Chinese properly until the war years, and forever remaining a dilettante Sinologist.


It is tempting to assume that Fuchs wrote the précis for Vetch’s Manchu books, as he was engaged in Manchu bibliographical work in Beijing until his forced departure from China following Germany’s surrender in 1945. As a European scholar in Beijing and himself a great bibliophile (his own personal library also remains in Beijing, and is now integrated into the collections of Peking University), Fuchs must have been very familiar with the Librairie Française, especially since the journal Monumenta Serica (which carried articles by Fuchs) and its monograph series were published by Vetch. This is just a guess; reading many of the notes and asking the librarians have left me without any sure indication with regards to their authorship. Perhaps someone with more knowledge than the present author about the European scholars in Beijing in the late Republican period can help clarify the provenance of these detailed typewritten précis.


Regardless, the Manchu collection at Capital Library can rightfully be counted among the great collections of Manchu literature in China and abroad. Assembled under the auspices of a French book vendor in Republican China, it has a history similar to many other of the world’s great Manchu collections. When Manchu books in the hundreds were leaving the hands of impoverished former banner aristocrats, it was curious scholars, collectors—and, it seems, competent businessmen of all nationalities—who saved them for posterity.


[1] Léi Qiáng 雷強 [Chiang Lei], “Hēnglì Wèizhì jíqí Běijīng Fǎwén Túshūguǎn” 亨利-魏智及其北京法文圖書館 (Henri Vetch and his Librairie Française in Beijing), Túshū zīxùn xuékān 11.2 (2013).

[2] Keith Stevens, “Henri Vetch (1898–1978): Soldier, Bookseller and Publisher,” Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 46 (2006), p. 1

Image credit: The Capital Library, Beijing.

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