Centre for Research Collections series: a trip to the ground floor, and Chinese connections

If you read the past articles of this series, you will be aware that the university’s Centre for Research Collection (CRC) is located on the top floor of the main library, with thousands of collection objects waiting to be studied by inquisitive students at the university. This is not as well-known as the CRC would like; and the same is true for the CRC’s very own (small but fine!) exhibition space on the ground floor, on the left-hand side after passing the main gates.

The exhibition that ran until Saturday 2 March presented some of the university’s rare books, prompting visitors to ‘expect the unexpected’. Fun fact: the university’s rare books collection is four years older than the university itself, and originated in the private collection of a lawyer named Clement Litill, who died in 1580 and bequeathed it to the City of Edinburgh. It was later absorbed in the library of the new educational institute. Today’s collection is remarkably versatile and goes far beyond the university’s research and teaching interests. Oftentimes, objects were acquired despite them having no obvious academic value at the time. However, in hindsight, exemplars from popular literature and music, humourist writings or tourist souvenir texts can allow for crucial insights into what kind of literature ordinary people would encounter in days long gone. Some of the rare books are also valuable as physical objects and it is their binding, or annotations which are particularly valuable. The oldest printed book in the collection is a commentary on the Chinese Yi Ching, printed in 1440. It is, unfortunately, not displayed in the current exhibition, but two other interesting items with a connection to China are.

For one, there is a book with photographs of people, landscapes, and buildings in China which possibly belonged to a businessman or diplomat in Hong Kong. The most interesting photos for current researchers, however, are those taken by Felice Beato during The Second Opium War (1856 – 1890). He was arguably the world’s first war photographer and accompanied Lord Elgin’s military campaign.

The other item dates from the early 20th century and is part of the university’s vast collection of political pamphlets, which have inspired political movements and revolutions for centuries. This one carries the title ‘Yellow Labour – the Truth About the Chinese in the Transvaal’. It was printed in 1904 and sold for 1 penny, and denounced the racially-motivated labour exploitation of Chinese South Africans. Their community had been growing since the 1870s, and faced severe restrictions of civil rights and other forms of discrimination. This mirrored a prevailing anti-Chinese feeling across Western societies. Pamphlets like these, however, managed to scandalise this reality, showing the dawn of new racial thinking and a growing Chinese nationalist sentiment.

 

Image: Stinglehammer via Wikimedia

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