Book Bliss

In November last year, I met a man in his early forties in Beijing who introduced himself simply as Mr. Zhang. He had collected books since his early teens. 'As every collector will understand, the fever grew on me steadily and before long, I was as obsessive book collector as you might ever wish to see. I haunted bookstores, book fairs, markets.'

In a period that spans over twenty years, Zhang has collected almost 10,000 books. I was fortunate enough to see some of his collection, not at his home which he considered 'unsuitable for foreign guests,' but behind a kiosk near the Fuchengmen subway. He had brought some of his prized collection in a large backpack.

Over the years, Zhang has acquired a varied collection of old prints and facsimile copies, including a French copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (published 1905), and a translation in German of Discussions on Buddhism (published 1912) by the late Qing reformer Liang Qichao. One of his oldest collections includes an edition of a text on ancient Chinese history by the Austrian Jesuit Martino Martini (1614-1661) published in 1693. How these books found their way into the hands of dealers or across time and space is a fact finding mission that contain stories within themselves, but what is clear is that whether it be the scholar-officials or bibliophiles of China's past or present, the underlying thread that ties these people together is their passion to understand old things—to handle, them, collect them, deal in them.

Zhang's collections would not fare as well as porcelains, precious jades, paintings or priceless treasures from China’s past that always seem to thrill audiences because of the high prices they generate before the gavel is struck. If one of Zhang’s precious books were to be auctioned off at some prestigious auction house, Zhang would most likely find some way to have the book withdrawn from sale at the last moment. 'So what are you going to do with all these books you have accumulated?' I ask. 'I really have no idea', says Zhang. 'I’ll probably pass them onto my son.'

When Zhang is not on the look out for old books, he is a consultant for a major auction house in the capital. Zhang carries himself with the demeanor of a scholar. He is very much part of a long tradition among China's literati of collecting and treasuring antiquities and curios. In his case, they're books. It's a passion that runs in Zhang's veins and defines his life.

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