Ye Olde Books of Trivia: Impress Your Friends with Local Knowledge

Mr. Zheng shifted swiftly among the wooden bookshelves erected against three walls on the third floor of his home in Wanjiang. He was looking for a thin manuscript of folk songs from a traditional wedding that took place 60 years ago. “When I was little, I still remember. The whole village gathered at the bride’s house as the ‘good luck woman’ sang,” Zheng recalled. “Each ceremony has a different song,” he beamed.

Zheng enjoys reading the old books collected from junk dealers in Guancheng. They show another Dongguan, one that existed back in the time when there wasn’t smog, noise, pollution or materialism.

The industrial boom of recent decades upended the lifestyle of the once peaceful and self-sufficient town. Difficult as it is to imagine a lifestyle from the century before, the love for their hometown and its history has motivated the collecting of old books that display a simpler and more natural Dongguan.

How did people entertain themselves in times of poverty? What did the first batch of missionaries from Germany do in Dongguan? How did a native Dongguan scholar rise to fame on the national stage? And how did people learn to heal when hospitals were inaccessible?

Historians and collectors of folk art do their part, with libraries forming the crucible of protection from complete extinction of local customs. Dozens of scattered works written by Dongguan scholars throughout the history have been accumulated, organized and re-published in Guangcheng Library’s rare book section. But they are not the only ones fighting to reconstitute local history.

Pop Culture

On the second floor of Guancheng Library, the Ancient Book Area stores thousands of old volumes archiving back as early as 400 years ago, under stable temperature and humidity. On the right is a copy of Wooden Fish Song book.

On the second floor of Guancheng Library, the Ancient Book Area stores thousands of old volumes archiving back as early as 400 years ago, under stable temperature and humidity.

Blazes rose in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, and with them, burned many victims of the Cultural Revolution. Sparing little of the area’s musical traditions, books archiving its history in song were banned or sent into the fires started by the Red Guard. Few are left to teach the songs that are now listed as a part of the National Intangible Heritage and studied within China, and abroad.

Bound to protect local tradition and culture, the Guancheng Library has collected around 1,000 copies of books containing ‘Wooden Fish Songs,’ storing them carefully among others in its Ancient Book Area. These green, red and purple covered handbooks of vocal art captured lyrics that were the pop songs of the time, performed live around the city only 80 years in the past.

The fishermen of the Pearl River Delta began singing songs at the end of Ming Dynasty more than 400 years ago to help them in their work. The art form actually has little to do with wood, but is derived from its original Cantonese name Mo Yu Go (摸鱼歌, hand-fishing song) when its Mandarin homophone took hold calling them wooden fish songs became common.

The musical form was most prevalent in Dongguan during the early 20th century, when they were sung in every corner of the city by ordinary citizens to express their feelings, attitudes or even political views. Groups of women would gather in shady spots during the slow times of the farming seasons. The songs were a bridge between the young and the elderly, singing and learning together. The wooden fish books and the gatherings served as an early place to learn to read and pass on local culture.

Many of the professional singers of the art were blind, and another name, “blind man’s song” was also used widely in Dongguan. They were often invited into the homes of the wealthy and performed on the stage at festivals.

The tunes became very popular in Guangzhou, Foshan and Dongguan, but the style sung in Dongguan’s dialect is the most famous. The earliest engraved version of song book Huajian Ji was written in the Dongguan dialect by Zhu Guangzeng in the Qing Dynasty around 1713. It was translated into English as “Chinese Courtship” in 1824, German in 1836, and later into French, Russian and Dutch. An original edition of the book is currently kept at the French National Library and Bodleian Library at Oxford.

Religion & Faith

Collector of old Bibles Ye Chifeng sits in front of his collection.

Collector of old Bibles Ye Chifeng sits in front of his collection.

He may be new to the obsession, having only been collecting for a year, but Ye Chifeng’s selections entomb a Dongguan history with Western guests, and recounts the city’s work in treating a frightening disease that, in the end, imprisoned the province’s foreign troublemakers.

Presenting the collection displayed on his desk with pride, Ye’s favorite item is a delicate, leather-bound Bible published in 1909 Berlin. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, missionaries from Britain, Germany and America flocked to China for spreading their faiths. Named for Germany’s famous River Rhine, the Rhenish Mission was active throughout Dongguan and Shenzhen.

As far back as 1864, Guancheng was chosen by the area’s first two missionaries as the headquarters of the church’s work in Guangdong. Adam Kralczyk and William Louis lead branches that reached as far as Taiping (Humen), Shilong, Tangxia, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

The April issue of a Christian newspaper named Sino-German Monthly wrote in 1906: “Dongguan is the center of Rhenish Mission’s mission in the Guangzhou area, it connects Xin’an (now Shenzhen) in the south; pillows at Zengcheng in the north; looks at Xiangshan (now Zhongshan); and Shunde in the west, so it’s an important place in our mission. In addition, it has a hospital, middle school, divinity college and a girl’s school.”

Ye is busy at his stand in the 2014 old book fair.

Ye is busy at his stand in the 2014 old book fair.

A major contribution of the German missionaries was the establishment of Dongguan’s first Western-style schools and hospitals. In 1888, the first Western hospital was built, although it was later destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The hospital, which was known better by the name “red building,” because of its German style sloped, red-tiled roof and its gabled windows, was changed to Dongguan People’s Hospital. Soon, professional doctors were sent from Germany and medical and nursing classes for locals were set up at the hospital.

At that time, leprosy, thought to be highly contagious, prevailed in Dongguan. Two leprosy hospitals were set up by missionaries with funds gathered from the government funds, public donations and the church. The bigger one was built in 1910 on two islands located on the border between Shilong and Huizhou in the northern branch of the Dongjiang River.

It housed up to 500 patients at its busiest. Both of them were taken over by the communist government after 1949, sending all patients to the hospital in Si’an Island in the end. Out of fear of the disease no one dared get close to the abandoned islands until the end of the 1980s, when trucks of policemen arrived to build a modern prison. It soon gained a name and reputation for imprisoning foreigners from all over the province.

Banned Literature

Unlike other hobbyists, Wang Xiaoqiang is a real master of book collecting. His devotion is a specific fetish that has devoted his passion to research leading toward 200-year-old volumes of the blue-bound books that read from back to front, but it was a bit of luck that found him his most prized book.

On July 26, Wang explains his old rare books showcased in the Guancheng Library Old Book Fair to the host and visitors.

On July 26, Wang explains his old rare books showcased in the Guancheng Library Old Book Fair to the host and visitors.

Wang has spent 20 years and millions of yuan on his obsession. Born to a family of scholars, he began at the age of 12 to accumulate inspired by the treasures that lined the walls of his relative’s home. Through booksellers, word of mouth and auction houses in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Hong Kong, he has collected stamps and historic documents about Dongguan and by Dongguan scholars.

One recent and surprising discovery, according to Wang, was the possession of a book written by Dongguan historian and Neo-Confucianist Chen Jian (1497-1567). Retired from the bureaucratic jungle at the age of 48, Chen went back to Dongguan and devoted himself to academic study. One of his historic works about the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) keenly pointed out many existing social problems and was prohibited by the authorities in 1571.

The destruction of the original printing served to prove the old adage that “no press is bad press.” And demand grew, circulating the book across the nation in secret. It became considered one of the most important historical books and a must-have reference for studying the Ming Dynasty.

Famed as it was in its time, the prize book had eluded Wang’s foraging until a Japanese bookseller casually mentioned the printing of a book from the 17th century that included both Chinese and Japanese in expressing theories from Neo-Confucianism.

Wang didn’t pay too much attention until he found the back of the book was signed “Dongguan, Qinglan Jushi.” With a little checking, it turned out that the name was a pseudonym used by the controversial Chen. “Many people think there are no such rare books to be found in Dongguan—maybe Shanghai or Guangzhou—but not Dongguan. I’ve accomplished this impossible mission,” said Wang. Chen Jian went without mention in official records for three hundred years until the Republic of China (1912-1949) period.

Science & Technology

Zheng presents part of his treasures, stored in a Ming period-style bookcase. He has been digging up valuable medical manuscripts for over 20 years in Guancheng’s junk markets.

Zheng presents part of his treasures, stored in a Ming period-style bookcase. He has been digging up valuable medical manuscripts for over 20 years in Guancheng’s junk markets.

Prodding around in one of Dongguan’s many junk markets that deal in odds and ends, Zheng Liuwen, 65, happened upon a medical manuscript 20 years ago. It sparked a hobby that captured his attention and spent as much as his wallet can afford. Stored in the Ming period-style bookcase, his old treasure rests on the third floor of his four-story house in Wanjiang. His collection is an attempt at creating his own encyclopedia of traditional Chinese medicine.

“During the hard times, hand-written prescriptions were family heirlooms,” Zheng said. “With poor transportation, it was very difficult to go to a hospital. In order to survive, our ancestors had to copy this useful information. They knew what to eat when they had a cold or cough,” his face glowed with excitement about his findings.

And he did benefit from these books. He says he once healed himself from what he suspected was a cardiovascular blockage by following a remedy from his most proudly collected medical book, copied from a doctor named Chen Donghe from Qiantou Village in Guancheng. The areas of these books vary from daily ailments, to pediatrics and gynecology, to ophthalmology or how to treat arsenic poisoning with raw eggs and clams, or relieve opium addicts with mixtures of three different topical salves.