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Treasures from the East Asia Library; Imperial Poem to the City of Shengjing by the Qianlong Emperor

April 3, 2017

The East Asia Library at UW is home to one of the most extensive collections of information about Japan, Korea and China in the USA. It’s also home to one of a kind materials, each with its own story unique story of how it was made and how it ended up at the library. This series tells some of those stories.

There are thousands of published volumes in the East Asia Library. From almost the first second you walk in you will pass book after book, each unique in what it has to offer. One could be a dictionary, holding the secrets of another language. One could be the latest book by a scholar renowned around the world. One could be an autobiography of an important person in the history of a country you have yet to visit.

Some books in the library, though, are more than just words on a page. They are a link to the past, a link to a different time and a different place. One of the most interesting things in the East Asia Library is not a book at all though, but a collection of poems; a collection of poems older than the library that it is housed in and older than the country it resides in.

The Imperial Poem to the City of Shengjing by the Qianlong Emperor is one of the East Asia Library’s most interesting volumes. It was written by the Qianlong Emperor, the 6th Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), in 1743. The Qianlong Emperor was visiting Shengjing (today’s Shenyang, capital city of Liaoning Province), the capital city of the Manchu before they established the Qing Dynasty over all China in 1644. Inspired by what he saw in Shengjing, the young emperor wrote a grand collection of poetry praising the city and its people.

The Imperial Poem is not just one of the East Asia Library’s most interesting volumes, but also one of its most beautiful. It is believed that the poem was hand-copied by the Qing Court calligrapher into thirty two calligraphic styles, each style contained in a separate chapter. The Qing Court calligrapher wrote the poem in both Chinese and Manchu scripts making a total of sixty four, one of a kind, chapters. Only one copy was made that still exists in the world today and UW holds twenty chapters of this unique volume. Each chapter is bound in gold material, holding the beautiful poetry, and the equally beautiful calligraphy safely inside.

The East Asia Library staff do not know how this unique volume got to Seattle but since finding it they have worked diligently to learn more about its origin. According to research, the Liaoning Provincial Library in Shenyang (old Shengjing) holds forty two chapters of the same set, so together the East Asia Library and the Liaoning Provincial Library make up all but two of the chapters of this unique anthology. Recently, members of the Taiwan Central library have helped create digital copies of the volume so that people around the world can view the beauty of the calligraphy, and read the Qianlong Emperor’s own poetry.

Because of the rarity of the volume, when it is not being studied, it is now housed in the East Asia Library’s special collection section so that it’s quality does not degrade over time. It can be viewed by request at any time though, offering faculty and students yet another unique volume to read, in a library full of unique items.

You can view the anthology online here. You can also arrange to view the anthology by enquiring at the East Asia Library.