TianYi Library: The Ningbo Literary Trail

At least for Western visitors, the province of Zhejiang isn’t one of more popular tourist destinations in China. Hangzhou, the provincial capital, is immensely popular with domestic tourists, who head there to see the city’s scenic West Lake. But it does not evoke the same level of enthusiasm from Western tourists, who overwhelmingly prefer Shanghai and Beijing. And if Hangzhou doesn’t appeal to many Western travellers, then Zhejiang’s lesser cities are even more out of the loop. In the most recent edition of the Lonely Planet China, the editors removed their entire section on Ningbo, a port city of some 4 million people. As an indication of the lack of interest in Zhejiang, they did not include a single destination in the southern half of the province!

With the province suffering from a low profile in the West, Zhejiang needs to distinguish itself from other parts of the country. Perhaps one way that it could do this would be to promote itself as a literary and cultural destination. The north of Zhejiang has been home to many of the finest poets and storytellers in the country over many centuries, with Ningbo and Shaoxing being a particular focus for creative endeavours. We have already shown how Ningbo’s Moon Lake Park has been associated with poetry since the Tang Dynasty; it would be an obvious stop on a potential ‘Zhejiang Literary Trail’. But surely the highlight of such a trail would be TianYi Library, the most significant private library in Southern China. Though an ancient Chinese library doesn’t appear to be an obvious crowd-puller, it has long been rated the best attraction in the region on TripAdvisor, earning a whole string of rave reviews. It could easily be the star attraction on a tour of Zhejiang’s best literary sites.

Founded in 1561, the library was the brainchild of a Ming Dynasty statesman and librophile called Fan Qin. He assembled a library consisting of 70,000 books, manuscripts and woodblocks, many of them rare and valuable, thereby establishing the most important private library in China. As you enter TianYi Library (TianYi Ge) today, there is a statue of Fan Qin at the centre of the first courtyard. A bronze-cast statue of the ancient scholar shows him in robes and hat, seated on a chair, the whole thing mounted on a stone pedestal. His presence continues to be felt in the next part of the complex too, where we found his study and living and quarters. Even today the bare floorboards and sombre wooden furniture give a sense of scholarly seclusion and meditation. These rooms also serve as an introduction to the subtle beauty of the library complex.

Zunjing Chamber, as seen thrown a screen of trees and shrubs

Zunjing Chamber, as seen thrown a screen of trees and shrubs

Beyond this are a proliferation of fine old buildings, whose charm makes you slow down to take everything in. One of the best is the Zunjing Chamber, a two-storey building set in an atmospheric garden courtyard. Seen through the branches of trees, the chamber has a very romantic look, its eaves turning up at the corners, as if it were a temple or pagoda. Fronted by two stone lions, with wooden latticework branching across its windows, it houses a collection of paintings, scrolls and books within. As elsewhere in the complex, the moody, soft lighting enhances the appeal of the place. Also of interest here is the TianYi Library Chamber itself. This is an unpretentious building, fronted by a long, narrow porch supported on timber columns, yet Emperor Qianglong was so impressed by the library that he used it as the prototype for the official library at the Forbidden City itself.

The garden at TianYi Library, with a goldfish pond and covered walkway

The garden at TianYi Library, with a goldfish pond and covered walkway

Yet lovely as these buildings were, my favorite part of the complex- perhaps because it was so unexpected- was the large, South-of-the- Yangtze-style garden, with a large, greenish goldfish pond and artfully placed screens of trees. Evidently, Fan Qin was quite the aesthete. Not content with compiling China’s best private book collection, he had also built a beguiling garden that was almost the equal of those in Suzhou. It featured a long, wooden corridor, which would have enabled scholars to wander through there in rainy weather, and the grotesquely shaped rockeries and stelae which were once a hallmark and refined taste. The garden also contained a particularly fine specimen of a Ming-era family altar, worked in stone so as to resemble wood.

There are all sorts of other nooks and crannies to explore in this complex too. One of the more interesting exhibits is a small Mahjong Museum, featuring displays of various antique mahjong sets. Even though we have no idea how to play this Chinese board game, we were glad there was a museum somewhere dedicated to it. Finally, there is the Qin family’s own opera stage. This is a highly ornate work of art in its own right: every visible surface features intricate woodcarving, and the whole thing is made even more eye-catching by the liberal use of gold paint. The idea of Chinese opera performances only reinforced the sense of this family compound as a hub of highbrow cultural activity. Hopefully, Ningbo will choose to emphasize this side of its history in developing the tourist sector.

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