The Morrison Collection

Description of the Morrison Collection


The Morrison Collection is one of the largest and most extensive collections of Qing dynasty books ever to have been accumulated by a single individual. Although the collection does not possess very many items of great individual worth, taken as a whole the collection is invaluable. One of the main reasons why the Morrison Collection is so important is that it includes many books that are underrepresented in traditional Chinese book collections. Chinese book collectors during the Qing dynasty were only interested in collecting fine and rare editions, and so generally limited themselves to books published during the Ming dynasty and earlier. Morrison, on the other hand, was not a connoisseur of fine books, but simply wanted to build up a library of books that would be useful for the study of Chinese language, literature, history, religion and culture. He therefore bought whatever books were available and affordable, with the result that the majority of books in his collection were the output of the contemporary commercial publishing industry. These were precisely the books that Chinese collectors did not deign to collect, and hence which today are often more difficult to locate than "rare" Ming editions.

The Morrison Collection (including those books held at Oxford University and elsewhere that have been identified as belonging to the Morrison Collection) comprises 900 distinct editions, of which 94 have one or more duplicate copies, making a total of some 1,011 separate items. These books may be classified under the following general headings:

From this it can be seen that the Morrison Collection is very broad in content, encompassing all the major subject areas. Nevertheless, there are certain strengths and weaknesses in the collection. Morrison was particularly interested in understanding as much as possible about the native religions he had to contend with, and so not surprisingly the collection has numerous Buddhist and Daoist works, many with multiple copies. Like most missionaries, Morrison was also actively involved in medical work (he had opened a dispensary in Canton, run by a local doctor), and this is reflected in the exceptional collection of medical texts in the collection, which largely represent the contents of a medical library purchased by Morrison. Other areas of particular strength in the collection include vernacular fiction, literary tales and anecdotes, examination essays, and letters.

Paucity of individual editions in areas such as non-orthodox pre-Qin philosophy and pre-Qing prose and poetry is made up for by an impressive number of collected editions of texts, including collected editions of the "Thirteen Classics" ( Shisanjing zhushu 十三經注疏 ), the "Seventeen Histories" ( Shiqishi 十七史 ), the "Ten Philosophers" ( Shizi quanshu 十子全書 ), as well as ten general collections of texts (congshu 叢書 ) covering some 1,115 titles in 808 fascicles.

In chronological terms, the collection is highly representative of the early and mid-Qing publishing output. In particular there is a concentration of books printed during the Qianlong and Jiaqing periods, as can be seen from the following analysis of the dates of printing of the 411 books in the Morrison Collection which give an explicit date of publication or printing:

Ming Editions

As would be expected the Morrison Collection includes very few genuine Ming editions, none of which are earlier than the Wanli period (1573-1620). The following Ming editions, including some which may have been printed during the Qing dynasty using printing blocks carved during the Ming dynasty, can be identified in the collection:

In addition to the above items, the collection also includes the following Qing dynasty reprints of Ming editions, made using recarved printing blocks:

Cantonese Editions

As Morrison was resident in Canton and Macao during his years in China, and except for his excursion to Beijing with Lord Amherst's embassy in 1816, had no opportunity to travel elsewhere within the empire, Morrison's book-collecting activities were perforce restricted to Canton. Fortuitously, Canton was the most important centre of commercial publishing in Southern China during the Qing dynasty, and dozens of publishing houses were established in Guangzhou, clustered together on Western Lake Street (Xihujie 西湖街 ) and Nine-stars Alley (Jiuyaofang 九曜坊 ) in the region in front of the Provincial Education Commission (學院 ) at the centre of the town. A number of other publishing houses, as well as branches of some Guangzhou publishing houses, were also established in the nearby town of Foshan 佛山 (also referred to in publishing credits as Chanshan 禪山 ). The vast majority of commercial editions collected by Morrison were printed by Guangzhou publishing houses, as is evidenced by designations for Guangzhou such as "Guangdong provincial capital" ( 粵東省城 ), "Guang town" ( 廣城 ), "Goat town" ( 羊城 ), etc. that are often prefixed to the name of the publishing house. The following commercial publishing houses represented in the Morrison Collection explicitly give Guangzhou or Foshan as their place of business:

Some of the commercial publishing houses, in particular Juxiantang and Xinjianzhai, were also responsible for the carving of printing blocks for religious texts on behalf of Buddhist and Daoist temples. The printing blocks would be stored at the temple, where devotees could print off copies for charitable distribution. Eighty-four of the 120 Buddhist texts in the Morrison Collection were printed between 1658 and 1823 from blocks held at the Haichuang Buddhist temple 海幢寺 in Canton, whilst six of the 92 Daoist texts were printed between 1742 and 1811 at the Sanyuangong 三元宮 Daoist temple at Yuexiushan 粵秀山 in the centre of Guangzhou.

Jiangnan Editions

Aside from Guangzhou the other main centres of commercial publishing during the Qing dynasty were the populous cities of Suzhou, Hangzhou and Nanjing in the Jiangnan region. Jiangnan editions were generally of a higher quality than Canton editions, and a relatively small number of books issued by commercial publishing houses in the Jiangnan region are to be found in Morrison's collection, in particular books issued by the Suzhou publishing houses of Shuyetang 書業堂 (5 books), Sanduozhai 三多齋 (5 books), and Saoye shanfang 埽葉山房 (4 books). Important amongst the Jiangnan editions in the Morrison Collection are the following reprints of fine editions of important texts edited and published by Mao Jin 毛晉 (1599-1659) during the late Ming and early Qing:

Beijing Editions

The only other noteworthy centre of commercial publishing during the Qing dynasty was the capital Beijing. However, although Beijing was an important marketplace for books produced elsewhere, it lacked the natural resources (viz. timber for the printing blocks) to support a commercial publishing industry on the same scale as Guangzhou or the cities of the Jiangnan region, and so commercial publishing was to a large extent limited to books of particular local interest such as Manchu texts and specialist publications for officials. This is reflected in the Morrison Collection, which only includes seven commercial editions published in Beijing, of which three are Sino-Manchu texts and two are handbooks for officials.

Private Editions

In addition to the commercial editions that comprise the majority of books in the Morrison Collection, the collection also includes a substantial minority of private and official editions, which are usually of a much higher quality, both physically and textually, than the commercially-produced books.

Private editions are generally books that were written or edited by members of the scholar-official elite, and privately-published for dissemination amongst their peers. As would be expected, most of the private editions in the Morrison Collection were published by members of the scholar-official class living in the Guangzhou region, including prominent scholarly figures of the time such as Zhang Dunren 張敦仁 (1754-1834) and Ruan Yuan 阮元 (1764-1849). These private editions include a number of fine facsimile reprints of Song dynasty editions:

Official Editions

The Morrison Collection also boasts an impressive collection of mostly voluminous reference works (together comprising some 1,279 fascicles) compiled under the auspices of the Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong and Jiaqing emperors, and printed at the Imperial Printing House of Wuyingdian 武英殿 or by other central government organs (including some officially-sanctioned provincial reprints):


In addition to the printed works which comprise the vast majority of the Morrison Collection, the collection includes eleven manuscript items, nine of which are not known from printed editions:

Taken from the Introduction to Catalogue of the Morrison Collection of Chinese Books (London : SOAS, 1998).

Revised : 01/08/2001.