The Morrison Collection

History of the Morrison Collection


The Morrison Collection at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) comprises the Chinese books accumulated by Dr. Robert Morrison [馬禮遜] (1782-1834), the first Protestant missionary to China, during his sixteen years residence in Guangzhou (Canton) and Macao between 1807 and 1823, together with a small number of nineteenth-century additions to the collection.

Morrison's English-language books and the Chinese books that he collected after his return to China in 1826 up until his death in 1834 were donated by his son to the Morrison Education Society [馬禮遜教育協會] in Canton, which was founded in 1835 in order to commemorate Morrison's life. These books now form the basis of the Morrison Library at the University of Hong Kong.

The library of some 11,500 works belonging to Morrison's son, John Robert Morrison [馬儒翰] (1814-1843), who was the Chinese Secretary to the Colonial Secretariat in Hong Kong, was donated to the British Museum in 1846. They now form part of the Oriental and India Office Collections of the British Library, where they are also known as the "Morrison Collection".

The Formation of the Collection (1807-1823)

Morrison first arrived in Guangzhou in September 1807, whereupon he immersed himself in Chinese language and culture. To begin with he ate, slept and dressed as a Chinese, but his constitution was ill-prepared for such an extreme change in lifestyle, and he soon became ill. Forced to abandon his experiment in "going native," he realised that he would have to find other means of assimilating Chinese language and culture. Books were the obvious keys to unlocking the mysteries of Chinese language, history, society and religion, and so he set out acquire as many Chinese books on as many subjects as possible. As with everything else he did, Morrison set about this task with a single-minded determination. Despite a limited income, and a great many demands on his time, Morrison became an assiduous collector of Chinese books, buying more and more books as the years went by. After sixteen years of collecting Morrison had managed to accumulate an immense library of Chinese books covering a broad spectrum of subjects, and highly representative of the publishing output of early and mid-Qing China (second half of the seventeenth-century through to the first quarter of the nineteenth century). Comprising some ten thousand Chinese-style thread-bound volumes, this was an important library by any standard. It would have been noteworthy for a Chinese scholar to have accumulated such a large and varied collection of books in such a short space of time, but for a foreigner this was an astounding achievement.

Many visitors to China before him had acquired Chinese books as curiosities, but Morrison was the first Westerner to engage in the systematic collection of Chinese books. Although one of the primary reasons for accumulating such a great library was to facilitate his translation of the bible and the compilation of his dictionary of the Chinese language, Morrison was not merely collecting for his own benefit, but hoped that his library would one day provide the foundations for the scholarly study of Chinese language and culture in England. At that time the great libraries of Europe had only scattered handfuls of Chinese books, and so it was impossible for anyone interested in China to study its language and culture without actually going there. Morrison knew that a comprehensive library of Chinese books was a necessary prerequisite to the training of future generations of scholars and missionaries, and so when he decided to return to England for a short visit in 1823, his first since his arrival in China sixteen years earlier, he determined to take his collection of Chinese books back with him. Thus it was that on the 7th December 1823 Morrison and his entire library of ten thousand volumes set sail for England aboard the H.C.S. Waterloo.

At the London Missionary Society (1824-1935)

Morrison's intention in bringing his Chinese library back to England was to donate it to one or other of the two great universities, the only condition being that the university that accepted his donation would found a chair in Chinese. Unfortunately Morrison met with little help or encouragement in his noble aspiration to promote the study of Chinese in England. To begin with he was faced with an unaffordable import duty on his books, which was only waived after lengthy negotiations with the British government, and intervention at the highest level. And when Morrison's library was finally admitted into the country the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge evinced a remarkable reticence to take up Morrison's generous offer. The collection was temporarily housed at the premises of the London Missionary Society whilst negotiations continued with the Universities to find it a permanent home.

During his sojourn in England Morrison was busy working on many projects, but he did not neglect his collection of Chinese books, and it is recorded that he "left his Chinese servant in London to make out a catalogue of his books, which he proposed laying before the public, with an account of the contents of each work by himself" (Memoirs of the Life and Labours of Robert Morrison vol.2 pp.295-296). Unfortunately this intended published catalogue of his collection never came to fruition, and any draft version that was prepared by Morrison and/or his Chinese servant is now lost. However, an inventory of the Chinese books that Morrison brought back with him from China does survive in the form of a rough manuscript catalogue of the collection, written in Morrison's own hand (now held at SOAS as MS 80823). According to a colophon to the catalogue written by Morrison and dated 20th February 1824, this catalogue was completed whilst aboard the Waterloo en route for England. The catalogue is in the form of a small book (about 16 x 13 cm.) of nearly 400 pages, with each page containing title entries for one of 396 phonetic keywords, following the system used in Morrison's Dictionary of the Chinese Language. The catalogue comprises a total of 1,114 title entries, which, accounting for duplicate entries, represent some 900 distinct titles. As many of the entries note the presence of duplicate and variant copies, the actual number of individual items brought back by Morrison must have been well over a thousand.

In addition to the books that Morrison brought back with him, two manuscript series of colour drawings of military manoeuvres (Yunti zhentu 雲梯陣圖 and Longhu zhentu 龍虎陣圖) and a facsimile reprint of an illustrated Song edition of the Biographies of Notable Women (Xinkan gu lienüzhuan 新刊古列女傳), both inscribed "For Dr Morrison's Chinese Library," were sent over from China by an unknown correspondent in 1825, and subsequently entered into Morrison's collection. Conversely, according to a note in Morrison's Manuscript Catalogue, when Morrison returned to China in 1825 he took back with him his only copy of the Qing National Gazetteer (Daqing yitongzhi 大清一統志). Another note in the catalogue against the title of a missionary tract (Tianzhu jiangsheng shengjing zhenjie 天主降生聖經真解) states the book was sent to Malacca, presumably by request of Dr. Morrison.

When Morrison returned to China in 1825 neither of the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge were yet willing to accept the donation of his Chinese library, and Morrison was forced to leave his collection at the London Missionary Society until such time as a permanent home could be found for it.

At University College London (1836-1922)

Morrison's Chinese library gathered dust at the London Missionary Society for the next ten years, and it was not until his death in 1834 that any further attempt was made to find a permanent home for these books. Fortunately, the newly-founded University College London (UCL) agreed to accept Morrison's collection, and in accord with Morrison's wishes they also agreed to establish a chair in Chinese. The books were transferred to UCL in about 1836, and Samuel Kidd (1804-1843) was duly appointed Professor in Chinese in 1837 for a term of five years. However UCL did not show the long-term commitment to Chinese Studies that Morrison would have hoped for, and Kidd's appointment was not renewed at the end of his five-year appointment in 1842 as had originally been anticipated. Indeed it was not until 1871 that a successor to Kidd was finally appointed, and then in 1889, by arrangement with King's College, teaching of Chinese at UCL was dropped entirely.

Although Chinese studies were only sporadically and half-heartedly supported by the governing body of UCL, Morrison's books were well cared for at UCL, and were separately housed as the Morrison Chinese Library. During the nineteenth-century the Morrison Chinese Library expanded somewhat with the addition of a small number of Chinese books. Twenty-five items in the extant collection at SOAS can be identified as nineteenth-century additions to the Morrison Chinese Library. These include a group of twelve books dated circa 1840-1844 that were mostly published in Shanghai, and two books by Dr. Benjamin Hobson (1816-1873) that were donated to UCL by his widow.

The Collection is Described by John Williams

In 1854 the Council of University College commissioned Mr. John Williams (1797-1874), Astronomer and Sinologist, to make a report on the contents of the Morrison Chinese Library. Williams' report, delivered in September of that year, gives the following summary of the contents of the Morrison Chinese Library (see The Williams Report for further details):

Class No. of Works No. of Vols.
Religious, Mystical, etc. 266 779
Medical and Botanical 128 934
Rites and Ceremonies 23 294
Jurisprudence 11 204
Topography, Geography, etc. 52 976
Poetry, Drama, etc. 36 364
History, Chronology, etc. 20 701
Philology, Antiquities, etc. 58 963
Classics 30 497
Astronomy, Music, etc. 23 202
Education and Mathematics 31 260
Biography 11 262
Bibliography 2 157
Natural History and Sundries 16 138
Novels and Works of Fiction 81 672
Miscellaneous 39 1,326
Not ascertained 8 18
  835 8,747
Duplicates 168 624

The figure of 9,371 volumes (i.e. fascicles) has been widely quoted in later references to the Morrison collection. However, this figure is not in fact an entirely accurate representation of the extent of the collection, as Williams notes in his report that "in enumerating the duplicates, but one copy of each is reckoned, whereas in many instances three, four, and even as many as twenty copies of the same work occur" (by "duplicates" Williams refers to duplicate copies of the same title and not merely duplicate editions). That is to say, 168 of the 835 titles in the collection have one or more duplicate copies, and that counting only one duplicate copy for each of these 168 works, there are an additional 624 volumes of duplicates. Consequently, the figure of 9,371 given for the total number of volumes that the collection comprises ignores any multiple duplicate copies. Taking into account the uncounted duplicate copies, the true figure for the total number of volumes in the collection should be close to the figure of "10,000 volumes" that Morrison gives in the colophon to his manuscript catalogue.

As well as making a report on the contents of the Morrison Chinese Library, Williams also attempted to organise the collection by cross-referencing the actual books in the Morrison Chinese Library with the title entries in Morrison's Manuscript Catalogue. To do this he wrote on the front cover of the first fascicle of each item a sequential catalogue number and the number of volumes (i.e. fascicles) that the particular item comprised (see Index of 'RM' Numbers). For those items which either do not have corresponding entries in Morrison's Manuscript Catalogue or which Williams failed to find the entries for in the manuscript catalogue, Williams notes "n.c." or "not in catalogue" instead of the appropriate sequential catalogue number. The catalogue numbers, ranging sequentially from 1 through 916, that Williams recorded on the actual books are also noted against most of the title entries in Morrison's Manuscript Catalogue, but in a hand that belongs to neither Morrison nor Williams. It is clear that Williams did not devise the system of catalogue numbers himself, as in a number of instances he notes "n.c." ("not in catalogue") on an item instead of the appropriate catalogue number, when in fact Morrison's Manuscript Catalogue does include a corresponding title entry and catalogue number. On the other hand, it is equally clear that Williams cannot have used the extant manuscript catalogue as his only source for these numbers, as Morrison's Manuscript Catalogue does not provide an accurate inventory of all the possible numbers between 1 and 916: six titles in the catalogue have numbers which are evidently incorrect whereas the actual books give the correct numbers; eight titles have no number whereas the actual books do give a catalogue number; three books have catalogue numbers whereas neither the numbers nor the titles of the books are recorded in the catalogue; and eight numbers are neither present in the catalogue nor on any of the extant books.

A possible explanation for this apparent contradiction is that Williams was working from a now lost draft version of the catalogue that Morrison was said to have been preparing for publication during his visit to England in 1824-1825 (see above), and that he followed the numbering system devised by Morrison for that catalogue. If this were the case, the catalogue numbers against the entries to the extant manuscript catalogue may well have been added in at a later date by an unknown third party, thus explaining their inaccuracies. That the catalogue numbers were devised by Morrison rather than Kidd or Williams is supported by the fact that none of the post-1824 items in the Morrison Chinese Library, not even the two items sent to the London Missionary Society in 1825, are assigned catalogue numbers by Williams. This would suggest that the system of sequential catalogue numbers were devised prior to Morrison's departure back to China in 1825.

In addition to cross-referencing the books in the Morrison Chinese Library with the catalogue entries in Morrison's catalogue, Williams also produced an unknown number of catalogue slips for the books in the collection. Fifty-four of these catalogue slips still survive, originally inserted in the books to which they refer (now collated together, and catalogued as RM c.001). These catalogue slips are organised according to the sequential catalogue numbers given in Morrison's Manuscript Catalogue, use the system of transliteration devised by Morrison for his Chinese Dictionary, and in general follow the descriptions given by Morrison in his manuscript catalogue. It is even possible that these catalogue slips were not actually compiled by Williams himself, but were copied out by Williams from the now-lost draft version of Morrison's intended published catalogue of his collection.

The Collection is Bound and Catalogued

Some years after Williams had made a preliminary description of the collection, probably during the 1870s or 1880s, a concerted effort was made to catalogue and preserve Morrison's Chinese books.

Firstly catalogue slips for most of the books in the collection were produced, and 710 of these were pasted into a folio-sized volume to make the Catalogue of the Morrison Chinese Library (now held at SOAS as MS 58685). The slips were presumably compiled by either H.F.Holt (Professor in Chinese, 1871-1874) or S.Beal (Professor in Chinese, 1877-1889). Unlike the catalogue slips produced by Williams, these do not follow Morrison's system of transliteration.

The catalogue slips represent some 757 items of the Morrison Chinese Library bound in a total of approximately 1,862 volumes, together with two exceptional unbound items, viz. two fascicles of manuscript colour drawings (Yunti zhentu 雲梯陣圖 and Longhu zhentu 龍虎陣圖), and one folio-size fascicle of facsimile rubbings of bronzes (Song Wang Fuzhai zhongding kuanzhi 宋王復亝鐘鼎款識). The catalogue is not limited to the books originally brought back to England by Morrison, but also includes some later additions to the collection.

In 1918, in preparation for the transferral of the Morrison Chinese Library to SOAS, the UCL librarian R.W. Chambers updated the Catalogue of the Morrison Chinese Library with a single-sheet typescript appendix which listed those (very few) catalogued books which were by then missing from the collection, as well as a small number of bound books belonging to the collection for which there did not seem to be catalogue slips in original catalogue.

Concomitant with the cataloguing of the collection was carried out a programme of binding. With the exception of the two exceptional items noted above, all the catalogued items were bound in a distinctive coloured Western-style binding, with the title in transliteration and/or translation embossed on the spine.

In general the binding programme was beneficial to the collection as it both protected the books from wear and tear, and ensured that the otherwise loose parts of each book were kept together. However, in some cases different sections of the same book were bound apart from each other and described in the catalogue as separate items. In other cases, individual fascicles were accidentally omitted from the binding, and some of these have since become lost. The majority of items were bound individually, but a large number of short "pamphlets" were bound up together. There are eighteen such bound volumes of pamphlets in the Morrison Collection, representing some 203 items:

At the School of Oriental and African Studies (1922-Present)

In 1917 the School of Oriental Studies (later to be renamed School of Oriental and African Studies) was founded in order to act as the centre for the teaching of Oriental and African languages, literature, history, religion and customs in the University of London. To this end, the University of London Senate resolved in June 1917 to allow an exchange of Western language books inherited by the School of Oriental Studies from the London Institution for books on Oriental subjects held by the libraries of University College London and King's College London, as well as those held by the University General Library. Under this arrangement the Morrison Chinese Library at UCL was to be deposited on permanent loan at SOAS. In April 1922 the Morrison books were finally transferred to SOAS, where, together with the Marsden Collection that had been transferred from King's College in 1920, they finally formed the foundation for a centre of academic excellence that Morrison had hoped to see established a hundred years earlier.

Whilst SOAS was the ideal repository for Morrison's collection, it was unfortunate that the Morrison Chinese Library lost its distinct and unique identity after it had been transferred to its new home. Instead of being shelved separately, as they had been at UCL, the Morrison books were intershelved with all the other Chinese books at SOAS, and as the SOAS collection grew over the years the books from the erstwhile Morrison Chinese Library became more and more diffused throughout the collection. Furthermore, as there was no full catalogue or inventory of the books derived from the Morrison Chinese Library, as time went by it became increasing unclear exactly which books in the SOAS collection derived from Morrison's collection. It was not until 1996 that a project to catalogue the Morrison Collection, generously funded by the Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation, was initiated, and an attempt was made to identify the collection.

According to archive sources (MS 226830 (1) III/3/20), SOAS acknowledged the receipt of the following items transferred from the Morrison Chinese Library at UCL in 1922 (there is some discrepancy between these figures and the numbers of volumes or parts that UCL claim to have sent to SOAS):

The bound volumes of the Morrison Chinese Library are easily identifiable because of the distinctive and uniform coloured bindings given them by UCL in the nineteenth-century, and because of the presence of a bookplate indicating that the books were on loan to the School of Oriental Studies from UCL. In addition a letter "K" has been written on the title-page or fly-leaf of each item that was bound, so that even those books that have been rebound by SOAS and have lost the original bookplate can still be identified.

The loose fascicles inherited from the Morrison Chinese Library can only be identified by the presence of the bookplate on the inside of the front or back cover commemorating the transferral of the books from UCL to SOAS and/or by the presence of the sequential catalogue number written on the front cover of the first fascicle of each item by Williams in 1854. However, as the paper covers of the unprotected loose fascicles are very fragile, these identifying features are easily lost. In particular, those items which have been bound or cased whilst in the care of SOAS have often had the paper covers removed, thereby excising the primary evidence of their origin. Moreover, a letter from UCL accompanying the delivery of the Morrison Chinese Library to SOAS in 1922 notes that some of the unbound volumes had yet to be bookplated, and requests SOAS to keep these on one side until someone could be sent down to put the bookplates in. It is possible that this bookplating was never done, in which case any of these unbound items that were not recorded in Morrison's Manuscript Catalogue or that later lost the cover on which Williams had written the sequential catalogue number would be impossible to identify.

Thus far the following items deriving from the Morrison Chinese Library at UCL have been identified in the SOAS collection:

This gives a total of some 8,631 fascicles, a figure that falls significantly short of the 10,000 volumes that Morrison notes that he brought back to England in 1824, or the 9,371 volumes (excluding multiple duplicate copies) that Williams gives for the extent of the Morrison Chinese Library in 1854. In particular, the 454 loose fascicles identified so far represent only about 20% of the number of unbound parts recorded as having been transferred to SOAS from the Morrison Chinese Library. In summary, the following items in the Morrison Chinese Library remain unaccounted for:

A large proportion of the nearly two thousand missing loose fascicles may well be duplicate copies of bound items recorded in the Catalogue of the Morrison Chinese Library, but it is more than likely that at least some of the missing fascicles correspond to the nearly one hundred unidentified titles in Morrison's Manuscript Catalogue. These are mostly short works comprising only one or two fascicles each, but they also include some fairly substantial items such as the imperial compilation of dramatic tunes, Jiugong dacheng 九宮大成 in 100 fascicles, editions of the Manchu dictionary Qingwenjian 清文鑑 in 40 and 46 fascicles, and a collection of thirty Cantonese ballads (木魚書). Counting only one copy per title, these missing titles would account for some 907 fascicles. What has become of these missing items is completely unknown, although as they are not recorded in the published catalogue of the SOAS collection, it is probable that they were disposed of by SOAS as duplicates during the inter-war years when SOAS was still sited at Finsbury Circus.

In addition to complete missing items, there are a further 94 individual fascicles that are missing from Morrison books in the SOAS collection. 9 of these are missing fascicles from unbound items, whilst 85 are individual fascicles from bound items that were accidentally omitted from the binding process. For example, Morrison's Manuscript Catalogue gives Wanshou shengdian chuji 萬壽盛典初集 as comprising 60 fascicles, whereas the extant item comprises but 56 fascicles bound in 10 volumes, lacking all the illustrations comprising fascs.18-21.

The 72 missing items recorded in the Catalogue of the Morrison Chinese Library can be divided into two groups:

Firstly, 25 items (comprising 49 bound volumes) that can be tentatively identified from the published catalogue of the general collection of Chinese books at SOAS, but that are missing from the shelves. These include some single-volume items that were on open stacks, and which it can be assumed were abducted by unscrupulous readers. This is the mostly likely explanation for the loss of seven mainly risqué or pornographic novels (Jinshanghua 錦上花, Xinghuatian 杏花天, Hairui anzhuan 海瑞案傳, Rouputuan 肉蒲團, Nongqing kuaishi 濃情快史, Poluo'an quanzhuan 婆羅岸全傳, and Taohuaying 桃花影). However, other missing items were either shelved on closed stacks or were multi-volume sets (e.g. Lidai mingchen zouyi 歷代名臣奏議 bound in 14 vols., and Yishi 繹史 bound in 7 vols.), and cannot simply have "walked." The general Chinese collection at SOAS includes other copies or editions of most of the latter such items, and it is therefore probable that the Morrison editions of these titles were disposed of as duplicates during the 1970s. Unfortunately no records of their disposal have been kept.

Secondly, 47 items (comprising 118 bound volumes) that cannot be identified in the published catalogue of the general Chinese collection at SOAS. It is probable that some, if not most, of these items were transferred from the main SOAS library to the library of the Far East Department at SOAS in the 1950s. None of the books deposited at the departmental library were included in the main library card catalogue or recorded in the published general catalogue of the SOAS collection. Nor does the Library seem to have kept a record of which books were transferred to the departmental library, and the only evidence for the existence of these books are blank spaces left in the callmark registers held by the China Section of the Library, which indicates the call-numbers of the missing books but not their titles.

The Far East departmental library was disbanded in 1972 when the new library building was completed, and the Far East department moved to its present location in the new building. Nobody can now recall what became of the books held at the departmental library, but it is thought that the main library did not want them back because they were mainly duplicates of titles already in the main collection, and so the books were disposed of by the Far East Department.

The following six missing books recorded in the Catalogue of the Morrison Chinese Library, and which can be identified from stamps on them as once belonging to the Far East departmental library at SOAS, have been traced to the Oriental Collection of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University (Bodleian call-numbers in parentheses):

Ironically, given Oxford's refusal to accept the donation of the collection when offered it by Morrison in 1824, the Bodleian is not prepared to see these items repatriated with the rest of the Morrison Collection at SOAS.

Amongst the other missing items recorded in the Catalogue of the Morrison Chinese Library are a bound volume of seven "Missionary Pamphlets" and a bound volume of twelve "Protestant Pamphlets," together with three missionary works, two translations of the New Testament, and a translation of the Holy Bible. These items represent almost the entire corpus of Christian literature in the Morrison collection. The only remaining items of Christian literature in the Morrison Collection are a translation of Exodus (Chu Maixiguo zhuan 出麥西國傳) that has been preserved in one of the bound volumes of pamphlets, and the third volume of Morrison's five-volume translation of the Holy Bible (Shentian shengshu 神天聖書). The missing items were unlikely to have been deposited in the Far East departmental library, and as SOAS does not actively collect missionary texts it seems probable that these items were disposed of as a lot by the Library, probably during the 1970s. The solitary volume of the Holy Bible has a recent binding, and probably still remains at SOAS only because its companion volumes were disposed of whilst it was at the binders.

The remaining books deriving from the Morrison Chinese Library at UCL have now been collected together and designated as the "Morrison Collection". With the exception of the ten manuscript items, which are shelved with the general manuscript collection, all the books in the Morrison Collection are now shelved together in a single location on closed stacks to facilitate reference by scholars and students.

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

Revised : 01/08/2001.