Shuge: the world’s libraries. Or, just a website that works for you.

An old mantra among digital circles: online resources to access material circulating in digital formats are so numerous that it is hard to keep up with them, let alone explore and actually use. As many others did, I stressed this already with regard to the study of pre-modern Chinese textual histories. Exploring each digital catalog and website dedicated to Chinese texts properly would be close to a full-time job, and not even a most useful one, since individuals draw different information from the same websites, depending on the research they are conducting. A way to prioritize digital resources to keep at hand is to turn around the question “what is this website giving me?” to ask: “what do I want from a website?” Once I asked myself that, my lists of go-to resources changed. I favor freely accessible databases (that is, accessing it does not require a Mainland Chinese phone #, nor to download apps I otherwise never heard of and would never use, etc.), with clear information about the origins of the sources and high-resolution images. Afterall, studying ancient manuscripts is also studying the physical properties of the manuscripts, and being able to see the physical medium is very important. 

That’s how Shuge 書格 moved up in my list of go-to online resources. I had known about this website for at least a couple of years, but never quite explored it. In part because it collects manuscripts by and large dated from the Sui 隨 (518 – 618) and later dynasties, which greatly postdates my area of expertise. But there is a lot in Shuge that can be of interest to historians of ancient Chinese history, and it is overall an impressive resource for teaching, gathering information, and learning outside one’s field. So in this piece, I will give an introduction to the website and its collections of texts; in a forthcoming contribution, my friend Bryce will introduce Shuge’s “special collections” 特殊類別, which include painting and calligraphy.

As the website details, Shuge was founded in 2012 as a subsection of Douban 豆瓣, a Mainland Chinese social networking service. The founder, who goes by the name Weiceng 未曾, was soon dissatisfied with the limitations of Douban’s service, and moved to create its own secured website in 2013. In reading Weiceng’s philosophy and motivation to establish Shuge, one is struck by Weiceng’s commitment to sharing free and accessible culture. There are claims that take after PRC rhetoric, such as “We have a long-standing history of five thousand years,” an expression that has become increasingly brandished,[1] as a way to set Chinese culture as among the oldest of in the world; or referring to the Taiwan’s National Central Library as the Taipei National Central Library 台北國家圖書館, as if “national” here referred to the PRC. Yet, on the same page Weiceng insists on the possibility for anyone to enjoy knowledge freely, openly, and in an open-access way. Citing Jimmy Wales, Weiceng commits to no advertisements on the website, and like Wikipedia, it accepts donations[2] (but it’s advised that you do not donate beyond your possibilities!). Weiceng wants to promote the digitization of ancient books and spread the “cultural fire” (文化火種; funnily enough, huozhong 火種 can also refer to Tinder) of previous generations. Shuge’s forum invites anyone to join the discussion –you’ll only need an email address, as long as you stay off political, sexual, and gambling-related topics. 

But the greatest part for greedy Sinologists is that Shuge’s content is no longer under copyright protection, as the rules state (首先,应该是超过版权保护年限的公共版权的书籍). Which means that you can download virtually everything that you find on the website. Here is how. 

For texts, hover over the Resources 資源集 section in the menu on the top left, and a menu will appear. Click on any of the sections listed under Traditional Collections 傳統分部, and for each you will be taken to the corresponding page that lists all the resources uploaded under that section, ordered by date. 

For example, in the Classics section 經部, you will find that the latest upload is a digital version of the Four Little Books 小四書, a collection of four children books; the earliest is a rhyme book uploaded in 2014 (scroll to the end to navigate the pages of each section). 

To download each file, there is the option to “Download directly” 直接下載on the lower right of each entry:  

Or (even better), you can click on the entry and learn more about the book, before downloading via the link position at the end of the page. This second option gives much more information: right above the link to download there is the size of the files; whether it’s color or black and white, or both; and the editions of each version you are allowed to download. Right next to it, you can leave a review (我要評價). 

In the case of multiple editions, you can select the one you need via the icons right after the blurb. For example, for the “Four Small Books” there is a Ming dynasty edition (on the left) and a Qing dynasty one (on the right). 

Each entry reproduces the table of content under the icon , and on the right side the column under , more details are provided, such as the dimension of the book (a very important information that often slips one’s mind when looking at digitized versions), and where the digitized copy was taken. 

So why should one turn to Shuge as opposed to the Internet Archive database, where the Ming dynasty version of the “Four Small Books” is taken from? Or from reading it on Ctext? There is actually no objective reason to do so, other than one’s preference and relatability to how websites are designed and organized. 

A shortcoming of Shuge is that there is no immediate way to sort out material according to historical phases. For example, I stumbled across the entire collection of reproductions of the Kaicheng Stone Classics 開成石經 (in high resolution!) by accident. To scholars working with ancient classics, the textual reproductions and studies of these during the Tang dynasty, when these stones were incised, is rich and valuable material. Yet there is no way to directly click on a “Tang dynasty section.” One way to get around it is to look at how each entry is categorized 類目. To keep with the Kaicheng example, right under the tile you can see it the categorization as 

Philosophy / Stele’s tapian 拓片[3] / Art / Sui, Tang and Five Dynasties

哲学类,碑拓,艺术类,隋唐五代

Each of these are hyperlinks. So, by clicking on “Sui, Tang, and Five Dynasties” you will be taken to all the entries that fall under that historical category. It may not be the most efficient way to present this, but it is easy enough for users to navigate easily their favorite historical era. 


[1] The expression takes after Lin Handa’s 林漢達 book Shang xia wu qian nian 上下五千年, in which the author collected mythological narratives, some of which are set in the third millennium BCE. 

[2] Until recently, the website also provided a service for users to send them drivers with the books they required. Shuge would charge a higher price for a driver than its cost on the market and would use the difference to maintain the website. The service has been suspended after a library complained about the pricing, claiming this makes the website a profit-based one, selling books that are otherwise freely accessible. A similar service is also offered by http://www.guoxuedashi.net.

[3] A method to obtain a rubbing to transfer a stele inscription on paper that is unique to Chinese history, and hence has no direct translation. 

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