Library’s historic collections open up a world of research possibilities

12 May 2016

Students, researchers and staff of The Australian National University (ANU) have access to rich and diverse historic collections via the ANU Library; collections that are significant not only for their rarity, but for the continued impact they have on research and researchers worldwide.

To coincide with the exhibition Celestial Empire at the National Library of Australia, the Library has put on display two significant and rarely seen Chinese texts from the Xu Dishan Collection- Laojun bashiyi huatu or Lord Lao's Eighty One Transformations, Illustrated 老君八十一化图 and The Yoga Ritual Procedure for the Feeding of [Hungry Ghosts with] Flaming Mouths 瑜伽燄口施食儀範.

These items are among the oldest Chinese items in the Library's collection, dating from 1891 and 1739 respectively, and are among only a handful of copies still in existence.

According to University Librarian, Roxanne Missingham, the Library has developed a strong and significant collection of Chinese resources over many decades.

"The Library collection holds over 580 rare Chinese works recognised in the Union Catalog of Rare Books established by the National Central Library of Taiwan. We are delighted to display online and in the Menzies Library two significant works."

Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World, Dr. Benjamin Penny, has used Laojun bashiyi huatu in his research over many years.

"The edition on display is an illustrated hagiography of Laozi showing his supposed eighty-one interventions in human form in the life of the world. The text gained fame in the disputations between Buddhists and Taoists during the Yuan Dynasty and was destroyed after the proscription of all Taoist books bar the Daode jing. As a result, no version of this text exists in the Taoist Canon. The particular notoreity of the Eighty One Transformations was due largely to its explicit claim that the Buddha was but one of the transformations of Laozi.

"It begins with the three images of Laozi and a picture of an inscribed stelae reading "Long live the emperor". This is followed by sixteen pages depicting thirty one Taoist patriarchs, many from the centuries immediately preceding the book's composition. Then follow the depictions of the eighty one transformations themselves, each accompanied by a short text. In the famous 34th illustration, Laozi transform Yin Xi into a Buddha and sends him to explain the Sutra in Forty Two Sections to the Hu barbarians. The final illustrated transformation is dated to 1098.

"The precise origins of the Eighty One Transformations is murky, and the question of whether surviving texts claiming to be the original can authentically make that claim is unclear. There are descriptions of four extant editions of this text - one in Berlin (1598), two in Japan and one in Liaoning (1532). The edition exhibited here and held by the ANU Library is credited to the Ma'nao publishing house and is undated," said Dr. Penny.

The Library's historic collections are not limited to Chinese texts; they offer material from a plethora of disciplines and open up a world of research possibilities to researchers the world round.

Items from the Library's rare books, manuscripts and special collections can be searched via the Library catalogue and viewed by request.