After weeks of being told there was nothing exciting to see in Ningbo, I stumbled upon a diamond in the rough while searching online: the oldest library in China. Known as Tiānyī Gé (天一阁), or the One Sky Pavilion, was founded in 1561 by the politician-scholar Fan Qin (范钦). At it’s height, the One Sky Pavilion housed over 70,000 texts and manuscripts.
Finding the library was hard enough, as we walked right past the place and onto the main roads. After asking around, a local girl led us to the place. Being as it was through a small empty street, we
weren’t sure if she was leading us to the pavilion or to our potential kidnappers. We got there soon enough, though, with no scratches or bumps. The pavilion complex was quite large, and greeting us upon entering was a statue of a seated Fan Qin with text before him. The most exciting thing about the complex was the design and natural feel. The buildings were a dark brown, much different than the white buildings of Suzhou or the imperial red of Beijing.
Through hallways and open courtyards the history of the place was revealed. The pavilion was commissioned in 1561 by Fan Qin as a private garden and library for the Fan family. Although it soon became renowned for its collection and many scholars dreamed of visiting the place, few were allowed inside.
On the day we visited – not a holiday, thankfully – it was quiet and relatively empty. We toured through the old buildings and past ponds filled with koi and surrounded by old trees, carved stones, and walls adorned with dancing lions. The gray hallways led from one building to the next, each one with various manuscripts and even a central depository (recently built) for additions to the collection. It is said that, with the help of the Chinese government and historical organizations, the library now contains 300,000 texts, copies, and manuscripts, most of them rare works from Ningbo.
One thing that was hard to discern, though, was the age of the buildings and pavilion. In recent years, many of the structures had fallen into disrepair and had been damaged, especially following a typhoon that nearly leveled the library in 1930. To make things more confusing, there was the question of the Cultural Revolution and censorship. A number of rooms in the pavilion seemed to have been changed, as they housed generic furniture typical of other monuments and historical sites around China. Arranged in the style of a greeting room, it was hard to tell if it was the library we were seeing or some late sprucing up by the government.
Nevertheless, the place was beautiful, and provided a look into the private life of one of Ningbo’s old elites. There were many areas for sitting and exploring, and the cool cloudy day provided for some time to think about the intricate details and history of Tianyi Ge.