The delicate and dying art of fixing ancient Chinese books by hand

Dec 08, 2020

There are more than 50 million antique books in China, but only a handful of people are trained to repair them.

Lian Chengchun has a unique job: fixing ancient Chinese books.

For the past decade, the 32-year-old antique book fixer has painstakingly restored dozens of frayed, rotted, and torn manuscripts—all by hand.

What is antique book fixing?

China classifies antique books as those printed before 1912. There are an estimated 50 million in China, according to one report, and only about 20 million have been preserved, creating a daunting task for antique book fixers like Lian.

Lian Chengchun examines a torn page at her studio in Beijing.
Lian Chengchun examines a torn page at her studio in Beijing. / Photo: Patrick Wong

Many books have been damaged over time by manmade and environmental conditions.

“Some books have rotted, some are aged, some have water damage, and some can’t even be opened properly,” Lian says. “Some books are especially hard to fix, such as ones that are infested with bugs or have holes in them.”

(Read more: He’s 24 years old and obsessed with antiques)

In those cases, it might take over six months to restore a book.

“When we repair them, we’re preserving their old quality,” Lian says. “In the end, the book should look the way it was originally.”

How does one become an antique book fixer?

Growing up in a family of antiquarians, Lian was fascinated with rare books from a young age. When she turned 20, she traveled to Beijing from her hometown in Shanxi Province to pursue book repair professionally.

Lian patches up a torn page at her studio in Beijing.
Lian patches up a torn page at her studio in Beijing. / Photo: Patrick Wong

She started working at the National Library of China, which houses one of the world’s largest collections of Chinese literature. There, she met a master book fixer and asked to be his apprentice.

“In Chinese culture, it’s customary for a master to train an apprentice,” Lian says. “The master guides the apprentice and supervises each step of the way.”

(Read more: The dying art of painting movie posters by hand)

Now, she runs her own studio in Beijing and repairs up to six books a year. On average, she says, it takes one to two days to restore a single page. One book can have anywhere from 30 to 60 pages.

“The first step when you receive a book is to assess its level of damage,” Lian says. “Is this page dry or humid? Do I use pulp or paper to fix this page? Does it require precision down to the millimeter?”

How big is the trade?

Most of Lian’s clients are auction houses and private book collectors, but it’s a small industry. Lian says she can count the number of professional full-time book fixers on her hands.

“There are plenty of people who want to learn how to fix books,” she says, “but as a hobby. It’s not something they want to pursue professionally.”

Lian says few people are willing to take up the profession full time.
Lian says few people are willing to take up the profession full time. / Photo: Patrick Wong

The starting salary is low, she says, and the hours are long. “I always lose track of time. Once I sit down, the next thing I know, it’s been a whole day already.”

Lian says she rarely takes a day off, working weekends and only taking off public holidays.

“It’s actually very difficult to be an antique book fixer,” she says. “Nowadays, society is developing so quickly, and we have more and more electronic products. There are fewer and fewer people inheriting this craft.”

ArtisansChinese traditions

Credit

Producer: Jessica Novia

Script: Tiffany Ip

Videographer: Patrick Wong

Editor: Hanley Chu

Mastering: Joel Roche