A Look Inside China’s Effort to Preserve Historical Mongolian Manuscripts

Various projects are attempting to digitize the more than 200,000 volumes of Mongolian books and documents in the country

Tibetan manuscripts
Tibetan manuscripts INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo

China is reportedly home to more than 200,000 volumes of Mongolian books and documents, but much of that literature is in a fight against time, as mildew and discoloration threaten to destroy the historical manuscripts.

One, a rare Mongolian version of the Tibetan Buddhist classic Kangyur from 1720, engraved on wood, with 109 volumes and 50 million words, has now been removed from that danger. The manuscript is one of a growing number of documents being digitized as part of several projects by Chinese researchers to preserve historical Mongolian books, the state-sponsored China News Service reports.

Because the public rarely gets access to ancient Mongolian books, which remain shelved, multiple archival projects are now bringing new life to the works, making many available online for the first time.

“The most important method to give access is to digitize and publish ancient books,” Soyolt, an official specializing in ethnic Mongolian documents, tells CNS.

While scanning technology has been available for decades, the digitization of books didn’t take hold until the 2000s, writes Kevin Kelly in a 2006 New York Times article.

It was around that time that China began a national project for manuscript restoration, Zhang Ningning reports for Shanghai Daily. In 2007, China launched an initiative to build a body of book repair experts. Today there are almost 1,000 trained restorers in the country, according to Ningning.

The Mongolian digitization projects include efforts by researchers and universities around the country.

In the last three years, for instance, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, a region north of Beijing bordering Mongolia, has digitized and published 120 Mongolian classics. This November, Inner Mongolia University created new software that will help with these efforts, as it can quickly recognize Mongolia fonts on paper documents and convert them into editable, digital files, according to ChinaDaily.comFeilong, an associate professor at Inner Mongolia University tells the site that now a 100-page Mongolian book takes less than a minute to scan.

The Northwest University for Nationalities, in Gansu Province in northwest China, has also established a database with a collection of more than 10,000 Mongolian folk tales, CNS reports. And researchers in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in northwest China, have collected 384 books in Todo bichig, a writing system used by Mongolian tribes in the Qing Dynasty of 1644-1911.