Song is a skilled restorer who has dedicated her career to restoring ancient cultural relics. She completed her cultural relic protection studies at Peking University in 2015 and has since worked on over 100 relics, including some written by Emperor Qianlong and Empress Dowager Cixi from the Qing Dynasty. Her work is essential in preserving these precious artifacts for future generations.
Restoring ancient books is a complicated and time-consuming process. The restorers have a strict routine that begins with checking in at 8:30 am every day. They spend an hour preparing before starting the actual restoration work. One critical step in their preparation involves mixing the paste, which must be done right before use to avoid spoilage.
The paste density required for each task varies, and the restoration tools have to be checked thoroughly to ensure they are clean. For example, if there is any residual paste left on a brush, it can harden and pierce the paper, damaging the artifact. Therefore, Song and her team must take extra care to ensure that their tools are entirely clean and safe to use.
Once all the preparations are completed, the restoration work can begin, and Song and her team can work for up to seven to eight hours a day. This work requires a great deal of patience and skill since the restoration process involves delicately handling ancient, fragile materials. Even small errors can result in permanent damage to the relic.
Song explains that different pastes are used for different tasks, depending on whether they are sticking together paper or silk. This level of attention to detail highlights the specialized knowledge and skill required for successful restoration. Song’s expertise and dedication to her work ensure that the cultural relics she restores remain in pristine condition for generations to come.
Song’s work as a restorer is both complex and time-consuming, requiring a great deal of care and attention to detail. The routine she and her team follow ensures that all the tools and materials are clean and ready for use before starting the actual restoration work. The restoration process itself can last up to seven to eight hours, and it requires the utmost skill and patience to ensure that the ancient relics are preserved for future generations. Song’s dedication to her craft ensures that these precious artifacts are restored with the care and attention they deserve.
Before embarking on any restoration project, Song and her team conduct a thorough assessment of the subject matter. This evaluation involves identifying the issues that can be resolved through restoration and those that cannot, as well as determining how the restoration process could potentially compromise the item. According to Song, this process is critical, and it all depends on specific cases. For instance, when restoring ancient paintings, the team encounters numerous mold spots or stains. Some of these stains are deep-seated, and the restorers must decide whether the removal process could undermine the paper fiber.
In the most severe cases, Song often discovers dozens of damaged areas on a single page of an ancient book. To restore such pages, the restorers must create pieces of similar paper to patch up the damages while trying to ensure the repairs are as neat as possible. Song describes this process as challenging, and she sometimes even dreams about the repairs.
To begin the restoration work, Song and her colleagues check in at 8:30 am every day to prepare themselves before starting their work. They spend about an hour preparing the pastes, mixing them right before the repair to avoid spoilage. Additionally, they must ensure that the paste density is appropriate for the task at hand, whether it involves sticking together paper or silk.
The restoration tools also require thorough cleaning to prevent residual paste on the brush, which could harden and pierce through the paper, damaging it even further. Once the preparations are complete, the restoration process can take up to seven to eight hours.
The restoration team must exercise caution throughout the restoration process to ensure they do not further damage the ancient artifacts. They constantly evaluate the repairs to determine if they are as unobtrusive as possible. Despite the challenges, Song remains committed to her work, noting the significance of cultural relics and the need to preserve them for future generations.
The main aim of restoring ancient books is to prolong their lifespan. The similarity between the original and the restoration materials is crucial in preserving the books, as it ensures their aging rates are consistent. This is essential in preventing further deterioration of the ancient books.
Currently, Song and her team are working on restoring a copy of Yongle Dadian, an encyclopedia from the Ming Dynasty. The encyclopedia comprises 22,937 volumes in 11,095 books and contains some 370 million Chinese characters. It is said to be the world’s largest paper-based encyclopedia in ancient history. Unfortunately, time has not been kind to the publication, and only about 400 books of a 16th-century duplicate exist, or just over 3.5 percent of the total publication. The whereabouts of the original version are unknown.
Before starting the restoration work, Song and her colleagues took six months to assess the project. They had to figure out ways to simulate the original raw materials for binding and layout through meticulous study. Most of the books that survived until today had suffered damage to their original binding. Thus, the team had to gather information from various sources, such as images and texts, before they could conclude the original binding style and repair them accordingly.
The ancient encyclopedia’s silk texture and color have grown inconsistent, which makes creating the necessary raw materials and matching the color difficult. According to Song, the team had to settle for trial and error to restore the encyclopedia’s consistency. They had to ensure the repair materials were pretreated to emulate the similar aged condition as the original.
Restoration work on the Yongle Dadian is not just about fixing damaged pages but also preserving the book’s original form. The process of restoration requires a thorough understanding of the book’s history and context to recreate the book’s original look and feel. Song and her colleagues use a combination of historical research, chemical analysis, and manual techniques to restore the ancient books.
Moreover, Song’s team has to deal with numerous challenges, including identifying different pastes for sticking together paper and silk, matching the color of original materials, and checking restoration tools’ cleanliness. The team checks in at 8:30 am every day and prepares for the restoration work about an hour later. The restoration work can go on for seven to eight hours a day.
In the past, restorers had to rely solely on their experience to determine the appropriate materials to use on a restoration project. However, with the evolution of technology, restorers can now make use of new methods of fiber analysis through microscopes to identify the raw materials with accuracy and efficiency. Song, a master restorer of ancient books, can attest to the benefits of these new techniques in her work. She remembers when her teacher used to ask them to identify the material used to make a piece of paper by hand when she first learned restoration.
While technology has made the job easier, Song emphasizes the importance of the old-fashioned, tactile detection methods when fibers are not readily available. She notes that getting fiber samples might undermine the integrity of an ancient item, so restorers at the library rely on their experience and knowledge when fibers are not easily obtainable. Once the analysis is finished, restorers at the library can create paper that is incredibly similar to the original. However, Song reminds us that technology is only an auxiliary resource in the trade, and ancient-book restoration still requires a set of essential manual skills.
These manual skills range from concocting paste, cutting and brushing paper, to binding. Commercially produced pastes may contain chemicals that could harm the books, so Song and her colleagues have to make the glues they need by themselves, starting from extracting starch from flour. It takes a lot of practice before getting everything down to a fine art, as the paste viscosity cannot be too weak or too strong. “Otherwise, it can’t hold the paper together or will make the paper crease,” Song says.
The restoration process also requires high levels of control in brushing the paper. Song explains that if the pressure is not properly controlled during the brushing process, the paper may tear, but if the touch is too light, the paper won’t adhere. Despite the arduous nature of the work, Song was determined to join the field from an early age. As a child, Song was captivated by documentaries about the world’s cultural relics and became deeply intrigued by the art of artifact restoration.
Song spent hours researching cultural relics, frequenting local museums, and reading related books. In senior middle school, those earlier experiences helped her to set her sights on becoming a master restorer of ancient books. However, there were not many schools offering cultural-relic restoration courses back then, and her dream destination, Peking University, only offered openings every other year. She found that the undergraduate curricula arrangement for that particular field of study was mostly related to chemistry. Therefore, she opted to start a chemistry degree at Fudan University in Shanghai, enrolling in 2008. In the meantime, she continued to read up on cultural relics and study how museums operate.
Song’s dedication and hard work paid off when, after graduating from Fudan, she was accepted as a master’s candidate to the prestigious cultural heritage preservation program at Peking University. From then on, she has been on a mission to make her dreams a reality. During her first year, she spent most of her time developing basic restoration skills and learning by observing her teachers at work. She learned to never place a cup of water on the worktable nor wear high heels at work, as they might expose ancient books to hazards. She also ensured that she uses a board to carry precious books, which are fragile and could be deformed if held.
According to Song, these professional habits must be developed from the beginning so that they become second nature. In ancient book restoration, undoing work is generally not an option, as any redoing can cause further damage to the cultural artifact. Therefore, every step must be thoroughly thought through before being executed. It usually takes at least two to three years of learning and following
The National Library’s ancient book preservation technique was recognized as a national-level intangible cultural heritage in 2008. However, according to Du Weisheng, a senior ancient books conservator at the library who has devoted nearly 50 years to this career, ancient book restoration involves knowledge from multiple disciplines beyond traditional expertise. In addition to excellent restoration skills, a restorer must also have a certain level of understanding in fields such as physics, chemistry, printing, and papermaking, Du says.
Du emphasizes that restoring ancient books is not just about preserving history; it is also about improving cultural confidence. The valuable ancient books that have been preserved serve as the best evidence of that confidence. Restoring these books is a significant effort in prolonging the life of ancient Chinese civilization, Du says.
Song, a young ancient book restorer, has found her work fascinating. The more ancient books she restores, the more she enjoys her job. During the restoration process, she sometimes makes surprising discoveries. For example, in 2021, she found text faintly visible under the blue background of a painting featuring the image of a Buddha when it was dampened. The text roughly conveyed the artist’s intentions, and was hidden again when the paper dried. Such unexpected surprises have thrilled Song as if she was connected with ancient people across time and space.
With the country focusing heavily on the popularization of cultural relics and TV programs, such as Masters in the Forbidden City gaining wide acclaim, the public has shown an increasingly strong interest in the field. Many people are interested in the preservation of ancient Chinese civilization, which has left behind a vast number of books that require restoration before they can see the light of day again, Song says.
Song has joined the talent development team and entered the campus with her experienced colleagues to deliver lectures, carry out training, and guide college students looking to gain practical experience. She believes that it is important to try to understand an industry from as many aspects as possible before deciding if it is just a fleeting interest or a burning passion. By inspiring more young people to find their lifelong passion in the field of cultural heritage preservation, Song hopes to make a contribution to the preservation of ancient Chinese civilization.