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The purpose of this article is to explore Chinese writing and its connection with libraries in Imperial China. From the perspective of analyzing Chinese writing and its cultural, social and political impact, this article attempts to deliver a tentative and speculative exploration concerning why public libraries did not automatically emerge from Chinese civilization. This article discusses how Chinese writing, characterized by the art form Calligraphy, was intimately associated with Chinese classical texts, knowledge classification, bibliographers and imperial libraries, and eventually with an elite culture empowered by the socio-political repertoire of scholar-officials. It particularly focuses on the discussion of how “public” is viewed differently in Chinese culture from the West and how Chinese society, including libraries, was transformed by redefining the meaning of “public” at the beginning of the 20th century.


This is the submitted version of an article originally published in Library & Information History, available at



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