The restorer of old classics is a man of his word

Yang Liqun, a 64-year-old restorer, at the Yunnan Ancient Book Preservation Center in April. [Photo/Xinhua]

Gently peeling off the top and bottom layers of the hardwood cover, Yang Liqun takes out a sheet of paper that has been repaired. The original gap in the ancient manuscript has been filled, with its former sweetness restored.

“Made of bark and stored in caves for long periods of time, many Yi ethnic language ancient books can easily be damaged,” says Yang, a 64-year-old restorer from the Yunnan Ancient Book Preservation Center.

In March, Yang’s team started a project to recover the five badly damaged ancient pamphlets of Cham, the epic of the creation of the Yi ethnic group.

Famous for their embroidery and torch festival, the Yi people mainly live in southwest China, with a total population of around 9.8 million in 2020, according to the 2021 China Statistical Yearbook. .

Yang says restored books should retain their original appearance and the restoration process should be reversible, meaning any repair material can be easily removed if needed.

The restoration procedure requires preparation of original or similar materials, patching, smoothing, reshaping of pages and binding. Depending on the specific condition of the damaged pieces, restorers will come up with an appropriate plan on a case-by-case basis.

Yunnan in southwest China is home to more than a million ancient books written in the languages ​​of various ethnic groups, with many texts scattered among communities and in need of repair.

Books belonging to different ethnic groups served different functions and were therefore stored in different conditions, which presented conservators with a whole series of challenges. As they were used for worship, Yi documents are often burnt or greasy, while the pages of ancient Tibetan books have stuck together due to moisture.

Yang recalled his recovery of the Tibetan scriptures from the Nagela Cave, an ancient classic of Lamaism. “Mixed with mud, the pages were so damaged that we started with a solid ‘brick’,” he says.

Located on a cliff about 100 kilometers from the Shangri-La of Yunnan, the cave was hidden behind bamboo and thorns. The dozen Tibetan manuscripts discovered there in 2010 were over 2,000 pages long.

Ancient books recorded religious rituals and Buddhist classics. The valuable documents show the work of Tibetan calligraphy, as well as the printing and papermaking processes, says Ji Sicheng, Yang’s colleague.

In the absence of similar precedents for restoring ethnic minority classics, Yang conducted surveys in various parts of China and decided to use the original scripture material, a poisonous local herb called langducao that repels insects. . He crushed the root of the grass and mixed it with pulp before gluing the book back together.