The Xu Dishan Collection » The Xu Dishan collection: a foundational collection for the Australian National University

The Xu Dishan collection: a foundational collection for the Australian National University

At the heart of all great universities are research collections held by libraries and archives. They provide extraordinarily rich resources for research and teaching. For universities, they define the deep strengths of disciplines that have distinguished their history and exemplify their ambitions in supporting the creation of new knowledge. The collections attract international visitors, doctoral students, and academics from around the globe to be part of an institution that provides opportunities for study often without peer.

The Australian National University (ANU) was established by an act of the Commonwealth Parliament in 1946. The ANU motto “Naturam Primum Cognoscere Rerum,” generally translated as “first to learn the nature of things,” calls for a broad view of learning, one which builds upon ideas that are shaped from research that requires access to knowledge from across the world. In establishing the University’s collections, the vision was that the collection would be the foundation of study that would shape the intellectual endeavour that would lead to transformative outcomes for the nation.

Establishing the University

ANU was created after many decades of discussion in the context of a nation rebuilding itself after the Second World War. In rising from a period of conflict, the vision of an institution that would take its place in the world undertaking research on the great issues facing the world, the University took a unique spot in the education landscape.

The bill to establish the University, the Australian National University Bill 1946, was proposed by Mr. Dedman, Minister for Post-War Reconstruction and Minister in charge of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. In his Second Reading Speech, the importance of the University as a national institution situated within the region was at the forefront of his argument. He noted:

Australia has already gained a justifiably high reputation in university teaching and research, and the Government believes that the establishment of the Australian National University at Canberra" will bring still further credit to our country, not only by the work done within its own walls by its own staff and research students, but also by collaboration and cooperation between its members and the research workers and teachers of the other Australian universities...
To me it is more than ever important at this stage in Australia's development that, our people should have available everything they need to permit their decisions to be made wisely and after a full understanding of the issues involved. Both in Australia and in the world at large, innumerable problems await solution if the future is to be made safe and the people placed in a position to enjoy the fruits of the developments in science and in human relationships which have taken place during the last six years. The first thing that must be done, however, is to ensure that these developments are studied in relation particularly to their application in Australia...
We have also greatly increased responsibility to shoulder in relation to other people, particularly to those with whom we are associated as a Pacific power. The whole field of Pacific studies awaits fuller development than it has previously received in Australia. Our relations with the East, with the Americas, with the East Indies, New Zealand, New Guinea and all the Pacific Islands, must be carefully studied in order that they may become friendly and fruitful, as they must be if our future is to be safeguarded and if we are to make our full contribution in the councils of the nations. Here, too, – our opportunities are unique. Our remoteness enables us to consider the fundamental issues involved, free from the day to day fears and turmoil that beset many of the great powers. For that reason we have a duty to the world at large which we must recognize if we are to be accepted as a world power. (Dedman, J. 1946 Second reading speech. Canberra: Parliament. 19 June.)

Fundamental to supporting the work of the University was a great university library. The Library was a key topic at the first meeting of the Interim Council of the Australian National University with discussion covering the building of collections; classification of the collection and services to be offered.

Over the decades the University Library and University Archives have grown to deliver support to implement the vision of a great national university as well as meeting current education and research needs.

Foundational collections

The foundational collections of research libraries reflect the aspirations and interests of their institutions. In 1950 the University was settling into its Canberra location with a small cohort of staff after commencing collection building based on material that could be purchased from booksellers. The University Library moved from its temporary accommodation in Ormond College at the University of Melbourne to Canberra in December 1950, able to accommodate a collection that had been focused on building journal and monograph collections to meet the needs, particularly in science. The University Librarian, A.L.G. McDonald and Deputy Librarian Noel Stockdale used a network of suppliers around the world, with the collection reaching 40,000 volumes at that time. (Vidot, Peter. 1996. The History of the Australian National University library 1946-1996. Canberra: ANU Library)

A unique opportunity presented itself. In searching the world for academics to lead the University in the disciplines outlined in the original vision of the Parliament the University recruited Charles Fitzgerald to the position of Reader in Oriental Studies in the Department of Pacific History. Fitzgerald had spent time in China from 1923 in a great variety of roles. Publishing three books on China, Son of Heave in 1933, a biography of Emperor Taizong of Tang, China: A Short Cultural History, in 1935 and the Tower of Five Glories in 1940, he was fascinated by Chinese history and the life of the people.

Fitzgerald was recruited by Professor Sir Douglas Copland, who had been Australian Minister to China (1946–48) and had met Fitzgerald in Nanjing. In 1948, Copland was appointed as the first Vice-Chancellor of the University. Fitzgerald arrived at Canberra with the aspiration of developing world class research into Chinese studies. To support that research a world class collection was vital.

The Vice-Chancellor was convinced by Fitzgerald to fund the acquisition of the Xu Dishan collection with a vision of establishing an unparalleled collection for the study of the Chinese people. The collection’s significance was recorded in the official report of the University to the Commonwealth Parliament:

Books in Oriental Languages. To meet the requirements of the Department of Far Eastern History the library acquired a basic collection of approximately 25,000 volumes, mainly in Chinese, comprising material of classical, historical and religious interest, and including some 2,000 modern works in literature, history and political science. Most of the famous dynastic histories, many of which are now difficult to obtain, were included in what is probably the most important Chinese collection in Australia. Slightly less than half the total came from the private library of Professor Hsu Ti Shan (Xu Dishan), formerly Professor of Chinese at Hong Kong University, who was a well known Buddhist scholar. The bulk of the material was purchased on the advice of the Reader in Far Eastern History.

Of particular interest is the collection of the archives of the Ching (Manchu) dynasty, the publication of which was undertaken by the Japanese in Manchuria during the existence of the puppet empire of Manchoukuo. Another notable item is the Ming edition of the Mirror of History, dated 1509, and bearing the seals of the Imperial Library. (Australian National University. 1951. Report of the Interim Council 1950-51. Canberra, ANU, p. 14)

Professor Fitzgerald records his recruitment from a position at the British Council in China as one linked to the relationship of Sir Douglas Copland with the head of the British Council, Professor Roxby. The offer came fortuitously:

I got a direct offer from Copland to join the ANU as a visiting reader – yes, it was supposed to be a temporary job. Well, I hadn't anything else to do and the British Council was folding 'cause they wouldn't .... The British Government wouldn't give us full diplomatic status. The Chinese Communist Government wouldn't accept anybody who hadn't.
(ANU Emeritus Faculty Oral History Project. 1991. Charles Patrick Fitzgerald - Emeritus Professor, sinologist. Interviewer Stephen Foster, Edited and transferred to web media by Nik Fominas and Peter Stewart. Canberra, ANU Emeritus Faculty. The Australian National University, Emeritus Faculty Inc.)

Fitzgerald’s research continued to be broad encompassing many issues for which the collection was relevant and many areas where a broader study of Chinese documents was required. The University supported the extent of his work “there was no suggestion that I should put anything aside. I think a lot of people, naturally, were interested in contemporary China, but there was no suggestion that I should drop classical or earlier historical studies on that account – not at all” (ibid).

The Xu Dishan collection was the first formed collection acquired by the University. It remains a collection of international significance containing extremely rare and fragile resources. As the foundation collection it represents a statement about the work of the University as well as a treasure for the Library and researchers around the globe.

Its geographic and subject content reflects the vision of the founders of the University – that the research be vital to address issues in the region. The nature of the study into the history and people of China that it has supported has provided a fertile ground to understand Chinese philosophy, literature, and culture. The collection distinguishes the University as an institution with research materials that support deep research into China. Over the decades the overall University collection in relation to Asia has grown, with the MF Tauber’s Resources of Australian Libraries (Canberra AACOBS 1963) recording that the University’s Asian collection was the most significant collection in this area in Australia at that time.


The Xu Dishan collection distinguishes ANU as a great institution for Chinese Studies. As the first major collection of rare books, it represents a statement about the nature of the role of the University in the region and its commitment to support scholarship of international significance. For the University it provides the opportunity to benefit from the knowledge and links of an eminent academic committed to ensuring a long-term curated collection for current and future scholars.

Digitising the collection to make it accessible to scholars around the globe has been a major project for the University Library. A team of staff – most capably led by Stephanie Luke and Erin Gallant – have worked diligently for years with the fragile and precious materials to carefully by hand digitise each page to the highest possible standard.

In this, the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Australian National University, it is a gift to scholars both as a digitised corpus of knowledge of extraordinary breadth and depth and through the creation of a portal website that provide a gateway to current research on the work of Xu Dishan including theses, as well as scholarly commentaries.

Xu Dishan was a scholar of incomparable measure. While his time as a scholar was short, being born in 1893 and passing on 4 August 1941, his writings and now his library provide a window into Chinese philosophy, literature and folklore that ensures his contribution lives on.