CHINA HERITAGE NEWSLETTER China Heritage Project, The Australian National University
ISSN 1833-8461
No. 2, June 2005


Collecting Old Family Letters | China Heritage Quarterly


The art of letter writing, even in China, is increasingly threatened by SMS text messaging and Email. Long before fiction or drama were regarded as literary genres, letter writing in China had a special place in written culture. Calligraphy further elevated the letter to an art form even more highly ranked than literature.

Family letters (jiashu) constitute a particular sub-genre much appreciated by Chinese readers as revealed by the fact that Fu Lei jiashu xuan (Fu Lei's family letters) remains a bestseller over 20 years since it first appeared. The semi-classical style of language in the letters of Fu Lei (1908-1966), a noted French translator, musician and artist who died in the Cultural Revolution, is prized by readers today for the clarity it conveys. Shen Fu's classic epistolary novel Fusheng liu ji (Six records of a floating life) (1809) similarly expresses an intimacy absent from most classical Chinese fiction, by virtue of its use of the personal letter form.

In ancient anthologies of individual Chinese writers, there is almost invariably a section devoted to letters, and modern selections of ancient letters are also prized both as delightful reading matter and as models for letter writing. Letter writing manuals still sell well in China, even if formal letter writing conventions on the mainland do not conform to the rigorous standards of formal courtesy perpetuated in Taiwan and, to a lesser extent, Hong Kong.

As revealed by Fu Lei's correspondence with his musician son Fou Ts'oung, the family letter is a unique form. Although it may have less significance as a historical document outside its genealogical uses, its context can reveal more about personalities than a collection of unrelated letters written by an individual. It is less the historical and social archival value of family letters, rather the intimacy that family letters convey, which prompted the Yanhuang Cultural Research Institute in Beijing and its monthly publication Yanhuang chunqiu (pictured above) to participate in launching an initiative on 28 March 2005 to collect family letters, together with the China National Museum, the China Folk Literature and Art Society, and Zhongguo wenwu bao (China cultural relics news).

China today faces something of an archival crisis. Access to archives is very restricted, much government material is simply recycled rather than being collected, and the local archival material collection offices (wenshizhi-she) under local government bodies have no cash to deal with the new media archiving requires. In the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s, major archiving and oral history projects were conducted with government funding. Oral histories have, however, been neglected over recent years,[1] and the copyright of video and film material presents further economic hurdles not encountered in the past. Old documents are now often found by approaching paper recycling plants, and some salvaged or purchased material ends up as job lots at antique markets.

The new initiative to collect family letters is not, however, seen as an archival undertaking. Bai Gengsheng, deputy director of the China Folk Literature and Art Society, in charge of the collection project, explains that: "These letters are a package of various cultures in literature, aesthetics and calligraphy. They also reflect the development of China's traditional rites, papermaking industry, post and package services".[2] He continued: "They have not only helped maintain the emotional attachment between family members but also record the changing society".

Publicity material published in the journal Yanhuang chunqiu, edited by the historian Wu Si, explains the urgent need to save family letters as follows:

Traditional family letters are an important component of the best of folk culture, and for millennia family letters have relayed the cultural bonds of kinship of the Chinese people, linking people emotionally, exemplifying the finest aspects of the human spirit, and recording the changing times. Family letters express the forces of intimacy and warmth that bring the Chinese people together.

The proliferation today of means of communication will result in traditional family letters disappearing from view, and in the not too distant future the next generation will no longer know what family letters were. It is a matter of urgency for both our nation and our descendants to salvage family letters.

China National Museum will collect the 100 most valuable letters, while Yanhuang chunqiu will publish those of historic interest and Zhongguo wenwu bao will focus on those that have collectible value. The publication of selections of these letters is planned, and the intention is to also stage exhibitions of family letters. Various published anthologies are planned, and other journals are being encouraged to accept for publication letters of interest. Contributors to the project will be paid a fee if letters are published, and they can also choose to withhold their names from letters. The first stage of the project will run from 11 April for a period of between two and three months. It will be interesting to monitor the development of this project, and at China Heritage Newsletter we will keep readers informed of any interesting developments. [BGD]


[1] The enterprise of official oral history (koushu shi) flourishes, but more popular forms languish. Sang Ye and Zhang Xinxin, influenced by the US oral historian Studs Terkel, created a sensation in 1985 when then published a series of relatively frank interviews with normal people in the leading literary journals of the country. The resulting book, Beijing ren (Beijing man) was a best-seller, and even did well in English translation. Sang Ye's latest book, although published in Hong Kong under the title 1949, 1989, 1999, has not appeared in China due to the controversial nature of its contents. An English version of this work, under the title China Candid: the People on the People's Republic and edited by Geremie R. Barmé with Miriam Lang, will appear later this year through University of California Press, see

[2] As quoted by the People's Daily online English website: