China: Culture and Society contains the pamphlets held in the Charles W. Wason Collection on East Asia. Mostly in English and published between c.1750 and 1929, they amount to around 1,200 pamphlets in 220 bound volumes.

The Wason Pamphlet Collection has been digitised in its entirety in full colour and the documents are full-text searchable. Many are illustrated and feature lavish cover art. Types of content within the pamphlets include:

  • Addresses and speeches
  • Annual reports
  • Assessments
  • Catalogues
  • Essays
  • Examinations
  • Guides and manuals
  • Inquiries and studies
  • Journals
  • Lecture notes
  • Letters
  • Magazine articles
  • Minutes of meetings
  • Notes and records

The scope of the Wason Pamphlet Collection is astonishingly broad. Together, the pamphlets provide an insight into a wide variety of topics concerning Chinese culture, history, religion, everyday life and foreign involvement in the country. It should be noted, however, that the pamphlets were largely written by Western academics, diplomats, merchants, missionaries and travellers who encountered China over several centuries. They depict a Western perception of China, representing the initial means by which foreigners would have learnt about China in the period. As a result, some of the pamphlets do include offensive language, othering stereotypes and terminology which we would not deem acceptable today. 

There are a number of documents in China: Culture and Society that are either fully or partially in Chinese; browse these documents here. You will also find some documents in other languages, including French, Dutch and German. As well as China, the pamphlets also provide some coverage of Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Russia and Tibet.


Charles W. Wason was born in 1854 in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of a banker. Taking a degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University in 1876, he returned to his home town to work for the East Cleveland Railway Company, going on to establish the first public electric railway in the United States. Later in his career he made his fortune as the director of a number of railway, electricity and telephone companies.

Wason first visited China with his wife on a cruise in 1903, igniting a passion for the country, its people and their culture which was to last for the rest of his life. However, he did not start collecting books on China until 1909, when he received Letters from China by Sarah Pike Conger as a Christmas present from his mother-in-law. He was later to declare in a speech to the Cornell Alumni Association of Cleveland that he aimed to collect all works on China in the English language he could get his hands on, with the aim of bringing "China and the United States into closer intellectual relations".

Charles W. Wason © Cornell University LibraryCharles W. Wason. Material sourced from Cornell University Library

Wason’s health began to decline soon after he began collecting, so he employed Arthur H. Clark, a friend and Cleveland publisher, to take over the buying of books and manuscripts. In the eight years between 1910 and 1918, Clark amassed on Wason’s behalf 9,000 volumes of material, which in time took up an entire third-floor ballroom in Wason’s house (converted by a firm of architects into a library decorated with Chinese motifs).

Wason and Clark’s aim was to build a rounded collection, including titles published in China and outside, which provided as full a picture as possible of China and the Chinese people. To achieve this goal standard works on China’s neighbours were added to the collection, as well as selected materials in other European languages, journal articles – 62,000, taken from 150 periodicals, by the time of Wason’s death – maps and manuscript materials.

Rare and important highlights of the Wason Collection include five manuscript volumes of the Encyclopaedia Maxima (1547), a 1661 ‘jade book’ bearing an inscription by the Kangxi Emperor, the manuscripts resulting from the mission to China in 1792-4 of the British diplomat Lord Macartney, a set of publications of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service (founded 1854), and a variety of 16th- and 17th-century books and manuscripts in Latin, French, Spanish and Portuguese, mostly written by Jesuit missionaries. Charles Wason died on 15th April 1918. Having long cherished his ties to Cornell, he bequeathed his collection to his alma mater along with an endowment of $50,000, the interest on which was to be used to continue purchasing material. Cornell subsequently took the decision to start adding works in Chinese as well as in English.

Gussie E. Gaskell, a Cornell graduate, was appointed the first permanent curator of the Wason Collection in 1927. Originally a student of modern Europe, she learned Chinese, went frequently to China on book-buying trips and worked with Cornell academics to direct the growth of the Collection. This growth was accelerated with the appointment in 1938, thanks to a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, of Cornell’s first full-time professor of Chinese history, Knight Biggerstaff, who would himself play a leading role in the Wason Collection’s development.

Charles Wason's Chinese library, © Cornell University Library
Charles Wason's Chinese Library. Material sourced from Cornell University Library

With the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Gaskell began in the 1950s to focus her buying on works on all subjects relating to contemporary mainland China. Then, after restrictions imposed by the Chinese government during the Cultural Revolution made the acquisition of many of these materials difficult, the Collection’s emphasis shifted to filling gaps in its holdings relating to the period between 1900 and 1949. With the halt called to the Cultural Revolution and the easing of restrictions in 1976, acquisitions once more began to concentrate on contemporary material.

Over the decades the Wason Collection has expanded its holdings into thousands of volumes of material on Japan and Korea, whilst continuing to focus on China. Now housed in the Kroch Asia Library, the Collection’s current holdings amount to over 600,000 volumes, the majority of which are in Chinese; about 80,000 volumes are in English.

Key themes have been attributed to documents in China: Culture and Society as metadata tags to enhance browsing functionality. Discover more about the themes covered and discover document highlights below: 

A variety of research tools provide further contextual information or guidance for teaching and research. From essays and video interviews to biographies and exhibitions, explore the options under Research Tools or view the full list in Teaching Tools.