CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 13, March 2008


George E. Morrison's Studio and Library | China Heritage Quarterly

George E. Morrison's Studio and Library

Claire Roberts

No one really knows when the building that once housed Dr. George Ernest Morrison's (1862-1920) library on Wangfujing in Beijing was torn down.[1] It was sometime in August or September, 2007—part of the frenzy of last-minute demolitions that have been occurring in the heart of Beijing to rationalise commercial and residential zones and make way for various developments in the lead-up to the Olympic Games. The demolition site was shielded from public view by a row of shops on Wangfujing Street that continued to trade. As we walked over the wreckage of bricks and rubble last year, none of the locals were aware that the area was previously home to 'Morrison of Peking', the influential Peking correspondent for The Times newspaper of London who, in 1912, became the political adviser to Yuan Shikai (1859-1916), the first president of the Chinese Republic. Nor were they aware that Morrison was Australian, or that the street was formerly known to expatriates as 'Morrison Street' in his honour. That is now a footnote in the complex history of Wangfujing and of China that has been overtaken by the changes over eighty years.

Fig.1 The entrance of Dr George E. Morrison's house on Wangfujing Street, Beijing. Photograph courtesy the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

George Ernest Morrison grew up in Geelong, Victoria, and from an early age he displayed a fascination for things and a compulsion to collect, beginning with stamps and shells. The young Morrison also had a passion for wandering and writing. His first major walk, from the southern coast of Victoria to Adelaide was undertaken in 1880 and, two years later, he walked from the Gulf of Carpentaria in Northern Australia to Melbourne in the south. After investigative trips to the South Seas and New Guinea, Morrison made his first journey to Asia—Hong Kong, the Philippine islands, China and Japan—in 1893-94. He sailed from Shanghai up the Yangtze River to Chongqing and then walked overland through south-western China to Rangoon in Burma. In 1895, he established his reputation as an adventurer and a travel writer through his account of the journey, An Australian in China. In that same year, Morrison was approached by The Times to investigate French activities in Thailand. On the strength of his insightful writing about Thailand, China and other places, Morrison was appointed correspondent for The Times in Peking. During his term, China experienced dramatic social and political change and his coverage of events included eyewitness accounts of Russian activity in Manchuria (1897-98), the Boxer Rebellion and siege of the foreign legations (1900), as well as incisive reports on the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) and the 1911 Revolution. Morrison's first house, located in the Legation Quarter (now occupied in part by the High Court of China and the ministries of state and public security), was destroyed during the Boxer Rebellion, but by good fortune his library, which had been stored close by, was transferred to the Palace of Prince Su 肅親王府 before the Legation was torched. In 1902, he moved to a house in the Chinese quarter in Wangfujing Street which was on the site of the former grand residence of Prince Pulun 溥倫貝子. There, Morrison built a southern wing to accommodate his extensive collection of books in Western languages concerning China and East Asia. In 1911, the house was described in an article in the North China Daily in the following terms:

Walk just outside the Legation quarter in Peking, and you come to a typical Chinese house, its outer lodge facing the street, a big courtyard within, a house on one side, a long low building on the other... The long building is his library, containing probably the finest collection of books on the Far East in existence today. It is managed on a plan which reveals the man. Everything is systematised and indexed. The least fact can be ascertained at once. The clean-shaven, sturdily built Australian loves to show an appreciative visitor his books, his cuttings and his methods. Here he works; here he maintains constant correspondence with men of all nationalities throughout the Middle Kingdom. System, accuracy, constant intercourse with all classes, and a tremendous correspondence have been the foundations on which he has built up his knowledge.[2]

Morrison's library provided an important historical perspective to his writings on China and arose out of professional need. Reflecting on its formation he said: 'I found here no library worthy of the name; there were only scattered collections of books, more or less scanty, in various private hands. No library was accessible to a serious student. No serious library existed'.[3] The library was financed by Morrison's work as a corespondent for The Times and was a hobby that developed into an obsession. It was a working library that became well known in Peking and Morrison was generous in providing scholars with access to its resources.[4] Morrison continued to add to his collection almost daily but increasingly he found that it took a toll on his time and energy 'to a degree that I am no longer able to sustain'.[5] After Morrison became an adviser to Yuan Shikai in 1912, he decided to sell the library. He engaged three secretaries to catalogue the collection of 24,000 works, including some 6,000 pamphlets, 1,000 maps and engravings and more than 100 sets of periodicals.[6] The library contained books and other materials in more than twenty different languages on a great diversity of subjects including the history of Western contact with China, missionary reports, consular reports, China Maritime Customs publications, manuscripts, as wells as publications on history politics, economics, social customs, botany, geography, geology, ornithology and an impressive array of journals, most of them in complete sets. Among the rare items in Morrison's collection are manuscript journals and letter books of Lord Macartney (1737-1806), whose descendant Jane Macartney is the correspondent for The Times in Beijing today, and the logbook of the Lion frigate that took him on the first British Embassy to the Qing court in 1792.

Morrison hoped that his collection could remain in China and that his house could be retained as the site for the library that would bear his name:

Should it be purchased by the Chinese, I will present the Government with my freehold property in Peking, that is the fire-proof library building... My own residence can be used upstairs as quarters for a Foreign Librarian until the library catalogue is completed and printed. Downstairs the rooms can be converted into a reading room...I have determined to ask that the Library shall continue to be called after me.[7]

Interested Chinese parties hoped the library could be donated, but from Morrison's point of view that was not possible given his responsibilities to support his young family and maintain an independent living. Morrison received expressions of interest and firm offers from a number of American universities, but he wanted the library to remain in East Asia. In 1917, the collection was sold to Baron Hisaya Iwasaki (1865-1955), a former president of the Mitsubishi corporation, for £35,000. In 1924, the Toyo Bunko (東洋文庫 Oriental Library) was established with the Morrison collection as its core, and opened to the public. In that same year a two-volume catalogue of Morrison's library was published, based on Morrison's original records. The Morrison collection has been dispersed within the holdings of an expanded Toyo Bunko, now the largest Asian studies library and research institute in Japan and one of the largest such institutions in the world.

Fig.2 Dr George E. Morrison (centre) with Masunosuke Odagiri (seated left) the representative of Baron Iwasaki, and Mikinosuke Ishida (seated right) who supervised the transfer of the library to Tokyo, in the Morrison library after the sale of the collection in 1917. Photograph courtesy the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.
Fig.3 The southern side of Dr George E Morrison's library, looking from east to west. Photograph courtesy the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

Today, all that remains of Morrison's library as he conceived it is a series of photographs that Morrison commissioned from the Peking-based Japanese photographer Sanshichiro Yamamoto, and which clearly document the vastness and orderliness of the collection. An early photograph shows a large room lined with bookcases with centrally placed viewing tables and a roll-top desk where Morrison worked. The cloth covers that protected the volumes from dust and light have been pulled back to expose the contents of the bookshelves for the photographer. In later images, bookshelves filled with Chinese string-bound volumes as well as Western bound books can be seen as well as plans drawers for the many maps, prints and photographs that Morrison also acquired.

This calm and scholarly environment created by Morrison for his own use and that of serious scholars and which was carefully documented for posterity by Yamamoto hovered in my mind as I approached the site of Morrison's former home one evening in November 2007. The Australian-based oral historian Sang Ye and I were aware of demolition work that had been occurring in the Wangfujing area and had decided to take a walk and see what had changed since our last visit. When we arrived, we found a scene of total devastation. All that remained of Morrison's library and the surrounding buildings were piles of rubble that had been covered with thick black plastic netting to prevent dust pollution. In front was the row of shops still operating on Wangfujing and behind a few stalwart residents and traders in Big Freshwater Well Lane (Datianshuijing hutong) who had refused to move. The rest of the huge city block running between Wangfujing and Nanheyan dajie had been demolished. In Big Freshwater Well Lane, the house that once belonged to Zeng Guanquan 曾廣銓, Morrison's neighbour, was still standing. Next door, the tiny Ding Mei Hair Salon was also hanging on and doing a good trade with locals offering support by having their hair permed or dyed. Looks are important when life is crumbling all around you. The public toilet also remained in operation and a vendor selling lamb kebabs had set up shop nearby to catch the passing trade.

On our return to the piles of rubble where Morrison's library once stood, in the darkness we came across an elderly couple. They had lived in the lane for twenty-seven years and were aware of the distinctive building that once housed Morrison's library. They had finally moved out in August having accepted 600,000 RMB in compensation for their home, which they said was not enough to buy a new residence—a two-bedroom apartment inside the Fourth Ring Road. Since their departure, some three months previously, the couple had returned each night, travelling for forty minutes by bus, to feed eight cats that they had left behind. The woman had started looking after the cats as neighbours had moved out and abandoned their pets. Some were alley cats. None of them belonged to the couple. The woman pointed to a cat perched high in a tree that used to come into their home at night and sit on the man's lap. Now, she said, it was scared of people and remained aloof. During the day the cats hid in the remnant buildings, near where Morrison's library once stood, away from people and the noise of demolition and only came out at night to be fed. When I asked what would happen when all of the buildings were demolished, the man shrugged his shoulders and said that the cats would flee and then would be on their own.

Fig.4 Demolition site behind Wangfujing Street, Beijing, November 2007. Photograph: Claire Roberts
Fig.5 Demolition site and remaining tree, behind Wangfujing Street, Beijing, November 2007. Photograph: Claire Roberts
Fig.6 Dingmei hair salon and entrance of former residence of Zeng Guangquan, Da Tianshuijing hutong, Beijing, November 2007. Photograph: Claire Roberts
Fig.7 Notices and slogans on remaining buildings, Da Tianshuijing hutong, Beijing, November 2007. Photograph: Claire Roberts

When I returned in the daylight a few days later, I noticed slogans and notices stencilled in red on the grey walls of buildings warning residents: 'One day remains until the end of the reward period. Support construction for the Olympic Games', 'Those who go first will benefit, those who wait and see will suffer losses', and 'Welcome the Olympic Games and the change of face'. A few quilts hung defiantly from makeshift clothes-lines strung up between remaining trees, airing in the autumnal sun, as people sought to maintain the normal routines of life. I watched a plastic bag turn somersaults in the wind skipping over the surface of the black netting before it was impaled on a sharp object. A clinking sound came from behind a wall where a man atop a pile of bricks was patiently chipping mortar from bricks and then stacking them in an orderly pile, creating order out of chaos. Further along what was Big Freshwater Well Lane, new walls had been built and rendered with an opening so that in future trucks can get in and out to remove rubble and the timber of felled trees and the site can be closed off. It is unlikely that the site can be rebuilt in time for the Olympic Games, so the whole area will be sealed off so that this large void in the heart of Beijing will not be seen by prying eyes. Few buildings in Wangfujing have made it onto a heritage list. At least the facades of the Beijing Hotel, the Number One Department Store, the former Salvation Army Building and the Capital Theatre will be preserved.

In the darkness of night we crawled over the site of Morrison's former house looking for a roof tile or some other memento that could be presented to Morrison's ninety-two year old son, Alastair, who was born in Peking and spent his early years in the house. Alastair, who has been resident in Canberra, Australia, for many years, returned to China before the outbreak of WWII where he met German born photographer Hedda Hammer (1908-1991). They married in 1946 and, from 1947 to 1966, lived in Sarawak, where Morrison was an officer with the British Colonial Office, later the Overseas Civil Service. Among the qualities Alastair inherited from his father is a love of China and a passion for collecting books and other things. Alastair's own extensive library of books and print materials relating to Southeast Asia may also be found in the Toyo Bunko, and his collection of books on China and the photography of China, together with a large collection of Hedda Morrison's exhibition prints, were donated to the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.[8] Sadly, we could not find anything distinctive that could be associated with the old house. The only object that presented itself to us from the rubble was a dusty yellow flag painted with a red slogan: 'Everyone has a responsibility to support the Olympic Games'. We gave up searching and decided to take the flag back to Canberra for Alastair Morrison as evidence of the ultimate sacrifice of his father's house and library building for the Beijing Olympic Games and to take its place among his collection of objects relating to Old Peking.

Fig.8 Li-Ning Sports Goods Company shop, Wangfujing Street, Beijing, November 2007. Photograph: Claire Roberts
Fig.9 Adidas billboard shileding entrance to the demolition site, Wangfujing Street, Beijing, November 2007. Photograph: Claire Roberts

Today, Wangfujing is the busiest up-scale pedestrian shopping street in Beijing and home to the stores of rival Olympic suppliers Adidas and Li-Ning, as well as the Beijing Number One Department Store, and the Sun Dong An Plaza and Oriental Plaza shopping malls. The Beijing Li-Ning Sports Goods Company is a home-grown brand of sportswear that was founded 1989 by Li Ning (b.1963), a gymnast who won three gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. The Li-Ning logo inspired by the Nike 'tick' is a calligraphic rendition in red of the English letters LN, said to evoke a flying red flag and a flaming torch. It is followed by Li Ning's own slogan: 'Anything is Possible'. Li-Ning's brand has come to dominate the sporting goods market in China, but there is strong competition from more expensive international brands. A massive billboard screens the entrance to the demolition site of the city block that once contained Morrison's former home and library. It is covered with an Adidas advertisement emblazoned with the tag line 'Impossible is Nothing', highlighting the fierce market competition among international and local sporting goods companies that has preceded the Olympic Games.

As I walked away from the site and down the Wangfujing pedestrian mall I could not help but hear the spiel of a local guide in a tourist train who blurted out the history of the street through her loud speaker as I passed. She listed the names of famous old shops in the immediate area, but there was no mention of Morrison Street, or 'Morrison of Peking', let alone Morrison's library. In sport it may be that 'Anything is Possible', but the rapid destruction of so much of the historic built environment of Beijing suggests that in the race for gold Li Ning's slogan has also been adopted by the developers.


1. Parts of the house had been demolished earlier and since Morrison's departure the library had been used for a number of different purposes including most recently a dormitory building. I would like to thank Sang Ye for this information.

2. Cyril Pearl, Morrison of Peking (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1967), p. 209.

3. Dr. G. E. Morrison, 'Introduction', Catalogue of the Asiatic Library of Dr. G. E. Morrison: now a part of the Oriental Library, Tokyo, Japan (Tokyo: The Oriental Library, 1924), p.1.

4. Kazuo Enoki, Dr G. E. Morrison and the Toyo Bunko: In Celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Transfer of Dr. G. E. Morrison Library to Baron Hisaya Iwasaki (1917-1967) (Tokyo: Toyo Bunko, 1967), p. 20.

5. Cyril Pearl, Morrison of Peking, p. 209.

6. Kazuo Enoki, Dr G. E. Morrison and the Toyo Bunko: In Celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Transfer of Dr. G. E. Morrison Library to Baron Hisaya Iwasaki (1917-1967), p.19.

7. Cyril Pearl, Morrison of Peking, p.255.

8. See

Web links: (Japanese) (English)