Collector's passion for the past to help youngsters of the future

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 August, 2005, 12:00am

The business card of Zhan Hongge is bare but for six Chinese characters that read: A man collecting history.

Mr Zhan, 34, a Shenyang native who quit school at 16, is not a historian, yet history professors, graduate students and journalists come knocking on his door for advice. They come because he is one of the mainland's top collectors of Sino-Japanese war artefacts, with more than 10,000 items - mostly related to the fighting in Northeast China - in his possession.

His war-related finds range from old photographs, periodicals, newspapers, maps, bonds, posters and books to paper money issued by the Japanese government. Today his total assortment of memorabilia - mainly spanning from the late Qing dynasty to the 1950s - tops 100,000 items and includes everything from movies and marriage certificates, to education and railway artefacts.

His Sino-Japanese war finds remain an important part of his overall collection. 'As the war began in Northeast China, I feel it is my responsibility [to keep them] as very few people collect artefacts on this subject,' he said, adding that young people today knew little about that part of history.

'Through my collection I want them to know and remember what had happened at that time. I also want people to know the catastrophe and pain Japan brought to China so we will cherish the peace we enjoy today.'

Mr Zhan has helped spread the message by donating nearly 100 items to 50 museums and exhibition halls across the country, and he has also lent out his collection and exhibited nationwide.

'Academics may turn history into something on the blackboard, but I've made history something to touch and see because I have the items to prove Japanese aggression and to make understanding more direct,' he said.

But his exhibitions are not confined to the mainland. In late 2001 and early 2002 he showed more than 200 photographs of items in his collection in San Francisco, Washington DC and New York.

Mr Zhan's interest in collecting stems from childhood curiosity.

While his classmates were kicking a jianzi shuttlecock around, eight-year-old Zhan Hongge was more interested in the small coins forming the toy's base.

Fascinated by the different shapes, sizes and dynasties to which the old coins belonged, he sometimes starved or scrimped on meals to save up money to buy coins from his classmates if they would not give them to him for free.

He traced their origins and history, and turned to teachers and books for anything he could not find.

'I would find out things my classmates didn't even know,' he said.

To Mr Zhan, who finances his interest by acting as a history consultant to businesses, collecting is about more than just money. He enjoys combing through bazaars around the nation for artefacts and talking other collectors into selling their prized possessions, a passionate pursuit that results in quite a few sleepless nights.

He recalled a time in 1991 when an old friend showed him a Japanese map of Northeast China detailing the area's economic resources. It was not until 1994 that he persuaded his friend to sell him the map.

'For three years I kept thinking that I might be able to find a second copy of that map, but I couldn't. I kept thinking of that map because it was precious proof of Japanese economic aggression towards China,' he said.

Getting his hands on the items is one part of the battle, maintaining them is quite another. Smoking is strictly prohibited in his flat because his study is piled high with papers and other historical items.

Mr Zhan puts items in a transparent plastic bags for safekeeping and only handles them with gloved hands.

His wife, Zhang Ying , says he does not allow her to mop the study floor for fear it might ruin his artefacts.