Traces and oblivion : the Bibliothèque Sino-internationale.

The Sino-International Library (original name in French: Bibliothèque Sino-Internationale, or BSIsimplified Chinese: 中国国际图书馆; traditional Chinese: 中國國際圖書館) was a Chinese library and cultural agency active from 1933 to 1950 in GenevaSwitzerland, and from 1951 to 1993 in MontevideoUruguay.

The BSI aimed at bettering the knowledge of Chinese life and culture around the world. Its holdings included up to 200’000 volumes, as well as special materials such as paintings, calligraphies, photographs, children’s drawings and artefacts such as costumes and musical instruments. The BSI organized many events, in Geneva, in other European cities, and later in Montevideo: art exhibitions, conferences, courses and film screenings. It published two periodicals: Orient et Occident (1934-1936) and La Chine Illustrée (China Illustrated, China Illustriert, 中國畫報 1935-1937) [1] as well as various monographs.

In 1950, at the Foundation of the People’s Republic of China, the BSI was integrally transported to Montevideo, and deposited at the Biblioteca Nacional de Uruguay. In 1993, the core of the Library, including all ancient Chinese books, was transported to Taipei and integrated into the collections of the National Central Library.

In Montevideo, the BSI continued its action for cultural dissemination, organizing events such as a 1969 exhibition 3000 anos de arte Chino.

The BSI thus existed in Geneva for more than fifteen years and in Montevideo for more than forty years. This extraordinary adventure mobilised a vast network of people from different backgrounds, all with links to China. However, this saga has faded from official memory, forgotten by almost everyone. As the historian Marc Ferro has pointed out, forgetting is perhaps the most common aspect of history, regardless of function or procedure (Ferro, 1989). Historians must always contend with forgetting in their writing endeavours. And the balance between preserving memory and forgetting is precarious and constantly shifting. It is precisely in this interaction that memory is constituted, according to Tzvetan Todorov (1995).

How does historiography, as part of collective memory, navigate the delicate balance between remembering and forgetting? Without providing a concrete answer, this exhibition does not aim to promote a society without forgetting, nor to impose a “duty to remember”. On the contrary, in constructing the objects of its work, it seeks to reflect on historical work and its motivations, to question which aspects of the past can still influence our contemporary societies. Uncovering what has been repressed by the incessant work of forgetting can disrupt the present, its beliefs, social, political and cultural practices. It is a question of writing history, not to entertain or lull, “but to break the silences around which a certain type of society has been organised, to shake it out of its torpor, to unsettle it, to disorganise it, to disturb it, to agitate it, to humanise it, to go on living” (Fourn, 2002).


FERRO Marc, “Les oublis de l’Histoire”, Communications, 2012/2 (n° 91), pp. 201-209. DOI: 10.3917/commu.091.0201. URL:

FOURN François, “Entre l’histoire et l’oubli : quel projet d’écriture ?”, Revue d’histoire du XIXe siècle. Société d’histoire de la révolution de 1848 et des révolutions du XIXe siècle, 2002 (n° 25). URL:

TODOROV Tzvetan, Les abus de la mémoire, Paris, 1995.

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