Deity’s Book Collection Overseas 「海外嫏嬛」
Façade of the Harvard-Yenching Institute
On a bright and crisp morning in late April 2019, when I first set foot into the warm Harvard-Yenching (哈佛燕京) library, it was as if I finally returned home from a long odyssey. The calligraphy overseeing the reading room 海外嫏嬛 (which literally translates into “deity’s book collection overseas”) written by the famous literati Yeh Kung-cho (叶恭绰) was a sheer reminder that I have traveled thousands of miles from home to the final doorsteps of Yenching. As I walked underground and through the stacks, I was further taken back thousands of years to face the relics of silent and broken memories of an ancient nation which seems so familiar yet distant. Then I picked up a book, sat down to read, and didn’t leave for a very long time.
「海外琅環」“Deity’s Book Collection Overseas”
Scholarship High as Mountain and Deep as Gorge 「学者山渊」
The Harvard-Yenching library, founded in 1879 when Harvard first offered Chinese language in the regular curriculum, hosts a vast collection of Chinese language and literature, rare books (over 9600 items and dating back to 14th century) and primary sources. It is rivaled by few libraries or institutions even in China. MIT students with a Harvard ID card have full access to the collection, including the rare books (with digitized versions available online). Besides the collection, the library also displays a number of calligraphic works of illustrious Chinese literati. These works record the idioms which demand respect and endeavor towards high scholarship and character, a literati tradition preserved in modern day Chinese libraries.
Reading room of Yenching library with calligraphic works of famous Chinese literati
Live in the Moment, Learn from the Past 「居今识古」
As an MIT graduate student studying operations research and financial engineering, what do I learn by reading the Chinese classics? The answer is simple – who I am and what to do.
It might often seem that individual destinies are so fragile and their personal endeavors so insignificant, when viewed against the backdrop of the torrents of history. But when I walked through stacks of books on dynasties from ancient to modern times, I was struck by an epiphany. The torrents of history are not some ethereal power; rather, they are sitting on these shelves, silent and still, waiting to burst into fury the moment one unseals a book cover.
However, as the torrents eventually calmed and ebbed, the wisdom of ancient Chinese poets, scholars, and philosophers, condensed and buried like gold in the deep riverbed, was fully exposed in its original luster. Reading about their spiritual odyssey to endure their times (or to change them) is my temporary escape from reality. But, it also uplifts me to see history and reality from a more transcendent viewpoint, much like the mythical bird in Zhuang-zi1, even just for a few hours’ time. It has enabled me to make more informed decisions to settle on my own path to pursue as a graduate student at MIT and well beyond.
「居今识古」Live in the Moment, Learn from the Past
Epilogue: My Book Collection is My Spiritual Kingdom (拥书权拜小诸侯)
In the Chinese literati tradition, reading in condensed solitude (often accompanied by nice tea and incense but no food) is a spiritual trial that is both intensive and relaxing – almost like meditation. When I read at Yenching, the darkening winter (circa 4PM) outside seems diluted and the ticking clock muted, the only things left are the immutable desk and flipping pages – peace and freedom in my spiritual kingdom. When I walk through the stacks, the lights before me take turns to light up like a rolling wave which reverses the arrow of time. When I press the electronic buttons to move the shelves one by one, sometimes it feels as if the old books on the shelves form a marching band to greet the new king – well, at least when no one else is around.
If at some point you have some time to spare, wouldn’t it be great to discover and explore the “Deity’s Book Collection” of your own cultural heritage? Perhaps it’s only twenty minutes away!
1 The philosophical essays of Zhuang-zi (庄子) begin with a mythical bird, of an unmeasurably large size, viewing the entire earth and all other creatures from high above, as it travels from the northernmost to the southernmost part of the world, its wings blowing furious gales in the earth and the sea.