I must open this post with a profound apology to Dr. Dale Monobe for not posting this sooner. I asked him if he could give me a piece last semester and he provided me with this fabulous narrative illuminating some differences between Western and Eastern classification concepts. What makes this piece fascinating is that it is both scholarly and personal, reminding me of a lecture I attended as an undergraduate at BYU.
The speaker was Dr. Paul Alan Cox, a botanist working in the Samoan rainforests, who now works for the Institute of Ethnomedicine. He spoke that day about putting the personal back into academic writing. He told us that this hit him all of a sudden when he found himself profoundly upset by the fact that the rainforests in Samoa were being threatened by human activity, threatening not only the plant species he was studying, but also the way of life of the peoples that depend on the forests. Once he realized that he was actually concerned about these things, he began to find ways to personalize his writing. He said something to the effect of, “I found that I was writing about real people and a real place.” This realization gave his writing both a more personal flair and a sense of urgency. He reminded us that most of us study what we do because we care about something and that caring makes all the difference.
Dr. Monabe’s piece that follows, “A Visit to a Chinese Scholar’s Library in the 18th Century,” possesses this kind of quality. Although there may not be as much at stake as the loss of the Samoan rainforest, the strength of this narrative essay is its reaching towards an “other,” towards an unfamiliar culture and cataloging system. It is a reminder that the Western mindset is not the only one in play in this great big world and that a system as rigorous and “scientific” as the Dewey Decimal System sacrifices cultural nuance that the Chinese found important. There seems to be an implied question in the account: Have we lost anything by adopting a categorical worldview?
A Visit to a Chinese Scholar’s Library in the 18th Century
During my last semester in the Science and Information Management program at Emporia State University, I was fortunate in receiving a dinner invitation from an ancient Chinese scholar. Knowing that it would be a marvelous feast—which balanced yin and yang aspects of taste, such as sweet and sour, soft and crispy, as well as hot and cold—I readily accepted. But moreover, I desired to visit his library.
A few minutes before the appointed time, I waited for my host within a simple courtyard. On the east wall was a gourd-shaped portal. And through this, I smelled fragrant incense and heard the strumming of a zither. The music stopped and moments later my host stepped through the portal to greet me. “So pleased you could come,” he said as he bowed slightly.
Since I was younger and less experienced in library and information science, I bowed lower. “I am honored, sir.”
He beckoned me with his hand. “Come see my library first. I know you are curious.”
I followed him back through the gourd-shaped portal and into a less-formal area of water, fantastic rocks, as well as pine and flowering plum trees. We followed the smell of the incense; and shortly, I saw, situated within a small grove of bamboo, a charming pavilion with green doors and azure-colored brackets. Stepping into this pavilion, I found myself within my host’s library. “My sanctuary,” he said as he took a few steps across the blue stone tiles. “My wives hardly come here.”
For me, the smell of incense was too intense, but I followed him into the room where I first noticed a substantial wooden desk placed next to a moon-shaped window. Flanking this was a small table for his zither and another, which supported an incense burner in the shape of an ancient bronze drinking vessel. To the side, open book cases and cabinets with brass fittings (Handler, 2001) lined the walls, which were only punctuated by lattice-covered windows and a large hanging scroll, depicting a fantastic battle scene under a towering mountain crag.
My host invited me to first see his four treasures, which consisted of a jade-handled writing brush, a well-used ink stick, an ink stone in the shape of a peach, and paper, which was held in place by a small crystal cicada. And from their placement, it appeared as if they were laid out in preparation for a letter, treatise, or calligraphy work. But what caught my eye were the bookshelves—which were open at the back and tastefully embellished with intertwined wooden rings. Walking closer, I saw that his books were not standing on their spines, as they would generally be in the West, but they were lying on their sides with their covers facing up (Handler, 2001). Enlivening the collection, more than a few books were enclosed within volume cases covered in green, red, blue, or grey silk damask (Steuber, 2008). Continuing my examination, I passed one of the cabinets and saw that there was a rock placed below it.
“That rock captures moisture, which may damage the books,” said my host anticipating my question (Ping, 2007). He then opened one of the doors, revealing more books to my slight surprise. “You see, I have also not placed any books on the lower shelf to further protect them from moisture (Handler, 2001). And, you may have noticed the ventilation in front, but there is also ventilation in back.” He then opened all the cabinet doors, displaying all the books, each with a space between—no doubt for ventilation as well (Ping, 2007).
“And what do you do about insects, sir?” I asked.
He nodded his head. “Ah, I use yun xiang cao, an herb, to discourage them (Ping, 2007),” he said as he scanned his books with obvious pride.
“So you must store your rarest books in the cabinets.”
“I think they are rare. I will let you decide.” He paused and then he said with enthusiasm, “Since you are graduating in library science, I think you would be very interested in this!” And he brought out a volume case covered with ivory-colored damask. “This, my friend, is a treatise on the Four Treasures, which is an annotated bibliography of all the extant books known in the Empire. It was completed in 1782—quite recent.” He then pointed to the green, red, blue, and grey damask volume cases I had noticed previously. “I attempted to use the same color-coded system to categorize many of my books. You see, green is for the classics, red is for history, blue is for philosophy, and grey is for literature. Yellow, which I did not use, was for the catalog (Zurndorpher, 1995).” He carefully placed the treatise in my hands. “I then categorized by title (Liu & Shen, 2002),” he said almost as an afterthought.
“How novel,” I said, thinking that I should been more diligent in my study of ideographs as I tried to read the cover.
“Ah, but I have something more novel to tell you!” He drew my attention to a volume case, which looked ancient. “This contains books from the third century and they are organized, using the rhyme of the final syllable of the title (Manguel, 2008).”
“Amazing!” I waited for him to place this case in my hands.
“And before this . . . in the first century, Liu Xiang and Liu Xin, father and son, organized their bibliographic classification, using the hierarchy of the cosmos, which ordered the universe from the Heavens, earth, human, non-human fauna, flora, and then minerals (Manguel, 2008) with the final classification summarizing the information contained in the others (Zurndorpher, 1995). And if that wasn’t enough, the first six categories had thirty-eight divisions (Zhang, 2003).”
“Is this the Seven-Fold Classification system, sir (Tsien, 1952)?” I asked, remembering an article that I had read in The Library Quarterly.
“It is I that is now amazed at your knowledge,” said the scholar with raised eyebrows. “Yes, it is.” He replaced the volume case and closed the cabinet.
For a moment, I wondered if he was humoring me, but I was getting hungry and my thoughts turned to dinner. I turned toward the entrance, hoping he would get the hint.
“Tell me, young scholar, what is the purpose of these bibliographic classifications?
Easy I thought. “Why to help organize a collection, sir.”
“To help locate a book.”
I was stumped. “Well, a . . .” I looked around, hoping to find a clue.
He then drew my attention to the hanging scroll, depicting the battle. “When books are stolen, destroyed, or not returned, a bibliographic classification can help rebuild the collection. After the plunder of Imperial Library in 1143, lists of desired replacements were able to be compiled and printed (De Weerdt, 2007). Thank goodness!”
“Indeed, sir,” I said, but I was too hungry to add any more comment.
The scholar smiled and motioned me to the entrance. “Enough food for the mind! Food for the body is what I recommend now.” He rubbed his chin. “Now let me see . . . I have several cookbooks . . .”
The dinner and visit were far better than I expected. Hunger, literal or figurative, is the best appetizer for both food and knowledge . . . and a vast array of tempting dishes does not hurt either. When finally I bid my farewell, my gracious host gave me a list of recommended books and articles on ancient Chinese classification, which follows; and an open invitation to visit his library at any time.
De Weerdt, H. (2007). The discourse of loss in song dynasty private and imperial book collecting. Library Trends, 55(3), 404-420.
Handler, S. (2001). Austere Luminosity of Chinese Classical Furniture. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
Liu, S. & Shen, Z. (2002). The development of cataloging in China. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 35 (1), 137-154.
Manguel, A. (2008). The Library at Night. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Ping, S. (2007). The Tianyige Library: a symbol of the continuity of Chinese culture. Library Trends, 55(3), 421-430.
Steuber, J. (Ed.) (2008). China: 3,000 Years of Art and Culture. New York, NY: Welcome Books.
Tsien, T. (1952). A history of bibliographic classification in China. The Library Quarterly, 22(4), 307-324.
Zhang, W. (2003). Classification for Chinese libraries (CCL): histories, accomplishments, problems and its comparisons. Journal of Educational Media & Library Sciences, 41 (1), 1-22.
Zurndorpher, H.T. (1995). China Bibliography: A Reference Guide about China Past and Present. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill.