A Fate at Fifty

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Menzies Library at The Australian National University, the holdings of which include the most comprehensive range of Asia and Pacific-related scholarly materials at any university library in the country. Geremie R. Barmé, Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World, spoke of the importance of libraries and of his own reading experiences during a speech that he delivered at the Menzies Library on 1 October 2013 as part of the celebrations of the library’s anniversary.—The Editors


At fifty one knows the biddings of Heaven.
The Analects

Or, in a more contemporary vein:
One is forced to cope with the will of the powers that be.

As an undergraduate in Asian Studies at the ANU from 1972, a resident first in Garran Hall and later at Toad Hall by Sullivan’s Creek, I found both sanctuary and solace in the Menzies Library.

Entrance to the Menzies Library

Entrance to the Menzies Library

In my high school years like so many others I had found companionship not only in friends and family but also in the company of books, discovering as well fellowship through reading (shared books and characters, plotlines, ideas and feelings). Over time, I adjusted my biorhythms if not my reading habits to the imperatives of library hours and due dates (although then, as now, I was often in breach of the latter). Because of a particular interest in Indian and Chinese philosophy, Tibetan and Sanskrit, predictably in the 1960s when there was a pre-New Age Zeitgeist for such things, I also discovered the cavernous public reading room at the Mitchell Library not far from where I grew up in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.

It was in the Reading Room, a hall of silent or at least muffled industry that I first learned the pleasures of reading slowly and taking notes in the company of others. These were readers who were pursuing not a mark in an exam or an immediate data point or result. They were reading in order to learn. To quote Clive James’s definition of humanism, ‘true learning has no end in view except for its own furtherance.’ It is an endeavour that encourages a tireless appetite. In this context a favourite aphorism comes to mind. It is from the brush of the Qing-dynasty poet Xia Hongzuo 項鴻祚: ‘How should we pass our limited days, if not in the pursuit of worthless undertakings?’ 不為無益之事,何以遣有涯之生. The value of ‘worthless undertakings’ 無益之事 is something that  every reader and writer must discover during a lifetime of reading for him- or herself.

I was taught modern Chinese by and did my doctoral studies with the Sinologist Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys), an internationally celebrated writer who calls his study ‘The Hall of Uselessness’, a name inspired by the ancient philosopher Zhuang Zi who says:

Everyone knows the usefulness of what is useful,
but few know the usefulness of what is useless.

In her upcoming Quarterly Essay on translation, Linda Jaivin refers to Christina H. Paxson, President of Brown University who, earlier this year, delivered a strong defence of the humanities at a conference in Washington. Paxson is an economist but, as Jaivin says, she argues for the profound, intrinsic and tangible importance of the study of literature, languages, history, philosophy and the arts. In her Washington speech Paxton referred to a 1939 essay by Abraham Flexner of Princeton titled ‘The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge’ in which Flexner ‘underscores a very important idea – that random discoveries can be more important than the ones we think we are looking for, and that we should be wary of imposing standard criteria of costs and benefits on our scholars. Or perhaps I should put it more precisely: We should be prepared to accept that the value of certain studies may be difficult to measure and may not be clear for decades or even centuries.’ As Jaivin notes, before 11 September 2001, no one imaged that scholars of Arabic, Islamic religion and Middle Eastern history would suddenly have come into so much demand. Paxson observes: ‘their years of research could not simply have been invented overnight.’ (See Christina Paxson, ‘The Economic Case for Saving the Humanities’, The New Republic, 20 August 2013.)

As an undergraduate at ANU, I studied Modern and Classical Chinese, Sanskrit, Indian History, Calligraphy and Chinese literature. While becoming acquainted with the modes of modern Chinese and the politics of the People’s Republic, the library was my constant, and inexhaustible, companion. Subsequently, in late-Cultural Revolution China I would discover that university libraries there were balkanized. There would be a large reading room 阅览室 virtually empty apart from the politically acceptable works du jour (a few journals, a scattering of newspapers the spines of which were stiffened by wooden rods and a desultory number of recently published books) for students – they were called members of the ‘worker-peasant-soldier learning corps’ 工农兵学员 – who were busy with their ‘militant duties’ 战斗任务, that is writing speeches and essays related to the latest political campaign. Whereas the four-volume Selected Works of Mao Zedong and the complete works of Lenin and Stalin, along with Marxist classics weighed heavily on the open shelves of another part of the reading room, the stacks were strictly off-limits.

The vast corpus of pre-1966 published knowledge had long ago been denounced as ‘feudal, bourgeois and reactionary’ 封资修 and could only be accessed by those with a robust enough political awareness so that they would not be infected by the remnant poisons of the past. Fortunately, my teachers would occasionally (and surreptitiously) borrow books on my behalf. I well remember reading the famous Beijing writer Lao She’s novel Cat City 貓城記 – a 1940s sci-fi satire about student rebellion and repression. Every few pages of this problematic pre-revolutionary book were stamped with a warning to the impressionable and weak-willed: ‘for criticism only’ 仅供批判. Reprints of essays and stories by pre-1949 literary paragon Lu Xun, who had been praised by Mao, were nonetheless available. Lu Xun’s complete works were, however, banned as the once-authoritative 1958 edition contained what were now deemed inappropriate footnotes written under the influence of the reactionary line of Zhou Yang, the ‘Cultural Tsar’ denounced at the start of the Cultural Revolution. In our literature classes, we learned about the past through selected and prejudicial quotations of ‘unacceptable’ authors as these were discussed against the mutuable patterns of contemporary cultural politics.

My student years in China were a stark contrast to my years at ANU. In China, I would recall how the ANU had a library in which the whole world of Chinese letters – dynastic, republican, Taiwanese, that of Hong Kong and the People’s Republic – was open to us. We were trained by our teachers at ANU to appreciate the different kinds of Chinese publication that jostled on the library shelves; and to tell apart the distinctive dictions and styles of the eras, places and areas that have contributed to the making of the Chinese universe. This education in the diversity of China has underpinned my academic life ever since.

Where in class we would start reading the May Fourth era novelist Ba Jin through his famous 1933 novel Family 家, a book that helped define for generations of young Chinese their struggle with stultifying Confucian hierarchy and the deadening hand of family values, it was on the shelves of the Menzies Library that I encountered Ba Jin translator, essayist as well as pro-Party propagandist.

When, in the early 1980s, I finally met Ba Jin in Shanghai, following his ‘liberation’ after years of Cultural Revolution ignominy, it was the complex Ba Jin whom my teachers in Australia had taught in class, whose life I had been able to fill out using the diverse works kept on the shelves of the Menzies Library by and about the author. Eventually, I would add to the library shelves by translating a volume of the veteran writer’s last major work, the collection of essays known in English as Random Thoughts 隨想錄. The Menzies Library also has an essay of mine, in which I mention a letter I wrote to Ba Jin in 1987, critical of his silence in the wake of political repression in China that year which saw first Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, and then the writers Liu Binyan, Wang Ruowang and the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi purged from the Communist Party. You will also find a translation I did of a note Ba Jin penned in 1989 in support of the rebellious students in Beijing. These are my footnotes on Ba Jin, jottings for future readers who wish to make the writer’s acquaintance and who may find something to learn from my encounters with one of China’s literary giants in his autumn years.

For me the silence of the library – be it the Menzies or the National Library – is essential for reading, making notes, drafting essays and articles. Yet over the years, I’ve come to divide my time between the library and the embracing din of cafés. Countless texts, whether in the form of books or journal articles, have been woven into the skein of my life. In turn one encourages one’s students and younger colleagues to find their own way through the highways and byways of the republic of letters that is our library.

Although I am not particularly familiar with the institutional history of the ANU’s library collections overall, I do know of the origins of the Chinese collection. Two Chinese capital cities – Nanking and Beijing – are involved in the story of the Chinese collection and the meeting of an Australian ambassador to the Republic of China, the economist Douglas Copland, with the historian C.P. Fitzgerald who worked for the British Council. Copland would return to Australia in 1948 to become the first Vice-Chancellor of ANU, and Fitzgerald would take up a readership in Far Eastern History in 1951. During his time in China Copland proved to be an astute observer of that country’s politics and society—as one of our young scholars, William Sima, is discovering as he goes through the archive of Copland’s papers held in the National Library. Back in Canberra the new Vice-Chancellor maintained his interest in things Chinese and became instrumental in reviving and bringing to ANU the George E. Morrison Lectures in 1948. The series had been established in the 1930s to commemorate the Australian journalist, writer and bibliophile known as ‘Morrison of Peking’. Copland presented the first of the new series of lectures. The Seventy-fourth Lecture was celebrated in June this year. The speaker was the noted historian of the Han dynasty Michael Nylan who was visiting from the University of California at Berkeley.

CP Fitzgerald was a noted historian of China and his insights into that country and its politics made him a prominent voice of reason, and an object of controversy, in regards to Australia’s relationship both with Taiwan and the new People’s Republic. With the support of the Vice-Chancellor, C.P. conducted a scholastic tour of other universities and libraries to understand better the leading collections of China and Asian-language material held internationally. He was instrumental in the creation of the ANU Chinese collection and took advantage of the private libraries that became available with the regime change on mainland China from the late 1940s.

Prominent librarians over the years would shape the collection, making the Menzies Library along with the holdings at the National Library, the bountiful research and reading library that it has become.

As a young research student I was guided in my reading by such mentors as Professor Liu Ts’un-yan and Dr Pierre Ryckmans; in the library it was the tireless and voracious Y.S. Chan (Chen Yansheng) who influenced my own contribution to the collection. When I finished my studies in the People’s Republic in the late 1970s and embarked on a peripatetic life between Hong Kong, the Mainland and, eventually, Japan, it was on the cusp of the ‘new era’ of China’s Open Door and Reform. Y.S. knew of the opportunities now becoming available to acquire previously Verboten publications – limited circulation books and reference-only journals, as well as special small print-run editions of books ordered by the late Party Chairman Mao Zedong for his personal use. As the boundaries between what could and could not be seen, let alone acquired, by outsiders and foreigners blurred, Y.S. was anxious to take advantage of the confusion to enhance the Menzies collection.

We know of the concept of those who ‘live on the edge’ or, as the Chinese has it, those who ‘wend a way through the rivers and lakes’ 闖江湖. Y.S. navigated those treacherous waters of China’s rivers and lakes with cunning and chutzpah. And, who’d have thought that an ANU-Cultural Revolution-trained student would end up as something of a Menzies book mule, trepidatious as I lugged whole series of journals through the customs hall at Lo-wu train station (now Shenzhen) on the border between the People’s Republic and the British Crown Colony?

Y.S.’s entrepreneurial approach added to my own enthusiasm for what in Chinese is called ‘the fragrance of books’ 書香; it also encouraged in me a desire to contribute. Not for me the hope for a dedicated stash or special collection of books under my name; mine rather is a piecemeal bequest that swells the stacks either here or in the repository, books that will record a moment of scholarship, a period of Chinese publishing and, perhaps in some small way contribute to the reading and thinking of others.

When I left ANU to study at late-Cultural Revolution universities in China, the ‘Criticise Lin Biao, Criticise Confucius’ 批林批孔 campaign was well under way. In the bizarre world of Maoist politics, the Chairman’s hand-picked revolutionary successor Lin Biao, having fallen from grace, was now denounced nationwide as a reactionary and devotee of the arch conservative sage Confucius. Long out of print Confucian texts – annotated so that readers would not be seduced by their wrong-headedness – were reprinted as part of what was framed as a life-and-death ideological struggle for the future of China. Having been trained by teachers in the combined traditions of Western scholarship and Chinese Sinology or Hanxue I was as well equipped as I could hope to be to appreciate both the literary and historical sources of contemporary Chinese politics. It is a training that many of us received at the ANU, and one that comes in handy today as we grapple with the Communist Party’s latest formulation, that of the ‘Chinese Dream’, its origins, content and significance.

In 2005, I began to write about what I call ‘New Sinology’. I have described it as an approach to the study of things Chinese that commemorates the past endeavors of individuals and broader communities of scholars to understand the complex living heritage of China’s past and how it relates to a broader humanity. Located in the present, New Sinology is ever mindful of the conditions under which historical conciliation acquires importance in China. We see this in the new-found rapprochement today between the dynastic, the Republican, and the People’s Republic eras of China, as understood and interpreted in mainland official discourse and Chinese scholarship. In brief, New Sinology locates itself inside the Chinese world and seeks to find ways of communicating what makes sense and animates and inspires this world. For this reason, this broad approach is one that emphasises an attention to detail that will enable the shadows, legacies, ligatures, burdens, possibilities, and constants of China’s contending pasts to come to light.

It is an approach that finds a bulwark against what the prominent classicist Mary Beard calls ‘a dark future of misunderstanding’. Mary, who was the editor of a book I published on the Forbidden City (that is itself something of an exercise in New Sinology), has written fluently about the Greek and Roman classics and our relationship to them. I think her remarks also apply to the study of China today. She writes:

[T]he study of the classics is the study of what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves. It is not only the dialogue that we have with the culture of the classical world; it is also the dialogue that we have with those who have gone before us who were themselves in dialogue with the classical world… . The second point is the inextricable embeddedness of the classical tradition within Western culture … if we were to amputate the classics from the modern world, it would mean more than closing down some university departments and consigning Latin grammar to the scrap heap. It would mean bleeding wounds in the body of Western culture – and a dark future of misunderstanding. (Mary Beard, ‘Do the Classics Have a Future?’, The New York Review of Books, 12 January 2012.)

When we established the Australian Centre on China in the World here at the ANU in 2010, New Sinology was mentioned as one of the foundational concepts behind our endeavour to, as we put it, pursue research and teaching ‘based in the humanities, engaged with the social sciences while being relevant to the public and to public policy.’ Shortly thereafter I was delighted when the then Chinese Ambassador to Australia, Zhang Junsai, suggested that the occasion of a visit to Canberra by the Vice-President of the People’s Republic, Xi Jinping, could provide an opportunity for the Chinese government to present a gift of books to the new Centre. After some negotiation, and taking into consideration the kinds of books that we would like for the Centre drawn up by myself and colleagues, Vice-President Xi presented a considerable collection that, although it will be housed in the library in our soon-to-be-completed building, will also be an addition to the Chinese collection of the Menzies Library.

Traditionally in China people spoke of the Four Plagues that bedevil books and libraries – as things that are made up of that most fragile of materials, paper. The plagues are ‘flood, fire, warfare and insects’ 水火病虫. Some would argue that the fifth plague is the Internet, but in reality, for lovers of words, the digital adds new dimensions to learning, as well as to the pursuit of ‘uselessness’ that I mentioned earlier. The magnificent wealth of online information, scanned books, digital data banks and libraries is offset also by the ready relegation (for often entirely sound reasons of space, access and preservation) of large numbers of books to repositories and storehouses. Others have commented at length, and in high dudgeon, about the ‘optimizing of libraries’ with books removed to storage or de-acquisitioned. Before continuing on a more positive note, allow me to quote the dyspeptic words of Daniel Stacey, who said the following in an essay titled ‘How much longer will universities exist?’ published in the Sydney Morning Herald in mid September:

In the place of books will be more OHS compliant shelves and funky meeting places for ‘kinetic learning’, servicing the tiresome, dated dream of a ‘multi-media entertainment palace’.

While storage in the repository grows, one hopes that there is still enough shelf space, and books on shelves, for our readers and scholars to enjoy the serendipitous encounters, those accidents of biblio-proximity that have shaped so much research and inspired so many ideas.

Those of you familiar with my work will know that I am no antediluvian throw back, although my age well allows me to be so. Just as our Centre tries to bring the humanities, social sciences and public engagement into a meaningful collaboration, in our publications we pursue digital ‘democratisation’. Our China Story Yearbook, the second volume of which will appear later this month, our various other publications, are produced to be read online as well as to be freely downloaded in PDF form. We also print a small number of our key publications for presentation to libraries and for public and special occasions. In this way we aim to support the library as a long-term repository of printed materials while also taking advantage of the access and democracy allowed by the digital age.

By Way of Conclusion

As the Menzies Library celebrates its fiftieth year I am approaching my sixtieth. In my opening I referred to a famous line from the Confucian Analects. Here I would add that sixty is supposed to be the age at which one’s ‘ear should be obedient’ 耳顺. I fear I still haven’t learnt the lessons of my fiftieth year – to know the biddings of Heaven, let alone be prepared to have an obedient ear.

Be that as it may, I offer these reflections to you on the half century of an institution that has held me in its embrace for over forty years.