Harvard-Yenching Hosts Memorial Symposium

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Professor Huan-Wen Cheng, Director of Sun Yat-sen University Library in China presents Nancy Cline, the Roy E. Larsen Librarian of Harvard College, with a copy of his biography of Dr. Alfred Kai-ming Chiu.

October 30, 2008 - Dozens of scholars gathered last week to honor Dr. Alfred Kai-ming Chiu, the first librarian of the Harvard-Yenching Library at a memorial symposium devoted to Chiu's dedication to collecting rare books.

Entitled "The Rare Book Collections of the Harvard-Yenching Library: Their Contributions to Scholarship, Research and Teaching," the symposium was the brainchild of Harvard-Yenching Librarian James Cheng who three years ago invited Chiu's children to establish the Kai-ming Chiu Memorial Fund, and suggested a lecture be coordinated with the publication of a biography on Chiu.

The symposium included presentations by several Harvard faculty members on various aspects of the library's rare book collection, as well as demonstrations of several digital collections of Harvard-Yenching materials.

"It's fantastic," said Wei Chiu, one of Chiu's children, of the symposium. "We're learning things we never knew. The rare book reading room I remember was a cage in the basement. When I saw what it had become, I was astounded. That's when the extent of the collection was clear to us."

Though the Harvard-Yenching Library can trace its roots to 1879, and the small collection of books brought to Harvard by Ko K'un-hua, a Chinese scholar invited to Harvard to provide instruction in the Chinese language, symposium participants last week agreed it was the recruitment of Chiu in 1927 to organize the collection that made the library the epicenter of East Asian studies it is today.

Over nearly four decades, Chiu grew the library from a few volumes into hundreds of thousands of thousands of publications. He also devised a unique system for cataloging Chinese and Japanese books, which came to be known as the "Harvard-Yenching Classification System," and became the world-wide standard for East Asian library collections in the West for decades. Perhaps most significantly, Chiu also began a program of collecting rare books and manuscripts which would grow into one of the largest in the world.

The depth and breadth of that collection was the focus of the symposium, as an international panel of scholars gathered at Lamont Library to highlight various portions of the collection.

Mark Elliott, the Mark Schwartz professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History focused on the library's Manchu and Mongolian-language collections, which are today considered one of the largest such collections in the West.

"These materials are one of the reasons Harvard has been one of the centers for East Asian studies in the world," Elliott said. "They're certainly the reason I'm here."

Elliott also introduced symposium attendees to several of his "friends" - extremely rare documents and manuscripts found in the collection, including a 1713 reprint of the first Manchu lexicon and the only known copy of "Plain Talk," an undated schoolboy's primer written by Leping, an 11-year-old boy. The book, which includes several exercises written by Leping, also includes corrections, presumably written by a teacher, in red ink. A circa 1763 Manchu translation of a Buddhist work also included red-ink corrections, Elliott said, but these were notable because they are in the handwriting of the Qianlong emperor.

"This is very exciting, and I derive great pleasure in introducing this to students," he said. "This contact with the real thing inevitably stimulates them. These are just a small sampling of the treasures that are entrusted to our care. We would not have these books were it not for the far-sightedness of Dr. Chiu. I'll never have the chance to thank him, but I would like to thank his children and grandchildren."

At the core of Korean History professor Sun Joo Kim's presentation was a unique collection of murder and inquest records. The records, which date to the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, not only give researchers an up-close view of Korean culture of the era, but also offer a rare chance to hear the voices of common people in writing.

"Because this kind of record is almost all hand-written, it's incredibly instructive," Kim said. In one case she outlined, a 51-year-old man was stabbed to death by his neighbor for having an affair with his wife.

"Students say they can finally hear the voices of the people from this kind of record," Kim said. "The value of this particular common source is immeasurable. I have immense gratitude for the Harvard-Yenching Library and its guardians, including Dr. Chiu, for saving these books, and making them available, so they can shed new light on the Korean people's past."

Associate professor of Japanese Literature Adam Kern highlighted the Harvard-Yenching collection of Kibyoshi, a picture book form popular in the late 18th century and precursor of the hugely popular manga, or modern comic book.

With titles like "Back Alley Palm Reader" and "A Field Guide to the Monsters of Japan," the books might be dismissed as insignificant, but their huge popularity, Kern said, offers a window into Japanese culture in the latter part of the 18th century. Many of the books even include scribbled comments and drawings in the margins.

Grace Fong, an associate professor of East Asian Studies at McGill University in Montreal saluted the library's collection of Ming-Qing Women's Writings, the only sizable collection of women's writing from late Imperial China in North America. In addition to collecting them, Fong said, Harvard-Yenching has contributed to an effort to digitize the writings into a searchable online database, called Ming Qing Women's Writings. Launched in 2005, the database contains some 90 titles, and has been used extensively by graduate seminars in the U.S. and Canada, as well as Taiwan, Hong Kong and China.

The symposium also included demonstrations of the Hedda Morrison and Chinese rubbings digital collections.

Following the symposium, each presenter received a copy of "A Chronicle of Alfred K'aiming Ch'iu's Life" a biography written by Professor Huan-Wen Cheng, Director of Sun Yat-sen University Library in China. Nancy Cline, the Roy E. Larsen librarian of Harvard College, and former Harvard College Library Librarian Y.T. Feng were also presented with copies of the book. The book was published by the Guangxi Normal University Press, and will become No. 9 in the Harvard-Yenching Library's Library Studies series.