A melancholy thought, this. As a matter of fact, Fate has always been rather kind to books, and we should be glad that so many of them—more than man ever needs or can use — have escaped destruction. But it is only human to mark the misses rather than the hits. A librarian with his mania for collecting is especially prone to do this. How many collections public and private were scattered or pillaged during this war? What precious volumes perishes through wanton vandalism or neglect? At present, we have yet no means to know exactly how the fate of many books is inscribed in the Book of Fate.
Ancient Chinese scholars were almost fatalistic about the periodic holocaust of books and libraries. They believed it to form a part of the cosmic process of eternal recurrence. As early as the beginning of the Sui(隋) dynasty (the end of the 6th century A.D.), a scholar by name Niu Hung(牛弘) submitted to the reigning monarch a memoir which is a sort of historia calamitatum of Chinese books. He enumerated altogether five great disasters(五阨)since the age of Confucius, starting with the notorious Shi-Huang Ti’s wholesale incineration of books which was celebrated in Pope’s Dunciad in the following couplets: —
“One god-like monarch all that pride confounds,
He, whose long wall the wandering Tartar bounds;
Heavens! What a pile! Whole ages perish there,
And one bright blaze turns learning into air.”
History went on repeating itself so that a thousand years later Hu Yin-lin (胡應麟), a learned book-collector of the late Ming dynasty, could add five further calamities to the list, bringing the grand total up to ten(十阨). The period that elapsed between Hu Ying-lin’s time and ours abounded with calamities to swell that number. The only consolation is perhaps that in a world cursed with encephalitis or apoplexy of learning, the irretrievable loss of great many books might mean a salutary relief.
During the war, apart from Japanese bombing and looting which did incalculable damages, the Chinese inhabitants in districts occupied by the Japanese destroyed books of their own accord to avoid trouble. Arrest or even death might be one’s lot if one was found in possession of “anti-Japanese”literature. Whole libraries of periodicals and historical and political works were committed to flames to avert the wrath of the vigilant Japanese gendarmerie. After the outbreak of the war in the Pacific, even the possession of English books became incriminating. The Japanese gendarmes, like all quarter-educated people, are suspicious and knowing and much given to looking for the black cat in a dark room which is not there. Nerves were on edge, and people feared that even Shakespeare and the Revised Version of the Holy Bible might not be above suspicion, for are they not written in the“enemy language”? Well, with the Japanese, one could never tell. So to the pyre they must go — or to the pasty-cook’s“to put under pies, to lap spice in, and keep roast meat from burning”. As to harmless academic studies of socialism and its hundred and one varieties, e.g. Professor Laski’s popular book in the Home University Library, they were doubly taboo, for besides being written in the“enemy language”, they also deal with“red”subjects, and a“red”subject has the same effect on the Japanese gendarmes as a red rag on the Spanish bulls.
When the war was drawing to its close, the shortage of paper became very acute in the occupied areas. To make good this deficiency, tons and cartloads of well-printed volume, classics, imperial encyclopaedias, poetical works, etc. were sent to paper factories to be destroyed and turned into materials for fresh blank paper. When the French poet spoke of the forbidding whiteness (la blancheur qui défend) of a sheet of fools-cap before anything is written on it, he little suspected that his words could acquire a new and sinister meaning. The whiteness is “prohibitive”in the sense of“protective”: a piece of blank paper is useful and therefore safe, but the black and white of a printed volume makes it worthless and fit only for destruction. Life was extremely precarious in those days. In fact, it was the darkest time that is said to go always before the dawn. Nobody wished to buy books, and those who had books found them a great burden. It was altogether a dead season for the books-trade. To the sellers and owners of books, this transmutation of printed matter into white paper meant the transmutation of drug in the market and deadweight on the shelves into needful money in their pockets. They made great capital out of it. The price of a book was fixed according to its physical weight and the art of bibliography was divinely simplified into the mere reading of the scales. But for the atomic bomb which hastened the surrender of the Japanese, this sort of thing might have gone on indefinitely.
The paper made out of printed volumes is called in Chinese huan hun chih (還魂紙),“reincarnate paper”. Rather a beautiful name, but certainly a hateful thing. As a result of such“reincarnation”, books printed in the late Manchu dynasty and the early years of the Republic which ought to be very common, have now become rarities. It would be an interesting inquiry to find out what topical literature has been printed on the paper in which an edition of, let us say, Confucian Analects has become “reincarnate”. But I doubt if it were possible.