Collecting Books in Beijing

Nancy Hearst, Librarian at Harvard’s Fung Library, talks about her book-collecting trips to Beijing

Since the 1980s I have been going to Beijing, either once or twice a year, to acquire books for the Fairbank Collection in Harvard’s Fung Library. I am often asked what the “secret” is behind my book trips. Unfortunately, there are no secrets at all, and those who are looking for some 内部 revelations need not read further.

First and foremost, I am tremendously indebted to all the former visiting scholars and students at Harvard, and elsewhere, who, during their time in the U.S., were enthusiastic library users. They are my “on-the-ground” representatives and are always looking out on my behalf for new titles that might be of interest.

In addition to visiting all the major bookstores and publishing houses, I visit my friends’ offices and personal bookshelves and they are only too willing to make donations to our collection. Due to political sensitivities, some of the most interesting titles are now privately published by family members, such as recollections by former leaders and/or academics whose works are no longer permitted to be published. These include, for example, 王若水80周年诞辰纪念, edited by Feng Yuan (冯媛) (no publisher, 2007), 朱厚泽文存, 1949–2010 (no publisher, 2013), or, more recently, 天堂茶话 by刘军宁 (5.2015). Such titles are unavailable in bookstores, have no ISBN numbers, come out in extremely small print runs, and are only distributed to interested friends. Many of our most unique titles fall into this category of publications.

Before my trip I also prepare a tentative list of items I am looking for. The list may include things I have either heard about or read about online, as well as requests from various patrons. More often than not, this list will lead me to other, and sometimes more interesting, publications, knowledge of which has yet to make its way across the Pacific.

Before my trip this October, Prof. Arunabh Ghosh in the History Department requested a copy of Selected Conversations with Experts in Soviet Statistics (苏联统计专家谈话记录选编) . First published in 1957, it appeared that even the National Library of China did not own a copy and the only holding library was in Hangzhou. During dinner with a friend in Beijing , I asked if she might have copy. Unfortunately, not only did she not have a copy, but she had never even heard of it. However, she was so excited to learn about its existence that she immediately sent one of her students to Hangzhou to procure a copy and before the end of my trip, I was given a digital copy to add to our collection.

Another item on my list this year was a title that Prof. Peter Bol wanted to put on reserve for his Chinese History course : The Rise of China and its Strategy (中国崛起及其战略) by Yan Xuetong (阎学通). This is not a new book; it was published in 1996 by Beijing University Press, and the Fairbank Center was the only library at Harvard holding a copy (acquired during one of my earlier trips). Unfortunately, when I searched the stacks prior to my departure, the title was missing, so I hoped to replace it during this trip. This should have been quite simple, but when I began searching I found that the book had long been out of print and was unavailable. Even the Beijing University Publishing House no longer had a copy. Determined to find it, I sought out the editor of the volume, who had one copy left in his possession. He was happy to make a donation to replace our missing copy, so I was able to bring it back with me and it is now on reserve for Prof. Bol’s course.

As should now be quite clear, there really is nothing secretive about my book acquisition trips, but invariably there are amusing anecdotes. In one case, for example, as soon as I entered the very small outlet attached to World Knowledge Publishing House (世界知识出版社), belonging to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a courtyard off of Ganmian Hutong (干面胡同), the young person behind the counter said to me that during my last visit I had left behind one book that I had already paid for. Surely she was mistaking me for someone else because I had no recollection of this and I had not visited this shop in more than a year. I explained that she must be confusing me with some other foreigner, but she proceeded to pull out a book from under the counter. Although it was a title that I would have been interested in (on Sino-Indian relations), it still did not ring any bells. I insisted that she must be mistaken, but she was quite adamant. In fact, she said that when I purchased the book I was about to go to the restaurant at Purple Bamboo Park for dinner. It suddenly started to come back to me. Yes, the previous year I had gone to that restaurant to meet Professor Ezra Vogel and I had indeed asked her for directions. She told me that I had already paid for the book and she had saved it in her cabinet to be able to return it to me on my next visit, so off I went with the book that I never knew was missing!