CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 20, December 2009


The Universal Library | China Heritage Quarterly

The Universal Library

Duncan Campbell

In his story 'The Library of Babel', Jorge Luis Borges describes a universal library:

The Universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. In the center of each gallery is a ventilation shaft, bounded by a low railing. From any hexagon one can see the floors above and below—one after another, endlessly. The arrangement of the galleries is always the same. Twenty bookshelves, five to each side, line four of the hexagon's six sides; the height of the bookshelves, floor to ceiling, is hardly greater than the height of a normal librarian. One of the hexagon's free sides opens onto a narrow sort of vestibule, which in turn opens onto another gallery, identical to the first—identical in fact to all.

Later in the story, he captures something of the troubled history of book collecting:

When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men felt themselves to possessors of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal problem, no world problem, whose eloquent solution did not exist—somewhere in some hexagon. The universe was justified; the universe suddenly became congruent with the unlimited width and breadth of humankind's hope. At that period there was much talk of The Vindications—books of apologiæ and prophecies that would vindicate for all time the actions of every person in the universe and that held wondrous arcana for men's futures. Thousands of greedy individuals abandoned their sweet native hexagons and rushed downstairs, upstairs, spurred by the vain desire to find their Vindication. These pilgrims squabbled in the narrow corridors, muttered dark imprecations, strangled one another on the divine staircases, threw deceiving volumes down ventilation shafts, were themselves hurled to their deaths by men of distant regions. Others went insane…. The Vindications do exist (I have seen two of them, which refer to persons in the future, persons not imaginary), but those who went in quest of them failed to recall that the chance of a man's finding his own Vindication, or perhaps some perfidious version of his own, can be calculated to be zero.

In somewhat similar vein, the Yuan dynasty writer Yi Shizhen 伊世珍 encapsulates something of the quest that underpins much traditional Chinese book collecting in the following story:

A Record of Langhuan Paradise 瑯嬛記

Lincing’s Langhuan Library. Source: Wanggiyan Lincing 完顏麟慶, Tracks in the Snow (Hongxue yinyuan tuji 鴻雪姻緣圖記).

Long ago, during the Taikang reign period of the Jin dynasty [280-89], whilst he was serving as a Retainer in Jianan, Zhang Hua took a trip to Grotto Mountain. As he followed the course of a stream deep within the mountain, he came across an old man lying on a rock, his head pillowed upon a book. Taking a seat beside him, Zhang Hua struck up conversation. Casting a glance at the book that the old man had been using as a pillow, Zhang discovered that it was written entirely in the Tadpole Script, and that he could not make any sense of it. Zhang Hua's breath was quite taken away by it. The old man turned to him to ask: 'And how many books have you read?', to which Zhang Hua replied: 'Although there may well be some books published in the last twenty years that I haven't yet read, I've certainly read anything published more than twenty years ago'. With a faint smile playing upon his lips, the old man took Zhang Hua by the arm and lead him down the rock cliff where, all of a sudden, they entered a doorway, beyond which the path widened out and they came upon a hermitage within which were housed a full ten thousand volumes. 'What books are these?', Zhang Hua inquired, only to be told: 'These are all the histories of this present age'. The two men proceeded on into another chamber where the books were even more numerous, and when Zhang Hua again inquired as to their nature, the old man told him: And these are the gazetteers of all the myriad states'. Finally they reached a secret chamber, the door to which was barred and tightly locked, and which was guarded by two large black mastiffs. Above the doorway hung a plaque that, in ancient Seal Script, read: 'Langhuan Paradise'. 'Where are we now?', Zhang Hua asked, to which the old man replied: 'This is the Jade Capital and here are housed the Purple Tenuity and the Golden True, the Septenary Crystals, the Cinnabar Volumes and the Occult Works'. Pointing to the mastiffs, the old man continued: 'And those are idiot dragons; they have been standing guard here for two thousand years now. Reverentially, he open the door and ushered Zhang Hua in, and Zhang Hua, for his part, once inside, discovered that the library consisted entirely of books that pre-dated the Qin and Han dynasties, along with accounts of the lands beyond the oceans, most of which he had never before heard mention of. Included in the collection too were such canons as the Three Great Emperors of Old and the Text to be Stored Away, the Annals of Chu and the Spring and Autumn Annals. When Zhang Hua proved so overcome by it all as to quite faint away, the old man produced some wine and fruit to revive him, so fresh and pure as to belong not at all to this world of man.

Having lingered two whole days, Zhang Hua departed, saying to the old man as he left: 'I'll be back to visit you again another day, bringing with me my own provisions in order that I might read through this collection of books in its entirety'. Again, the old man smiled faintly at this but he gave no reply as he ushered Zhang Hua out. As soon as Zhang Hua stepped out the door, however, the rocks suddenly closed up again, seemingly of their own accord, and when Zhang Hua turned back to look, all he could see were the plants and vines entwined around the rocks, the moss growing upon these rocks showing no sign of having been parted and, as in the beginning, not a crack showing where the door had been. Dumbfounded, Zhang Hua stood staring at the rock for a long time before bowing to it and setting off on his way.

The late Ming historian and essayist Zhang Dai 張岱 (1597-?1684), whose own extensive family book collection was lost in the chaos of the Ming-Qing dynastic transition, enters, briefly and only in a dream, this projected paradise at the end of his evocation of the splendours of his youth, Tao'an's Dream Memories (Tao'an mengyi 陶庵夢憶):

Taoan's dreams are as if predestined, and often in his dreams he finds himself within a stone hermitage, set amidst 'chasms inside chasms, caverns in crags'. In front of this hermitage, a torrent rages and a brook swirls, the cascading water producing snow-like foam, with fantastically shaped ancient pines growing amidst eccentric aged rocks and with famous flowers interspersed here and there. In the midst of all this he sits, in his dreams, with serving boys plying him with tea and fruit, and surrounded on all sides by shelves laden with books. Although whenever he happens to open up a volume, he finds that the text is written largely in the tadpole, bird trace or thunder script of antiquity, yet in his dreams it is as if he can understand even the most troublesome and abstruse of passages. When living in idleness with nothing to occupy his time, he finds himself dreaming of this place as the evenings gather in around him. Meditating upon it when he awakens, he resolved to seek out a marvellous site that could be made to resemble that of his dreams'.