Book Burning: Who's Done It

April 08, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

The First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (r 221-206BCE), burned the books of the Confucian scholars. Less well known is the Ming imperial court’s burning of the sea voyage logs (1421-1434 AD) of the admiral Zhenghe after his return to China. Better known to the western world is the Vatican’s Inquisition that had burned heterodoxy books that had dared to be printed in the 15th century. In our modern times, books deemed disagreeable to authorities are still denounced and burned, and in many cases, with the authors scurrying into hiding. These are mere mentions of the infamous cases throughout world history. In my mind’s list of Who’s Done It I have included my father. Albeit, he did it out of a husband's jealousy and with stealth. My parents were already entering middle age, and in their society, compromise was always the first consideration in a marriage that was falling apart. There were many faces to save, children to bring up together, never mind your personal feelings, however entangled or sick, or hurt.  Moreover, my parents were looked up to as counsellors for younger couples.

At fifteen I had already sensed that this kind of ‘unhealthy marital harmony’ only created a cold war between two people. My mother had in her possession a collection of fifteen hardcover journal books, a keepsake from a former suitor she had rejected even before she met my father. Each book was about 5 by 7 inches in size, hardcover, the twenty-four pages of good quality art papers – in pink, peach and beige, or cupid’s colours - were suitable for Chinese brush and watercolour as well as fountain pen. That she would only ever pore over them in my father’s absence spoke volumes to me. And the fact that she was able to keep the silently expressive journals for more than thirty years of her marriage to my father was suspect even in my teenage naivety. My deduction was confirmed when she told me stories of their early years: my father was an addict at mah-jong or poker with women who befriended him, but that he had repented after my mother had left him to go back to live with her mother in Singapore for almost a year, and he had gone to beg her to come back to him.

My mother was a music and dance teacher at a school in Sarawak in the 1930s where she met and married the school principal. She was born and bred in Singapore in the 1910s. I have been guessing all my life if the author/poet of the journals was the suitor who was the Eurasian of Chinese and Armenian ancestry. His family, after many years of businesses in Singapore had to return to their ancestral bases in Shanghai, and my mother had turned down his proposal to marry him and go live in China. (Despite those love journals!) For whatever reasons my mother had (which I have extensively dealt with in my memoir), my siblings and I were grateful indeed. Imagine my brothers and sisters and I in the 1960s, instead of being educated in the English missionary schools, were stampeding in the mad crowd of millions of Chinese teenagers out on Tiananmen Square waving Mao’s Red Book and screaming and swooning at Mao’s appearance. In the West, and in many big Asian cities like Hong Kong and Tokyo, teenagers were swooning at the sight of the British Beatles.  

             I was twelve when my mother shared with me her secret possession. By then she had lost three books from hiding them in the ground during the Japanese Occupation in World War II. There were love poems, nature poems, and snippets of writing in Chinese calligraphy adorned with drawings of the plum blossoms, which was my mother’s given name. There were poems quoted from the Tang and Song dynasties that would describe his love for her, written in his flowing brush calligraphy (so different from my father’s formal calligraphic hand).

Why my mother should choose to teach in a school in the jungle of Borneo, a far cry from the bustling European city of Singapore of the ‘20s and 30s, is again a long story in my memoir.  Suffice to say that she had the sense to choose the capital of a private sovereign state with a history of ninety years of rule by an English family known as the White Rajahs. My mother did not speak a word of English, but the subject of the English White Rajahs were not all English speaking: they were Chinese, Malays and the numerous native tribes of the virgin jungles of Borneo. (I have written this history in my book, Old Kuching, published by the Oxford University Press, Second edition 2004). The Chinese community erected schools and boards of education wherever they settled. The rest of the world was lured into the Great Depression invented in the West, but in this tranquil corner of Southeast Asia a small Chinese community was making cultural progress with an imported teacher from Singapore to teach piano and choreograph dances. 

In 1961, my mother was away in Hong Kong refreshing her Chinese herbal medicinal skills (she had apprenticed herself to Chinese medicinal doctors during her teaching years and during the war, and was in my teenage years a successful doctor). My father must have found her absence a great opportunity to get rid of the eyesore.  Or so, my mother and I believed. My siblings, not privy to this confidence, were unaware of the surreptitious search my mother launched me into when she came home. We turned up every corner of the house, including the ceiling. She had hoped that he didn’t burn them. But she also knew the hope was small. I was sent to investigate the bushes, the tool houses, the chicken houses, the plants and nursery sheds, the surroundings where my father normally carried out his green thumb hobby, always planting something or rooting something, or burning something for fertilizers. Our land was a ten-acre affair, and I was not a diligent investigator; I had my own burden of homework and exams, geometry formulas to work on, algebraic equations to solve, and Shakespeare’s plays to act in class and write about, and Wordsworth to take a walk with among the clouds and the daffodils. 

My mother died a few years later, when I was 17. My father was distraught. He might have made his confession to her by then, but this I shall never know. While tidying up the house (he was a meticulous housekeeper) he had come upon that bundle of books that had been a threat to his ego for thirty odd years, and there was no space in the house for them. 

My heroes are the people who did not put Emily Dickenson’s poem or Franz Kafka’s works into the fire as their authors had wished in their will. In my imagination, the literary world would have been the poorer if these books, and many others that were saved and appreciated in time, had been made a fodder for some bon fires. My father was an educated man, a school headmaster, and one who read a lot of books (though not as avidly as my mother). There is therefore, no mandate to say that an educated fellow would not burn books in moments of such emotions that seem to rule the human species. The Qin emperor was an educated man. He read hundreds of kilos of bamboo scripts of works every day well into the wee hours of the morning in constant quest for knowledge and enlightenment. The Confucian scholars’ thoughts were too annoyingly critical of his tyranny, they had to be banished. In his burning decree he spared the agricultural and medicinal books and manuals. It was out of selfish cause, for the ancient knowledge of survival was essential to his quest for eternal life. But it was a fortuitous one. The Han Dynasty after him was able to make great agricultural and medicinal advances based on the ancient volumes. 

I don’t know what my mother’s collection of love journals would have done for the literary world. I would at least have a picture of those beautiful journals to post with this essay. I have small inklings too, that I would have churned up some romance novels (in English language) from off the pages that were lovingly created by a man who almost became my father. That is, if only he had not insisted on going to live in China in the turbulent 1930s.   


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