Selected Modern Chinese Essays: My Study

◎ He Wei

The study is to a scholar his private domain, his spiritual home and his intellectual world. I’ve been to the studies of several friends. Though of different sizes and with different furnishings, they are nevertheless about the same in boasting a roomful of books. Books shelved in bookcases lining the four walls. Books either piled up one upon another, or displayed in neat rows, or laid out in disorder like fields with crisscross footpaths or a jungle. In recent years, the appearance of various multivolume collected works in de luxe editions as well as selected works of every description has added to the splendour of a study. Among them there is no lack of great classics and master writings. On the other hand, some trash is inevitably mixed with them too. But that doesn’t hinder the owner of the study from enjoying the company of his library.

A study is always a place of enormous appeal to us.

I’ve been engaged in writing for several decades, but I’ve never had a study of my own—a study that is independent, intact and true to its name, that is. I’ve moved many times, once even away from a big city to a remote small mountain village in another province. Whenever I moved, my books, cumbersome as they were, turned out to be the last thing for me to part with. I’m a bibliophile. My collection of books is far from being a big private library, but it keeps growing from day to day. Several times of house moving did not disperse my collection. On the contrary, it has become larger with each passing day until my small dwelling is overcrowded with them. Now the shelves of books in my study-cum-bedroom extend as far as the tiny toilet. No room is available to serve specifically as a study.

However, in the course of my career as a writer, I did once own a study, or, to be exact, a storeroom turned study. I was then living in an old house built at the turn of the century. It was quite roomy, so much so that the ground floor served even as a neighbourhood nursery. I and family lived in a room on the third floor, which was really big but impractical because, according to today’s standard, it could have been divided into at least three rooms. Fortunately, close to the staircase just outside my room, there was a storeroom, which I regarded as something of great rarity to me because sitting inside it behind the closed door I could cut myself off from my family and work without any disturbance from my small kids.

The storeroom was the only study I’ve ever had in my life. Perhaps it could be aptly called a workshop. It was long, narrow and small. An old desk stood against a wall under the northern window. Two piled-up glass bookcases rose erect near the entrance. They were the furniture abandoned by a former resident. There was no room for anything else besides my old cane chair placed before the desk under the window. However, enjoying the privacy of a so-called study like this, I could do writing with high concentration. All festivals and holidays as well as all after-hours sparetime would find me confined in solitude to the tiny room to experience the delight of giving free rein to my literary thought and imagination.

In the fifties, Shanghai was much colder in winter than now. The window panes would ice up and one’s breath would freeze in the cold air. I would, with the window curtains drawn together, warm myself by a charcoal brazier over which a small kettle was sizzling away, and gradually move into the best state of readiness for creative writing. On the four walls, which I could easily reach by holding out my hand, I had several strings with scraps of paper hung on them stretched between nails. On these scraps of paper, I kept jottings of fragmentary materials for creative work, some linguistic gems and my original manuscripts awaiting revision. In this workshop, I turned out in a few years a large number of articles, both long and short, and, to my great surprise, some of the short essays I then wrote are today still to the liking of the reading public.

How I cherish the memory of the small study!Whenever I passed by the former residence with my children, who have now reached middle age, I never failed to show them the location of our old home and tell them that the third floor of the building which had changed beyond recognition had once been our home. Yesterday, when passing by the same place, I found that the old building was nowhere to be found and that a high-rise had been erected on its site. In the deepening dusk, I repeatedly turned round to look up at the towering structure and wistfully relived the old days I had spent in the small study.