1995 / 4月
Chang Chiung-fang /photos courtesy of Lin Meng-san /tr. by Phil Newell
In the basement of the New Kuanghua Market in Taipei there is a little bookstore called "Pai Cheng Tang." The shop is full of hoary old volumes bound with string. Owner Lin Han-chang doesn't pay any attention to outsiders, he just sits there sipping tea and reading.
No matter if people ridicule him as an "idiot" or a "crazy man," Lin has always been satisfied to pass his days in the company of books, and the lest nine years have passed in a flash. . . .
One always thinks of learned elders when one thinks of old books. But Lin Han-chang, who spends his time in the company of long-ago volumes, is not at all dated. Now 43, Lin certainly doesn't look like a cultivated man of letters. Some even say he looks like a "highway robber." But behind the rough exterior there is a truly "bookish" man.
"If a man has ten thousand books, why does he need to be the ruler of a hundred cities?" This quotation is the origin of the name of the book shop Pai Cheng Tang (whose name translates roughly as "The Palace of the Ruler of 100 Cities"), and it also summarizes the life of the shop's owner, Lin Han-chang.
Somebody once offered Lin NT$18 million for his entire collection, but he refused. He explains, "If I sell all my books, and have nothing to read, what will I do with my life? I might as well just kill myself."
Ask Lin how many books he has and he'll answer, "I don't know." Press him for an estimate, and he says, as if it were nothing impressive, "probably tens of thousands."
Lin really has more books than you can count. Besides the books in his shop, there are even more books at home that he can't bear to part with.
When people first enter Lin's home, at the foot of Kuanyin Mountain, they are dumbstruck. Everywhere you can see, except the bathroom, there are books. The whole 120 square meter apartment--including the bedroom and kitchen--is crammed full of books and curios. Every wall has a bookcase, and books that can't fit on the shelves are in book racks, cases, or just piled up on the floor. The place looks like a warehouse. Except for a bed, a wardrobe, and a few chairs, there is no other furniture.
Lin divides his time between the 12-squaremeter bookstore and his home, which is christened "Fan Tien Ko" (roughly the "Studio of Holy Books"). The only thing in his life besides books are antique curios. Other than these, he has neither the need nor the room for anything else.
Having grown up in a poor household, Lin had little formal schooling. After graduating from a five-year agricultural school, he spent a tuition-free year in a special army officer training academy. He says that it was during his four years in the service that he began reading "in volume." "It was a common occurrence for me to read three or four books in one day." It was also then that he first entered the realm of Taiwan history.
After leaving the army, Lin could not find suitable work. He spent all of his NT$25,000 discharge payment at book stalls on Kuling Street, which used to be the main market for used books. He had little choice but to accept a job, arranged by his brother, as a factory worker. Lin, who says he has little interest in going from job to job, stayed there ten years.
After a hard day at work, Lin would read. He says that not only did reading not tire him, it "reinvigorated" him. He spent virtually all of the one million NT dollars he earned in that decade on books.
Once Lin purchased a huge crate of "The Complete Works of Dr. Sun Yat-sen" and "The Complete Works of Wu Chih-huei." "The postman wasn't willing to deliver it because it was so heavy. When I asked my family to help move it, my father was furious. He figured I had to be crazy to buy that many books at once," laughs Lin.
"I never felt there was any shame in working hard to earn money, but other people don't feel that way." Lin says that the other workers couldn't understand him being "different from the crowd" and "the silent type," and so they ridiculed him: "What makes you think you're so great? Aren't you a laborer just like us?" "If you are so capable, what are you doing here?"
Lin's personality is not grasping or sycophantic, and the boss usually forgot him when it came time for wage increases. "I was mistreated by others, but now I want to thank those who mistreated me," says Lin. Unwilling to put up with unfair treatment and the jibes of his coworkers, Lin finally decided to quit his job and make a new life.
Lin had nothing but his books. Nine years ago he rented a small space in the New Kuanghua Market, and moved some books from his home to the shop. That's how he began buying and selling old books.
For Lin, Pai Cheng Tang is a place to gain both income and learning. Lin takes home any book that might be useful to his research, unable to bear selling it. No wonder a friend says, "Lin's shop specializes in buying books, not selling them!"
Lin, with less than a high school education and no teacher to guide him, had to learn all about study and research on his own. He read anything he could get his hands on, not intimidated even by classical Chinese texts. He says that whenever he runs across something he doesn't understand he looks it up in other books until, gradually, he figures it out. He says that his research method is to read voraciously and spend lots of time. "If you read one book and don't understand, read ten and you will understand a bit, read a hundred and then you will understand completely."
"Things are more precious if you find them yourself through your own efforts," he avers. "If I had gone to university way back when, I'd probably be completely different now." What he means by "different" is not what you might expect: "If I went to university I'd be like so many other people, content just to muddle through my studies."
The only teacher Lin ever had was folk customs scholar Kuo Li-cheng. It is said that ten years ago Lin got up the nerve to write a letter "correcting" some errors in one of Kuo's articles. Upon receiving the letter Kuo immediately made an appointment to see Lin, and thereafter Lin became Kuo's student. He periodically went to Kuo's house to study scholarly methodology. Lin relates that although this only lasted two or three months, he learned a great deal.
Besides being "crazy" about reading, Lin has no other hobbies or interests. He doesn't watch TV or movies, has no telephone, and doesn't care for gossiping with the neighbors. His neighbors long considered him "bizarre."
His elders used to say that "he's brain-dead from reading all those books," while his neighbors facetiously called him "Professor." When local children saw him they would point at their temples, make little circles with their index fingers, and say, "Idiot!"
But this "village idiot" is considered a precious resource by scholars.
His vast reading has caused others to dub him a "two-legged bookcase." He has an immense interest in Taiwan history and folk customs, and especially in shanshu works (essays which tried to teach moral values by pointing out the terrible consequences of an evil life). Almost no one can compare with him in the area of shanshu. But Lin does his research purely out of interest, not to publish, so that not much of his work has been made accessible to the reading public. Examples of his few published papers include "The Shanshu Business in Taiwan in the Ching Dynasty" (presented at the "Conference on Taiwan History and Historical Materials") and "A Discussion of the Collection and Dissemination of Historical Materials in Taiwan in the Past Twenty Years" (in the book Research on Materials for Taiwan History).
Many MA students come to Lin through the introduction of professors or classmates. Lin always makes a thorough effort to help, whether it be in finding materials or in critiquing the thesis. He also is able to advise students on many arcane issues. For example, histories of the Japanese occupation era in Taiwan should be written using the Japanese dating system (based on the reign year of the current emperor). If the Chinese or Western calendars are used, then you miss the whole function of dating methods in that era.
Many of the books in Lin's shop cannot be purchased elsewhere, nor found in libraries. A graduate student named Mai once went every day to Lin's home to read materials. Today Miss Mai, a lecturer at Fu Jen Catholic University, uses the pen name "Hsi Chang" (which means "commemorating Chang") to honor Lin Han-chang for the help she received from him.
After some of Lin's articles were published in newspapers and magazines, he was invited to attend conferences and give lectures. This "folk scholar" was gradually "discovered." "Once the Taiwan Television Network came to interview me. When the truck parked outside my house, it attracted all the people in the village to have a look," says Lin with a smile. Today he has gone from being the crazy man of Kuanyin Mountain to being a public figure.
Dealing in old books is not a very hot line of work in Taiwan. In all of the huge Kuanghua and New Kuanghua markets there are only five such book stalls.
The most important sources for Lin's books are old book vendors in southern Taiwan and in Beijing. Lin says that in the past you could find old books and curios whenever old residences were torn down. Today Taiwan has no more old houses to tear down, and there is little left in southern Taiwan. The only thing left to do is to take frequent trips to mainland China.
Lin says that the money he earns selling books is "knowledge money." You have to read a lot and understand a lot to know what things are worth.
Lin's principle for buying books is to buy what he likes himself "I buy what I like. Whether I can sell it or not is secondary." If it's something he likes then he doesn't worry about selling it: "Actually, I'm happier if I can't sell it."
Relying on his wealth of knowledge, Lin can seize opportunities others might miss. Four years ago there was an early Ming dynasty book for sale in Hong Kong. Most book sellers thought that it had been printed using lead blocks, making it relatively unimportant. Only Lin recognized that it was a particularly beautiful wood block print. The other book sellers could only sigh regretfully.
Once a bookseller threw in a free book for him, which turned out to be a copy of the Prajna Paramita Sutra printed in the sixth year of the Chih Cheng reign of the Yuan dynasty (1346). The book was printed using characters carved from patterns hand-done by the poet Su Tung-po, and the calligraphy and illustrations were both exceptionally beautiful. Six or seven years later, Lin reluctantly sold the book for NT$50,000 to a couple who kept coming to try and buy it every day.
Lin Han-cheng states that Taiwan's climate is humid, so it is hard to preserve books. Moreover, most people don't know the value of old books, and so few books are in good condition. "Sometimes when I see customers in my shop flipping through books my heart aches," he relates. These old books are fragile, and cannot stand being torn, bent, or thumbed through with fingers wet with saliva. Yet many people have these "evil inclinations." Lin, quiet by nature, can usually only "watch with my eyes and feel pain in my heart."
Lin gives other old-book lovers a discount, but outsiders have to pay the listed price. If people come in pretending to know something they don't and try to haggle, he will not pay them the least attention.
Kido Yasunari is a lecturer in the Department of Japanese at Soochow University and a frequent visitor to the shop. He says that book sellers who don't know the score just sell old books by weight, but Lin is one of the rare "experts." Kido Yasunari collects teaching materials from the Japanese occupation era, and goes to the store whenever he is free. He always starts at the bottom and goes up one book at a time, always afraid of missing out on something. He jokes that he "is volunteering to sweep up the floor."
Yuan Fang-jung, who is especially fascinated by old illustrated books, reports at Pai Cheng Tang every week. He says there are many things there that are very hard to find anywhere else. "But it's not so easy to talk the price down."
The famous author Li Ao, now a special lecturer in history at Soochow University, who has quite a collection of books himself, also frequents Pai Cheng Tang. Li praises Lin as a "super-high-level bookseller," and feels that "you can hear in his voice his command of the subject matter when he speaks off the cuff." Lin understands more about Taiwanese history than some of the scholars at the Academia Sinica.
"When Li Ao buys from me, he always says, 'You should sell to me cheap, because you like me so much!,'" says Lin. And, like one hero to another, "I really do sell to him cheap!"
Lin cannot bear to sell many of his volumes. "It's a total waste to sell to customers who don't understand." But what he won't sell he may give away. He donated a 60-volume survey of historic sites and artifacts from all over Taiwan, a set he had painstakingly put together, to the Wu San-lien Foundation for Taiwan Historical Materials.
Lin may seem an "eccentric bibliophile" to most people, but to Foundation secretary Chen Mei-jung, he is a "person of very rare qualities." She says that the best books in the Foundation's collection were all donated by Lin Han-chang.
Chen says that Lin is very dedicated to Taiwan history, and is correspondingly helpful to those researching the subject. "He has not only donated books, he has volunteered to teach us how to repair the bindings, and suggested how we might compile files. . . ." Chen Mei-jung says that whenever they have a tough problem they go to Lin, and they always find an answer.
Having devoted his life to reading and research, Lin, now past 40, is still single. "I met someone once, but I let her go!" He says, "You can't have your cake and eat it, too. You have to choose." Perhaps life would be easier if he were married and there were someone to look after him. But scholarship takes undivided attention, so maybe being single is better after all.
Not that his relatives agree with Lin's choice. Lin "gets berated on a daily basis." Before his father used to nag him; after his father passed on two or three years ago, his older cousin started in. But he has never paid them much mind. He doesn't care whether others understand him, he just wants to live in his own way.
What will happen to his books in the future? "Put them to the torch!" This is Lin's idea of a joke, but it also reveals the understanding of a true man of learning that nothing, in the end, is all that important.
"I've seen very clearly in this business that its virtually impossible to pass one's books along to the next generation." Lin compares old books to old homes. Outsiders will say what great value the old house has, but those inside will want to lear it down and build a new one. That's the way old books are. The person who collects them sees them as precious, but the one who grows up surrounded by them might treat them like garbage.
Lin doesn't think about the future. He's also in no hurry to publish his research. Lin just keeps on collecting materials and doing research with what he finds, step by step. He sees that the sources of old books are drying up, and that it's getting harder and harder to sell them, but he isn't worried. Lin says that he will keep going as a bookseller as long as he can, and when it's no longer possible to do business he'll move back to the countryside to concentrate on reading and research.
Some say that you can tell the level of civilization of a place by checking out its old book shops. With a bibliophile like Lin Han-chang around, there is that much more hope for the carrying on of our culture.
"Bookworm"? "Underground PhD"? Lin Han-chang shrugs off others' taunts and praise.
(right) Pai Cheng Tang is where Lin earns his living,and also where he does his research.
As well as second-hand books, Pai Cheng Tang also sells art and curios.
Buddha figures, furniture, prints, posters, cigarette cards, even old clothes--Lin Han-chang collects anything old.
"Books hold riches in full store." For Lin Han-chang, they are his whole life.
For Lin Han-chang, this edition of Inscriptions on Ancient Currency with its beautiful case and cover is one of the favorite books in his collection.
"I'm always tidying up, but I never get to the end of it!" The ordered chaos of Fan Tien Ko conceals many treasures.
Giving away books he couldn't bring himself to sell, Lin has donated some of his painstakingly amassed collection of books on Taiwan's history to the Wu San-lien Foundation for Taiwan Historical Materials.
Lin is aware that his collection may not be valued by his heirs, so though he loves good books he does not cling to them.