My father’s library

The trials and tribulations of the Review’s books

Courtesy Of Bill Powell

Publishing history: This article originally appeared in the March 1986 issue of the Wilson Library Bulletin.

When my father left Missouri to go to China in 1917, my great-aunt Eleanor gave him a New Testament. I guess she thought of it as a talisman that might protect him on such an insane journey. No doubt she and the rest of my mother’s family thought he seriously lacked judgment and needed all the help he could get.

He had quit a job on the Hannibal Courier-Post to teach at the Missouri School of Journalism at Columbia, and now he was moving again—this time to the end of the world to work for a man who planned to start an English-language newspaper in China.

He made it to China and eventually became editor and publisher of the China Weekly Review, a well-known journal of opinion. The New Testament made it, too, and became the first book in the office library, which by the time of Pearl Harbor had grown to several thousand volumes.

It was one of the best newspaper libraries in the Far East, filled with books on Asia and the Pacific plus an assortment of dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, almanacs, yearbooks, and other reference volumes. The Review office became a gathering place for foreign newsmen and writers, partly because it was a good place “to look something up.”

It was also used by other members of the American community. Missionaries, diplomats, and teachers in the American-supported local universities came by to browse and borrow books. Periodically—usually when he couldn’t find a book—Dad would raise a ruckus and Pang Chen, the office manager, would pull out the old cigar box with the slips borrowers had left and get on the phone. Books were always being lost, but it was a two-way street—the library had quite a few books Dad or others on the staff had borrowed. Aside from the more used reference books and others “temporarily” piled on desks, tables and chairs, the collection was housed in old glass-fronted sectional bookcases that lined the walls and stretched shakily to the ceiling.

The Japanese
On Pearl Harbor day, the Japanese army marched into Shanghai. The Review offices were closed and my father was imprisoned because he had editorially “insulted” the Emperor of Japan. He was later released in a prisoner exchange, but mistreatment by his captors left him badly crippled and shortened his life.

In August 1945, a few days after the Japanese agreed to surrender, I flew into Shanghai on a plane carrying U.S. Office of War Information personnel. The next morning I went to the Review office and found it bare.

After the Emperor’s surrender message had been broadcast, the Japanese occupying the office had called in a used-furniture dealer and sold everything. We traced the furniture but could not find the books. According to the building maintenance personnel, they had been taken away early in the war.

The next day, Pang Chen and Mr. Chow, the business manager, who had survived the war but were much altered from their former selves, came in with the news that some of the books had been found. As the Japanese were taking the library away, the elevator operator had filched many bound volumes of the Review. For nearly four years, some had been under his bed in the tiny office/living space he occupied on the ground floor, while the rest had been at the bottom of the elevator shaft.

He could read only a few words of English, but he recognized the bound copies. He had risked his life stealing them from under the noses of the Japanese soldiers, and he was as pleased as we when they were loaded on the elevator for their ride back upstairs.

Aside from a little grease, they were in pretty good shape, but were incomplete. As the weeks passed, I became resigned to the loss of the rest of the library. Perhaps the books had been shredded, or been used to stoke the boilers at the power plant.

I began haunting the secondhand bookstores and ordered replacement reference books from home. We offered readers free subscriptions if they would send us old issues. To our surprise, back copies began arriving with each mail delivery, so that eventually we had to become selective, specifying just which issues we wanted.

China has had its share of book burners, the most notorious of whom was Chin Shih Huang Ti (247-210 B.C.E.), who burned the classics and imprisoned and killed hundreds of scholars. However, as befits the inventors of printing, the Chinese are unsurpassed book lovers. After the Chin tyrant’s brief dynasty collapsed, many of the classics, which had been hidden at terrible personal risk, were brought out. Others were reproduced by surviving scholars who had committed them to memory.

Review subscribers had also run considerable danger in keeping their old copies, as the Japanese dealt harshly with anyone found in possession of something written in English, particularly the Review because it had supported China in its long struggle against Japanese aggression.

Several more weeks had passed when Pang Chen rushed in excitedly. “Jardine’s is calling. They have our books!” I picked up the phone and a very British voice said, “I say, we’d appreciate it if you’d come along and get your books. They’re rather in our way.”

When the supervisory personnel of Jardine, Matheson & Co., an old-line British firm that had got its start in the tea, silk, and opium trade more than a century earlier, had looked in the door of the company library upon their return, they had been pleased to see that the shelves were full. However, they later discovered that most of the books were ours, and that their collection was badly depleted.

We got the bulk of the library back, including a complete file of the Review. There were holes in some of the sets and some particular books we remembered were gone. Just how much was missing we never knew, since all office records had been destroyed.

Jardine’s building had been occupied by a Japanese naval intelligence unit, and why they had wanted the Review library was a mystery. By this time, Japanese military personnel were in detention camps, so we could not find those responsible. Perhaps the commander was a book lover who read English, or maybe a bureaucratic foul-up preserved the library. We worked on the library for the next few years, adding current books and searching for significant older titles, until it was again in pretty good shape.

The Chinese
In 1949, the Communist revolution came to Shanghai. The foreign business community hoped to stay and continue business, but a Nationalist blockade from Taiwan, the Korean War, and intensification of the cold war made this impossible.

When it was time for us to leave—the paper was insolvent and we were nearly broke—I pulled out some 1,500 books and turned the rest over to a Chinese newspaperman friend to give to a university.

On the eve of our departure, I discovered that Shanghai customs officials had opened the book crates in our baggage and looked at each book. About 200 had failed to pass inspection and were removed. My protests were unavailing, and we had to leave the suspect volumes behind.

The Americans
America was still in the grip of McCarthyism when we reached San Francisco, and my shrunken library was seized by U.S. Customs as inadmissible to the United States. The grounds for the seizure varied over the next weeks, months, and years as I tried to get it released.

Customs at first relied on a regulation that prohibited anything from “Communist China” entering the United States. I argued that most of the books had originated in the United States and asked a Customs official how he could ban the New Testament, which, although not much thumbed after 40 years, I felt quite sentimental about. The Customs inspector replied that no exceptions could be made and that “if the New Testament has been to Communist China, it cannot enter the United States.”

I argued that the New Testament had not willfully gone to Communist China; it was physically, if not philosophically, an all-American product, printed in the United States and purchased with solid 1917 American dollars by my non-Communist and Republican great-aunt. It was a victim of events beyond its control and was merely trying to return home. He was neither amused nor moved.

I obtained an attorney and the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. At this point, Customs began shifting ground. In one discussion the commissioner said the real problem was the nature of some of the books and suggested that, if I would help segregate the “political” from the “non-political,” Customs would consider releasing the latter.

We replied that, as a matter of principle, no book should be banned and refused to participate in any screening procedure. One of my attorneys added that as a practical matter separating “good” and “bad” books was difficult, and asked the commissioner how he felt about Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, one of the titles being held. The commissioner thought a moment and referred the problem to an aide. The assistant also thought a moment and replied: “Well, there are some questionable passages.”

Later it was suggested that I deal with Washington and apply for an import license. My attorneys did, and the application was denied as “not in the present interest of the United States.”

Part of the problem was me. I had criticized the Chiang Kai-shek government, an American client regime, and written favorably of the reforms of the new Communist government. I had also criticized American involvement in the Korean War. These views later caused me a lot of trouble, but were no excuse for seizing the library. A book is a book, and the owner’s beliefs are irrelevant.

Together at last
The negotiations continued for nearly eight years until Customs gave up. However, the agency got in a last lick by insisting that I pay storage charges as a final condition of release.

Meanwhile, I had been writing to the Chinese customs authorities about the books they had removed. Eventually, they agreed to release them. I applied for an import license, which, surprisingly, was granted, and for several years I had 200 books sitting on the shelves waiting for their colleagues detained in the San Francisco Customs warehouse.

There are, of course, many lessons to be gained from all this. Officials charged with the commercial policing of borders easily slip into the role of moral and political guardians and are therefore uneasy about books. It also would seem, at least from my experience, that they are both poorly read and lacking in discernment.

One of the books passed by the Chinese censors was Red China’s Fighting Hordes, written by an American military officer and published in the United States. The connotations of “Red” and “Hordes” were obviously not understood by the Shanghai censors. In San Francisco, this title was cited as evidence that I had tried to bring Chinese Communist propaganda into the U.S.

It’s a peculiar human trait that sees comedy in tragedy—in this case being at the mercy of bumbling bureaucrats who are functional illiterates. The Chinese might plead that they were dealing with a foreign language, but that does not excuse censoring books in the first place. What excuse the San Francisco censors could offer, I can’t imagine.

After we left China, the country went through a series of post-revolution political upheavals that culminated in the Cultural Revolution. I regretted that I had not brought more of the library with me, fearing that the bulk of it must have been destroyed.

The Chinese revolution was 35 years ago, and China and America are once again speaking. Last year a middle-aged Chinese newspaperman, whose first job after graduating from journalism school in the United States was on the Review, came through San Francisco on a tour hosted by our government. He came to see me and we talked about the past and the present and speculated about the future.

Before long, he was inspecting my shelves and we were deep in “book talk,” perhaps gossiping more about the individual authors than discussing their works. He glanced at one hard-to-find old book, looked up and smiled: “You know, the Review library you left behind is now in our institute. When I’m writing about the old days, it’s a great place to look something up.”