I came to Free China when I was 18 to study Chinese.
was vastly different then. Every month my father sent US$100 to a bank to
transfer to my NT account here. Green was strictly controlled, but at the
exchange rate then, every month I got NT$4,000, enough to live on. With some
American friends, I rented a 3 bedroom apartment on Taiwan Canal Street ( )
for NT$3,000; we split the rent. I have always had a hearty appetite, so in the
cafeterias on Hsin Sheng South Road Lungchuan Street,
I might pay as much as NT$10 a meal. When I had money left over, I bought
books. When I didn’t have money left over, I bought books.
When I had studied Mandarin for eight months, I started learning Classical, and was immediately addicted to its beauty and economy. When I was 19, I began studying in the Chinese Lit department at NTNU. I had courses in the Analects and Han Fei Tz, and fell in love with the pre-Chin period. I also fell in love with books published by Chung Hwa publishers, because they were carefully printed with large clear characters and no punctuation Chinese books traditionally were not punctuated once you get used to it reading unpunctuated books is a lot more fun than reading texts all cluttered up with a bunch of periods and commas which are once you think of it really quite unnecessary just think more carefully as you read
In my freshman year, I bought an eight volume set of Records of the Historian, published by Chung Hwa. During the summer vacation, I finished it in three or four weeks. My only regret was that there were only eight volumes.
When I went back to school, as a sophomore, at the age 20, I had Etymology. I took up the study of Chinese because Chinese characters fascinate me, so Etymology was just what I wanted to study.
But problems came up in my life. The bank said that no money had come from my father. In those days, international phone calls practically belonged to the realm of fantasy, and anyway, of the 37 people in my class, only five or six had phones at home. Sending a telegram was expensive, so I had to content myself with writing an airmail letter for help, and ho
ping the post office delivery
was quick. I cut down on food, and looked forward to money coming into the account,
the sooner the better. Every couple of days I would trot up to the bank, on Chungshan N Rd; there
weren’t many phones in those days, so you had to go yourself. I was almost out
of money, and there was no news, so I had to start borrowing from friends,
fifty NT here, a hundred NT there. The only thing I had left to scrimp on was
food, so I ate only one bowl of plain noodles a day.
As luck would have it, there was a Book Fair, one of
first, at the International House gym. I was hungry, and looking at the books
could keep my mind off food. As luck would have it, Chung Hwa had a stall, and
they had a set of Tzu-chih T’ung-chien, twenty volumes, on sale! Just the one
set, but I really didn’t have money. All I could do was stop by every day or so
to see if some lucky person had taken it home. Fortunately, it was still there.
What a beautiful book! There were only a few days left before the Fair ended,
and nobody had bought it, but I still had no money. Taiwan
(Compiled during the Sung dynasty [in the eleventh century], the Tzu-chih T’ung-chien [Comprehensive Mirror to Promote Governing, Zizhi Tongjian] runs to over three million characters, and covers over a thousand years of Chinese history, from 403BC to 959AD.)
After two, almost three weeks on a diet of one bowl of noodles a day, one night I was so hungry I woke up. The room was spinning, and I wanted to throw up, but I was so hungry I couldn’t stand up. I slowly crawled into the bathroom. I sat by the toilet to heave, but my stomach was so empty that nothing would come up. I barfed for a long time, but nothing came up. All I got was a sore throat and an awful taste in my mouth, so I slowly crawled back to my room and lay down on the tatami, waiting for the room to stop spinning. I finally fell asleep.
In the morning, my apartment mates noticed that I wasn’t up and around, so they very thoughtfully knocked on my door and said, “You woke us up last night with your retching, are you dead?” I was out flat but still alive, so they made me some vegetable broth. But I was still too weak to stand, so I cut class that morning. By noon I had regained some strength, so I went to class. My friends said that they were surprised I hadn’t come to class that morning, and very thoughtfully said, “When you didn’t come to class, we thought you must be dead.” Pretty close. One very considerate friend brought me a loaf of black bread from the
. Bread in Astoria in those days was atrocious:
fluffy, white stuff that was inedible. A Russian ran the Taiwan on Astoria ,
so he knew how to make bread. I sat by the English Department’s fish pond and
ate my bread. A friend bought me dinner, and I felt much stronger. Wuchang Street
The next day, the mailman delivered a registered letter. My mother had stapled six ten dollar
a letter. This was highly illegal, but I didn’t care, I took the money and ran
to US Hengyang Street.
A jewelry store on Hengyang Street
had a backroom in which you could illicitly exchange green. I got two thousand
and some. Money in hand, I raced to the bus stop and headed directly for the
International House gym. In a tizzy, I raced to the Chung Hwa stand, and the T’ung-chien
was still there! It hadn’t been sold! Wonderful! Two hours before the Book Fair
ended, I stuffed most of the money the jewelry store gave me into the hands of
a Chung Hwa clerk, and triumphantly carried my twenty volume set of T’ung-chien
home. Once I got home and put the books on the shelf, I realized, hey, I’m
hungry! I went to Lungchuan Street
and spent ten NT on a big meal in a cafeteria.
A couple days later, money from my father entered my account. I soon learned that for decades, the one and only
bank to go
belly up was the one transferring my father’s money to me. The US government
cleaned up the mess quickly, and there were no more problems after that. US
I started reading the T’ung-chien, and got to the Han dynasty, when schoolwork intervened and I had to stop. I started again from the beginning about 16 years ago, but the Wei Chin Southern and Northern dynasties were so chaotic that I was stopped because I couldn’t figure out what was going on. In recent years, scholars in mainland
superb work on history, and with recent publications, I have finally gotten a
handle on the Southern and Northern dynasties, so I am reading T’ung-chien again,
and this time I will finish. I carry the volumes around, so Sabiy has made a
case to protect the books. They are already pretty old, after all. China
The book is important to me in many respects. The day I bought T’ung-chien was October 30, 1973, forty years ago. This is a good day to commemorate that.