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The joy of being a “professional reader” – A glimpse into Profs Chen Pingyuan and Xia Xiaohong’s study
Apr 19, 2023
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Professor Chen and Professor Xia, in their “city of books”

Peking University April 19, 2023: A “city of books” – this is the moniker affectionately given by many to the home of Chen Pingyuan and Xia Xiaohong. Both tenured professors from PKU’s Department of Chinese Language and Literature, the couple’s dwelling is engulfed by books, with titles spanning from decades of collection. It is a view to behold, as stacks of books “grow” towards the ceiling, forming towers and spilling over furniture. The homeowner, Chen, sighing in resignation at the state of his house, says that while the books have affected the couple’s quality of life, old habits unavoidably die hard.

Chen calls himself a "professional reader". He believes that reading is not only a hobby but also a career choice. While reading is certainly a commendable habit for people engaged in other lines of work, Chen explains that his career revolves around reading and writing books – books are part and parcel of his life.

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Despite Chen’s humorous demeanor, his practical attitude remains evident. Unlike traditional bibliophiles, he does not actively seek out rare books and has no intention of showing off his collection. From his study, books often come and go – in a way, this is a clear reflection of his vision, wisdom, and sensibility as a “professional reader”. Considering the innumerous stacks of books in his possession, it is far from difficult to understand why he does not bother to catalogue his titles. However, he can easily recall the books that he has donated to libraries over the years. To Chen, so long as one truly loves to read, the size of the collection is unimportant in comparison.

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 Professor Chen surrounded by his book collection.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Chen’s silhouette was a common sight at bookstores and book clubs, both within and beyond the gates of the Old Beijing City. Chen's wife, Xia, was also a graduate from Peking University’s Department of Chinese. As Chinese majors, both of them had to take great pains to search and browse for elusive titles. It was only years later that they discovered that much of their collections overlapped one another. As scholars, the assiduous effort of gathering the literature is by no means an easy task. Their encyclopedic collection is also emblematic of the value that the couple places on historical materials and documents. “It's the kind of thing that even the most talented people cannot achieve overnight. This takes years of consistent accumulation,” said Chen. In the academic community, Chen and Xia are both known for their rigorous and communicative approach to literature and history. In addition to their research roles, the power couple has also co-edited a series of reference books, which are widely used by the academic community.
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“Those who do modern research often have the most complex collections,” Chen explained.  A coalescence of old traditions, new thoughts, and a great deal in between, modern China exudes a unique charm. This also means that it is important for researchers to read widely, in order to gain a broad perspective that not only encompasses ancient and modern times, but also connects China with foreign countries. For this reason, Chen is interested in books on a broad range of topics, which inevitably leads to his “chaotic” collection of books.
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Nevertheless, no matter how expansive the collection of books at home, it can never be compared to the library. According to Chen, the library is the natural place he looks towards whenever it comes to thematic research. In order to use the library effectively, it is necessary to understand the collection characteristics of each library. “A brief walk around any library will reveal to you its strengths and focus, ” said Chen. “Strengths, not in terms of the rarity of the edition, but by the present needs of your research.”

On the topic of book recommendations, Chen replied that he could not simply name a few books that are worthy of recommendation, largely because “professional readers” tend to feel differently towards books at different points in time, for a variety of reasons. He also expresses worry at the notion of books having to be “useful” – he is an advocate for reading so-called “useless books”. By this he means that one should read in a “disinterested” way – not for a specific or utilitarian purpose, but to transcend daily life and enrich the soul. As he says, “These can be books on literature, philosophy, art, or religion. We should pay greater attention to these books, especially those that do not directly answer the needs of our daily lives.”

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Written by: Aqilah Anuar
Edited by: Yang Ruoxiang
Source: PKU News (Chinese)