You do not usually expect that entering into a classroom for your first lesson of Chinese bibliography is going to change your life or career. I certainly didn't think so, one day in October 1971. The change was not immediate, but this was the day I met Sören Edgren.
He was bearded, wearing glasses and a tweed jacket - with a nervous frown. He was the teacher and I, with some eight others, his student. This was his first session, which perhaps explained his nervousness and concentration. Five minutes into his lecture he was on secure and familiar grounds, informing us of lost libraries during the Qin period, excavated texts from Mawangdui, pillaged facsicles of the Yongle Dadian from the Hanlin Academy, and how to look up references in Teng & Biggerstaff , etc. This was the first, but not the last time, that I encountered his profound knowledge of Chinese and Japanese bibliography, of old books and their fascinating histories.
We became friends, finding that we had many interests in common. Sören had come from California to seek out his Swedish roots. Somehow, he liked the place enough to stay for a while. A new institute of Chinese studies had just been created at the Stockholm University, and the dynamic Professor Göran Malmqvist gave Sören a teaching job in a bibliography & reference. He was also employed as a curator in the Royal Library, the Swedish national library, in charge of the collections of Chinese and Japanese books. At the time, I was studying for the last year of Chinese while working part time at the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities.
Many were the evenings when Sören - after having cooked a delicious meal with accompanying wine - brought out a book or two to show: to explain the finesse of the printing, or an intriguing publisher's colophon, or the textual variations in this edition compared to some other one, etc. I'd been exposed to Western, especially Swedish, 'bibliomania' throughout my earlier years. I was fascinated to see that here existed a totally new world of books, and I became smitten. Sören had acquired many of these books in Japan where he had lived for two and a half years, at one point staying in Tomioka Tessai's house. The time in Japan had also added Japanese to his other languages: English, Swedish, and Chinese.
One of the milestoneson our way to becoming booksellers was the day when Sören showed me a Sotheby auction catalogue that had just arrived. It was for a sale in May 1972 of the de Roos library of Japanese illustrated books. de Roos, a Dutch diplomat, had assembled this collection while on assignment in Japan. Sören was surprised that Sotheby would auction the books, since the majority were not that uncommon. He remembered having seen many of the titles in bookshops when he went book hunting in Tokyo and Kyoto. He was also astonished at the comparatively high reserve prices. When we received the list of prices realised, Sören and I decided that there was an opportunity for us.
Equipped with a loan, a copy of the de Roos catalogue and the just published bible on the subject, Mitchell's The Illustrated Books of the Nanga, Maruyama, Shijo and other Related Schools of Japan - A Biobibliography, we spent three months in Japan assembling a collection of some two hundred relevant titles. We also made a study and collection of Japanese handmade paper, which was later exhibited in the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities. Actually, most people thought that paper collecting as the main purpose of our trip.
The books were consigned to Neil Davey at Sothebys and sold for good profits. Not as good as those for the de Roos collection, but enough to reward our efforts, and to wet our appetites. We had both become disappointed with our prospects in future academic posts - the combination of Chinese and History of Art degrees was not the most exciting for employers, and within the academic world there were no resources. Not much has changed today.
Sören and I often discussed what else we might do. We knew we would like to work for ourselves, and preferably with books. Slowly our ideas evolved towards a mail-order book business, although there were already many very competent book sellers within the field of books on Asia - Ad Orientem, Kegan Paul, Luzac, Probstain, Paragon in New York, etc. The idea grew organically and one day we sat down at a newly purchased IBM electrical typewriter - state-of-the-art with type 'golf balls' which could be switched so as to allow several fonts in the catalogue entries - bold for title, italics for comments, etc. We were very proud of the appearance of catalogue Number 1 in May 1975, printed in five hundred copies and mailed to all the addresses we'd collected during our jobs and travels.
The stock consisted of mainly our own, quite considerable, private libraries of reference books and sought-after titles on Chinese and Japanese art. Sören, sometime with great regret, offered to make available some of his rare books. For later catalogues we bought books with the proceeds from sales. We were also able to exchange rare books for the duplicates at my old museum, where our friend Jan Wirgin was forward-thinking enough to make sure that he acquired the best of the rare books we had to offer. We were later able to buy some very good libraries assembled by Swedish collectors.
We were elated by the response to the catalogue. Letters with orders and telephone calls poured in. It is a bit strange to recall that there were no fax machines then, no computers and no e-mail. The good old days indeed! Anyway, we were kept busy packing books and taking parcels to the post office, typing invoices, searching for second copies, and writing 'regret letters' saying that books had already been sold. Meanwhile, we started compiling catalogue Number 2. There we were, snug, in a large roomy apartment with creeking floor boards, smoking our pipes and sipping aromatic Japanese tea, discussing which book to include, pouring over its contents, admiring its paper, illustrations or typeface. Sören always had some fascinating comments about the books, and the success of the business was very much his doing.
The name Han-Shan Tang was a very careful choice. Han-Shan was the eccentric 8th Century monk, who, together with his colleague Shi-De, are remembered in art as standing together with their brooms, laughing. Sören was a great fan of Han-Shan's poems. Tang is the traditional word for a hall with literary connotations or library. Han-Shan also means, literally, Cold or Northern Mountain, which fitted in with our situation in Stockholm. Han-Shan Tang was also equally easy to pronounce in Japanese and Korean. Finally, no major personality had ever used this sobriquet, something Sören ascertained from his reference works.
The rest is history. Sören and I divided up the business and the stock in 1977, when he was obliged to return to California. I moved to London in 1978 and he opened his own bookshop in Carmel and then later in Los Angeles. His love for rare Chinese books and his scholarly ambitions eventually inspired him to take a PhD and he now heads the Chinese Rare Books Project at Princeton University.
Sören and I are still good friends, we meet a couple of times each year, and, perhaps not surprisingly, now as then, I am very much dependent on him for guidance and advice in the fields of rare books, and good wine. Advice that he always gives, now as then, with great expertise and generousity.
Christer von der Burg
It is a pleasure to recollect meaningful events from one's life. The creation of Han-Shan Tang was one such event in mine, and it resulted directly from my having met Christer von der Burg in Stockholm in the autumn of 1971. I had recently returned from more than two years of study in Japan, and I was eagerly pursuing post-graduate studies in Chinese at the University of Stockholm. I was immediately taken with Christer's sharp mind and wonderful sense of taste in all things. I soon learned that in addition to studying Chinese, he also worked as an intern at the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities. We found that we had many interests in common and liked to talk about Asian art and books. Both of us had book collections bursting out of their limited library spaces in our apartments, and I in particular was overburdened with large quantities of books I had brought back from Japan by boat. Ever resourceful, Christer found a wonderfully convenient space to rent, complete with bookshelves, and we combined parts of our collections into a reading room that we could both make use of. It seems to me that it was not long after that we dubbed our 'study' and its collections Han-Shan Tang.
If I am not mistaken, we used the name informally this way for a year or two before planning the first Han-Shan Tang book catalogue, which appeared in May 1975. The idea of combining enjoyment with serious intellectual interests was also reflected in the club called Wuxinghui, or the Five Elements (now more fashionably known as the Five Phases), which we formed with three other sinologists, equally interested in Asian art. Our purpose was to attend lectures and exhibitions together, but our chief activity centered around a monthly ritual of enjoying an exceptional repast together which had to be hosted and arranged by one of us on a rotating basis. Needless to say, we vied among ourselves to achieve memorable experiences in food and wine to complement the always stimulating and amusing conversation.
As we began to discuss the idea of pursuing a book-selling career, it became apparent that we would have to pool resources to get started. Since I had many more Asian books at the time, it was easy for me to put up a share in our proposed business venture. Christer, himself, had a small but choice collection of European rare books and bindings, which he sold en bloc for his share. I remember being impressed by his decisiveness, but at the same time I felt sorry for his sudden divestment. I asked whether he hadn't held back something, such as a nineteenth-century French manuscript containing wine-tasting notes, which I recalled with particular interest, but everything was gone. The die had been cast, and soon we were busy preparing catalogue Number 1.
In the next three years we produced a total of six catalogues. This was an invaluable, an unforgettable experience. By the autumn of 1977 we had divided our remaining stock of books, and I had moved back to California to begin my own book business. Fittingly, Han-Shan Tang remained with Christer in Stockholm, where catalogue Number 7 was published before the removal to London. The rest, as they say, is history. The extraordinary achievement of Han-Shan Tang catalogue Number 100 is a direct result of Christer's exceptional ability and unbounded energy.