Book Collecting: Liturgical Works

I’ve always envisioned that I would eventually amass a sizeable library, but I never really purchased books until college. Although, even then, I leaned towards renting my textbooks rather than owning them. As the years went on, though, I decided that some reference books would be worth keeping, and so, my collection of books began to grow.

Some of these books would be required readings for classes, books I decided to keep after the semester ended. Others would be books I found on the free table in Mason Hall (like a whole set of the Onmyoji novels!!! Who would just leave those there???). And of course, every time I returned to Portland, I’d be sure to browse through Powell’s Books and bring home a few books that caught my eye.

These books have primarily been in English (minus the Onmyoji set), and they tend to be rather academic. From books on tea (thanks thesis), to scholarly works on Asian Studies, to a few facsimiles of calligraphy, my library was a reflection of my college life.

However, there was another side to my library. I had started collecting a few liturgical works here and there from my earlier trips to Taiwan. At first, I didn’t see much of a need for them. If I were ever to be at a temple, I’d just use whatever books they provided. But the books were ubiquitous, and on each trip, I’d find some beautifully-printed liturgies by Shihua, a premier traditional Chinese publisher.

Their accordion-fold books—which I prefer because it’s near impossible to lose your page—present the text in an easy-to-read font supported by comfortable spacing. I don’t feel like I’m staring at a wall of text, nor do I have to squint and guess what character it might be. After all, when recited, even a split second of hesitation can mean missing a character. And so, Shihua became my default for anything liturgical. Most temples used it too.

Which is why it was a complete shock to me—and the rest of my Buddhist friends—when Shihua closed down a few years ago.

The news came slowly, and my first sign that something was amiss was when their website stopped restocking. My fears compounded when I noticed that temple giftshops were pulling their books from the shelves and stockpiling them in storage for internal use. A gloom covered the temple, and in the offices, we whispered and wondered what would happen to the future of these publications. Who else would be able to print such beautiful texts, optimized so elegantly for the human eye?

At that point, I regretted not getting a set when I had the chance. Now, the once-ubiquitous golden covers were absent from tables near folk temples, gone from the shelves of monasteries, and could only been seen during annual prayer services. These sacred books, already prized as priceless treasures, were now even more scarce.

Meanwhile, other publishers came out to fill the void, albeit unhelpfully. Their fonts were too thick, their punctuation too bold. Their spacing was too narrow, making the entire tome wholly uninviting.

Since coming to China, I’ve been scouring the online markets for any of Shihua’s publications—or even anything remotely similar. If China was the capital of bootlegging, I sure hoped they had bootlegged Shihua’s books.

Unfortunately, I was out of luck. Some sellers presented pictures of Shihua’s elegant covers, then shipped me reprints of woodblock-printed scriptures. Others had similar products, but the ink they used was not nearly dark enough to pass as Shihua.

I had some luck in finding preowned copies of Shihua books, which were being resold by booksellers for significantly cheaper than what they would have been sold for in Taiwan. I suppose the Chinese market has yet to realize Shihua’s demise. Demand has stayed the same, but the supply of these books has dropped, and the books will only get rarer as the years go on.

I’ve since collected a few essential works, books that I know I will have to translate in the near or distant future. Of these, two are Shihua prints. I will be keeping my eyes peeled during my time in Nanjing, and hopefully I will be able to find more as they appear on the online markets.

But ultimately, one of my goals is to create a bilingual set: one which has elegantly printed Chinese, pronunciation in pinyin above it, and English translation at the bottom. This would free me from having to rely on external publishers who might—as Shihua did—suddenly fall to the ills of the economy.

As a result, I’ve spent more hours than I expected to on the phone with former colleagues in Los Angeles, discussing fonts, font sizes, and other formatting details for this project. The Compendium of Chinese Buddhist Liturgies, currently being completed one installment at a time, will hopefully be released as a full set by 2030. In the meantime, I’ll continue churning out translations, one line of dense Classical Chinese at a time.

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