The Eastern Studies Institute


In the courtyard of the Eastern Studies Institute in Kyoto, geometrically arranged are a Spanish-style fountain with a stone stem, three lines of flower beds framed with Turkish blue tiles and a Dr. Orita. Today he is a panda bear. Last month, he was a Rasputin. It is not Orita Gen’ichiro himself, of course, the famous historian from the beginning of the twentieth century, the founder of the institute; it is a bronze bust of Orita Gen’ichiro mounted six foot high on a granite pedestal. He has been poured on by rain, seethed by the shimmering heat and bitten by nasty frost. Every student who passes in front of Dr. Orita bows to him out of respect. Not only do the students respect him, but also do they love him so much that they cannot help embellishing him every month. Every other month, he is removed from the pedestal for regular bathing while a student stands in his place with his face painted in bronze green.
People recall time and events with Dr. Orita’s costumes. Dr. Harada, Assistant Professor, knocked his Celica’s bumper against a pole in December 1991, when Dr. Orita was posing as a Lenin when the Soviet Union collapsed. A white shirt congealed with plaster equipped him with arms for the first time in his postmortem bust life. It was surely February in 1989 when Ms. Sakamoto, the ever-stressed secretary, stayed in the hospital for a gastric ulcer because people well remember Dr. Orita was a Hirohito in commemoration of the Emperor’s funeral. Dr. Orita was a moai, whose cardboard head extension majestically soared, commanding the pink tulip buds in the courtyard, when some ignorant members of the school board planned to display Dr. Orita in a glass case at the university museum. The attempt ended in failure facing a barricade mounted by the students.
The main building of the Eastern Studies Institute has white mortar walls, an orange tiled roof, black lattice windows and a small view tower. The four-storied Andalusian architecture is outstanding, surrounded by the thicket in the traditional Japanese residential neighborhood at the foot of Mt. Yoshida. In summer, the cool shade lures the pedestrians into the entrance lobby of the institute, which, however, is already full of the local dogs lying flat on the gray marble floor dangling their tongues. In the lobby, there is the Grand Dictionary of Chinese Characters in thirteen volumes, which no one would open, each being two meters thick.
The Eastern Studies Institute was founded in the early twentieth century with a part of the compensation money for the Sino-Japanese War in 1895. The Shimonoseki Treaty brought two hundred million silver taels to Japan. By virtue of the Eastern Studies Institute, Japan has excelled China in Sinology. The institute owns a rare collection of books and documents, many of which were purchased from China with the compensation money. A double exploitation. The collection is stored in the stack room, located in the heart of the institute, into which only the staff librarians and the tenured faculty are permitted. The storage is four stories high, in form of a giant spiral staircase, with a vast, square wellhole in the center. A gentle slope encloses the wellhole in squares with fifteen right angles. As you ascend the slope counterclockwise, you have a railing on your left, aged, shiny mahogany rail, and there are bookshelves and the wall on your right. At your feet, the tilting floor is inlaid with thick blocks of glass. You would want to tiptoe to avoid the transparent squares when you are on the top floor.
Since all the floors are leaning, the bookshelves, as you may well imagine, are tilted, too. Each shelf is twenty meters long, the length of each wall. Books naturally come tight together in these shelves; gravity neatly squeezes the books to the right end of the shelves. To return a book to a shelf, you put it at the left end of the shelf. The more often a book is called, the further to the left it is located on the shelf. The books at the right end of the shelves, in most cases, have never been in circulation since the institution was established. But when you need them—and this is the problem about these bookshelves—you must pull out the book with all your might, and even that is not enough sometimes; there are quite a few spineless books at the right end of the sloped shelves. Another problem is that you have to go all the way up to the end of the shelf to return books. Hammy calves are an occupational hazard of the institution’s librarians. This is another fight against gravity, especially when they have to push a cart on the slippery glass slopes to reshelf too many books. Once, when Dr. Orita was a Bruce Lee—that is October 1987—Miss Akiyama lost her grip and the cart slipped back and smashed against the corner of the slope, sprinkling the books. The empty cart roared on to the starting point, where she had to start all over again, but could not, because her left ankle, run over by the cart, was broken.
Another major danger, the temptation to jump off the fourth floor into the wellhole, is so irresistible that the library produces a few deaths every year. In the center of the ground floor, there is a heavy ebony working table surrounded by heaps of books. The table is the only empty space on the floor. It is a shiny black hole that gravitates those who look down over the railing with vertigo.
It was a muggy evening in August 1995 when the Eastern Studies Institute produced an unexpected death. The annual suicides of librarians and faculty members are expected. Their deaths are always welcome because they lower the average age of the staff and provide new positions for those who have been waiting. These applicants are in line in front of the Eastern Studies Institute. Snack and drink vendors sell expensive rice balls and tepid tea along the line. At night, Mt. Yoshida commands a link of campfires that forms an exotic zodiac in front of the institute’s gate. Whenever a cedar coffin exits the Spanish façade followed by a dozen mourning people, the swarm of waiting applicants, those the staff call the waiters, throngs around the coffin like puppets without knee joints (for they are crippled due to the standing in line for an indeterminable length of time) cheering, clapping, tripping and shoving each other to check which position has become vacant. Then those who are qualified gather silently around the front door like dark moths around a lamp.
But that day, when a plywood coffin came out of the building, crossing the courtyard, passing by the small Spanish fountain, the rose beds, then Dr. Orita, the eyes outside the façade sparkled only for a moment before they found out the corpse was not their savior. It was a Chinese graduate student whom the librarians found dead with his head cracked open like a ripe pomegranate on the solid ebony table.
His name was Wú Wài and he was from Xian, formerly called Changan, the metropolis of the first millennium. His academic concern was to reproduce colloquial Tibetan of the early eleventh century through its phonogramed transcription in the Chinese ideograms recorded in parts of the Dunhuang Documents. Studying Sinology in foreign lands was his destiny; the Dunhuang Documents, torn into parts and scrambled for by the colonial powers, now exist everywhere but in the continental China. Wú Wài had been in exile from Paris to Petersburg, from London to Hong Kong, from Tokyo to Kyoto in research of the lost Tibetan sounds. His Chinese translation of Dr. Orita’s major works provided him with the funding. He had never forgotten to bow to him in the courtyard. Of course, he was a member of Dr. Orita’s apparel committee.
When Wú Wài was found dead, flat on the working table with his head cracked open, he was holding a book in his right hand, Xiyouji by Wú Chéng-en—the novel first published during the Ming Empire, one of the “Four Fantastics” of Chinese Literature. Based on High Priest Xuán-zhuang San-zang’s pilgrimage from Xian to Magadha in pursuit of Prajña-paramita-sutra from 627 to 645. Three guardian creatures protect him from eighty-one evil monsters in his passage to India. The water spirit, the pig monster and the golden witty monkey, our favorite mimic picaroon, the monkey king. The book is illustrated: the monkey jumps around Priest Xuán-zhuang. Somersault. Somersault. Such a magical, mighty monkey he is. The tale Wú Wài heard, watched and read hundreds of times in dozens of versions.
The copy in Wú Wài’s dead hand was one of the two copies of the oldest edition in existence. The other was in the library at the Sorbonne. Wú Wài had known the Eastern Studies Institute owned one. But he had not been aware of its substantial existence until he found its card by mere chance, searching through the card catalog looking for other books. Ever since, he had been haunted by it. The stack room had metamorphosed into a gourd, which had vacuumed in and imprisoned Xiyouji, in which the two Deva Kings threaten Xuán-zhuang and his party, sucking the golden monkey into their magic gourd. All Wú Wài had fancied at first was to have a glance at the spines of the volumes. Just to make sure they really existed. When he had snuck into the top floor of the stack room, however, after hiding and holding his breath behind the booth by the door, the only hole into the gourd, a sudden realization of his true intention came to Wú Wài. Sucking in the silent whispers, weeping and wooing of loads and loads of inscribed paper, he reeled back, seized by a bibliophile/phobia dizziness. He grasped the railings with both hands and balanced himself on the partially transparent, tilted floor. The wellhole was windowless except for one big skylight, practically the whole ceiling, which filtered the slanted remains of the setting summer sun casting zigzag rhombus lights on the eastern shelves. The bottom floor was dark. He toddled to the fiction section and soon found the shelf the card had indicated. It was the top shelf. No one had called for Xiyouji for years. It was at the far right end of the shelf. Wú Wài dragged a ladder, leaned it up against the shelves, climbed up, brushed the spines with his index finger, and set his hand on the spine of the first volume.
Then he tugged it with all his might.
The next day after the police left, another of the malevolent summer nights of Kyoto came. The dense heat stagnated in the wellhole, gradually steaming the corpse that still lay on its back on the ebony table. Its arms were bent stiff in rigor mortis with its book-gripping hand in front of its motionless chest. Mei Biao alone kept vigil over the corpse. He is from Nanjing and was the dead’s best friend amongst many Chinese in the institute. Mei Biao is a beautiful, lofty young man, just like his name, Lovely Tiger Fur. He sat in a folding chair by the table staring at the air between the corpse’s open eyes and the title cover of Xiyouji. The broken head was covered with cotton gauze. Flies buzzed into the wellhole, and every time a fly alighted on the corpse’s nostril or eyeball, Mei Biao stood up to wave it away with the evening newspaper he had grabbed on his way in the lobby of the international students’ dormitory.
The next morning undertakers carried in a coffin, and a couple of librarians and Mei Biao helped to remove the corpse. Before the undertakers closed the coffin, a librarian with a flowery apron hesitatingly mentioned the book in its right hand. The undertakers gave her a vacant look, for they had taken it as a souvenir for the dead on its long journey to the netherworld. The other librarian shook her head and explained what the book was and how much they had tried to undo the grip in vain. They looked at the corpse’s right hand. Its well-trimmed nails had lodged into the fibers of the covers. The undertakers tugged the book in turn. Then they made Mei Biao try. The book stuck fast to the hand like a part of the corpse. One undertaker whipped out a pair of pliers from his jumpsuit pocket. The fingers snapped like dry twigs. He handed the book to the perplexed librarian and started to nail the cover on the coffin.
The librarian thanked him when he finished it. The other undertaker told them that the severe climate allowed the corpse to be kept no longer, so it would be cremated and its ashes would be returned to China in an urn. The three nodded. Mei Biao then realized he did not know where in Xian Wú Wài came from.
On their way to the undertakers’ van parked at the gate, they crossed the courtyard. It was half-past noon. The yard was full of white light. The sunbeam pressed them hard against the concrete earth. Mei Biao and the undertakers stooped as they carried the coffin. Passing Dr. Orita, Mei Biao asked the others to stop for a moment. That day, Dr. Orita wore a pair of Lennon sunglasses, a flat Panama hat and a lei of pink synthetic hibiscus. On the pedestal it said "UKULELE." Mei Biao bobbed his head at the tropical Dr. Orita. Then they headed for the gate crowded with the waiters.
And today Dr. Orita is a panda bear.