Jan/Feb 2022  •   Nonfiction

The Four Treasures of the Library

by Janay Garrick

Artwork by Dale Bridges

Artwork by Dale Bridges

There is a Yellow River called The Sorrow, and there is a child waiting to be born this day. The child, this would-be scholar-thinker, is a girl. A perfect blue pearl is placed in her mouth or, more precisely, balanced on her pale pink lips when she is born. The blue pearl will perch, making of her mouth an oyster, a shell, an ancient skin of the deepest ocean. At her birth, her mind will weigh just under one pound, her fingers will stretch a few centimeters, and her tiny fingernails will be under five millimeters—tiny quills, the tiniest of bird pinions, new stems shooting out from pink skin. After she is born, her fingernails will never cease to grow and grow and grow. (In fact, even in utero, her fingernails are already growing.) Endlessly, she must trim and trim, cutting them back. They are magic, like the bamboo, like the bamboo of the first brushpen. There is magic in her hands. Will she ever come to know this? For endlessly, the world will tell her to forget that her hands were once a tool, a pen to dip in pools of ink, her tongue and mind, tools for communing with heaven.

As time passes, the girl cloisters in her room like a small nun or a Buddhist adept. Gifted in quiet-sitting, she sits so still that many nights her father does not know she is in there (later, she will learn this is like the Great Blue Heron who still-hunts at night). As her father walks through the hallway, night after night, he snaps off her light, and she cries, "Oh!" and he snaps the light back on and laughs, and she giggles. One year, her mother and father allow her to write on the walls, the bones of her room. Ideographs, words, full color. Books stack themselves around her—the rungs of living ladders along the walls of her pale, yellow room. North, South, East, West. Skyward ladders. Up and down she travels, reaching after ideas. The girl reads by lamplight, by moonlight, by candlelight and flashlight. Her mind, hungry. Her eyes and bones, even her fingernails, are thirsty.

The girl reads Zhen. "The hand yarrow," he explains, "set with a dozen or so short nails and a long bamboo handle can weed many more fields in a day." The girl does not want to weed the fields. She will take up other tools.

When the girl is old enough, her family hands her a scroll bound in blue silk with a golden thread, and she is told, "Write!" What, given a blue-silked diary, must one do? What does such a tool demand of its keeper? She sets out to make observations about the world as others before her have done. She looks! Some of her thoughts are a streaming tail of light, others not. The world is round (it once was thought to be flat, she reads). Ideas circulate like rivers through cities of people, through nation-states. The people talk story. The girl leans in, listens. The people are starving for lack of knowledge, the girl thinks. Dark Ages in China, Dark Ages in Europe—scholars and books burned and buried alive.

One day, the girl takes up a tiger stone. Its striped body carved just so, its ink pool opened, its feet rooted on her mahogany desk always waiting for the tip of her brushpen. It sits. Eyeing the girl with its blue Mynah eye, exhaling patience. Bowered in the study, the ancient tiger stone begins to talk story about the girl child's grandmother, the one with the seeing eye, the sage who saw all of the village children before they were born as well as the children who would die in the womb, a black veil drawn over their faces.

"Remember your grandmother who married your grandfather in secret?" the tiger stone asks.

Yes, the girl nods, thinking on the elopement (the snow falling, the pine forest watching). The Great War had just ended, and married women were not permitted to take up medical studies.

"We understand you've gotten married," the administrator of the program informed her grandmother the very day she returned to school. "You must leave."

Over the years, the Yellow River called The Sorrow grows clouded but continues to flow. The old Masters have named the waterway "China's sorrow" for it floods, century after century, cannot keep its banks, carrying a remarkable amount of sediment, passing through the Loess Plateau in central China. She is the mother river of China. Huang He (欢和), simply, The River. Or, The Cradle of Chinese Civilization, or The Sorrow, for short. So many different and varied names for the mother river, her names dating back thousands of years, written in scribes.

"What power," the girl says to the tiger stone, "what power to name the world."

Along with her tiger stone, the girl has as chief consort an emerald-bodied, peach-faced lovebird. He rides around on her right shoulder or on her index finger as she walks the garden thinking her thoughts. She consults books, he consults birds—the cardinals and black-crowned sparrows in the pink oleanders. Tilting his head toward the sun, the lovebird's tiny bead black eyes study light. The girl studies him studying light. She observes how he does not blink, the light refusing to burn his retina.

In season, the lovebird drops his tailfeathers, and the girl takes them up. She strips the feathers of barbs and removes the thin skins clinging to the quills. She dries the quills in a bucket of hot sand gathered from the Great Sea. After the quills dry, she cuts them sharp, at a proper angle for dipping in a vat of ink made from the mulberry tree in her garden. His red-spotted tail feathers fit perfectly to her fingers. With them she practices the art of writing light as bird bone, lyrical as song.

As the girl grows into a woman, she studies the traditional Chinese ideographs for daughter, wife, mother. Some say in the the brushstrokes of ancient China, there are only daughters (nü, 女) (the ideograph can also mean frail), wives (fu, 付), mothers (mu, 母)—there is no generic category of woman. The ideograph for woman cannot be drawn apart from the ideograph for man, family. The girl imagines the symbols painted on the skin of her forehead. Why must I? the girl thinks. Why must I become wife, mother? Gender representation is always political, the girl-woman thinks, remembering old Master Foucault.

One day, after her mind has grown heavy, the girl-woman thinks about striking a match to a particular library in which she has been reading for many years now. So many books over the millennia, Not noteworthy! Her mind cries. False, false! Not true. Well, maybe true in a small-small way, but the tributary has branched from the true River, and now rushes toward the Land of Falsehoods where the crystalline waters stop flowing—she has seen this in her dreams—a place where the River turns underground and eventually ceases altogether. We better not burn down these old ideas, she thinks, playing with a match book in her jean pocket, for then our zither might continue along its recursive watercourse like a Dragon eating its tail.

But, oh! How the girl-woman wants to strike a match, to burn it all down. To throw fire! But again, no, she reasons. There is something like a strong hand upon her. Let these books remain housed and shelved. For book burning, library razing has proved ineffectual in preventing the recurrence of old, unwanted ideas—words as cliché as the rising Sun. (The Sun does not rise!) Better keep such books housed and shelved for Point of Reference. All the books that face South and Southeasterly toward Underworld are reference points now, she thinks, so house them in the Reference section where they belong. There, they will gather particles of dust from the air, an air filtration system for the Great Library. Refer to them when our peoples, our cities, and nation-states are wandering about, in danger of losing our common cup, our common humanity. They are Springboard—one can kick off from them and re-center, re-set one's compass because of the fire of argument, the fire of wrong-thinking which spurs the thoughts that burn the mind toward Enlightenment. This is the grit of sand in the oyster. The fire that cracks the serotinous pine. There is no other way. She thinks on China's Great Inventions—how Compass and Printing Press work hand-in-hand to form a great Canon to blast a great rock into The Sorrow to turn, at long last, the course of history.


The ancient Chinese gave every child who would be a scholar, or a thinker (one who was perhaps born with the slender fingers of a writer, or an egg-shaped head, or two jeweled eyes with fire and light behind them) the four treasures of the library: paper, brushpen, ink, and inkstone.

The Chinese teach that the life of good ink depends on the glue, the best glue owing its life to the almond-colored horns of a young deer. This was because of the deer's purity, a purity which the deer imparted into the life of the glue, which the glue imparted into the life of the ink, and the ink imparted into words on the page. The glue, when combined with the lampblack (the soot from burnt pine, feather-brushed into a clay jar and mixed with glue from the deer horn) is what gave the ink texture, skin, pleasure. The glue and the lampblack imparted to the ink body and form. It might be said the ink came to life. In fact, in ancient China, it was believed all of the tools of the library came to life, and that the page, if beneath the right hand and brushstroke, might become illuminated.

Even today, that words on a page, that ink on tree skin or stone might illuminate the world in some small way, even now, this is the impossible ideal.

I have recently read that on a girl's first birthday, the ancient Chinese did not give the would-be thinker the four treasures of the library; it would be more precise to say they allowed the child to choose her own instruments. If the child is born a girl she is given more (or less) choice depending on your perspective. To a girl child, the following items are added to her lot: shears, scissors, and a ruler; an embroidery book, a scoop, and a spoon. "Let the child choose," it is said. What if, from among coins and credit cards, scoops and spoons, the girl child chooses brushpen or paper placing them in her mouth like babies do? What then?

Prior to 1905, if you sat for the Imperial Examination in China, you might one day be seated in power, depending on your performance. You might become a bureaucrat. Or one of the literati: a man who governs others, displays mental brawn. Buddhist clergy, Daoist clergy, and women of course, were excluded from the candidate pool. Why, after all, would a Daoist adept sit an exam when he seeks rank in a celestial bureaucracy? Namely, he seeks to become a god, a god the literati can call on in prayer, imbibing their qi (气), breathing sunlight, ingesting starlight. But why not women? Well.

In the late 14th century, the Camaldolese monks of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence, Italy commissioned Lorenzo Monaco's Praying Prophet. It is an illumination from one of their choir books, a miniature on vellum. Scientists speculate that perhaps the candle yellow yolk of an egg, because it contains fat, and binds objects to one another, and pre-exists, was used to create the red dye painted there. But we do not know. All we see is the prophet's furrowed brow, hands pressed like pages, perfect bound. The pink leaves, it was recently discovered, were illuminated with a red dye from an obliging insect. Was it the insect's thorax or her blood, or perhaps her red marble eye from which Monaco extracted the necessary material to mix this particular hue? Each pixel on the page has a reflectance spectrum. Each color (gold, caramel, and coral; lapis, pigeon, slate; basil and mint), scientists have observed, is layered of light.

Once in the Midwest, I was the page, awaiting illumination. I was the leaf. I was the praying prophet—resistant, angry, willing—sent to a people who understood my language but refused my speech. That I could be a prophet, why not. Why not, I thought. A prophet pleading her one plea: that women, that all people, might have access to the four treasures of the library. What else might a prophet plead? That these stones might become bread? That these fingers and bones might remember their former power?

As I write, a woman next to me sits reading—this is a given now, in my North American context: a woman reading. Bowered in the corner coffeeshop, book open on her lap, feet up on a chair. What is she reading? I wonder. (Is she married; is she a mother? Does it matter?) Will her reading illuminate the world in any way, by any means? I consider her thin hands. Are her fingernails thirsty, too? Of course they are. Even after death, her fingernails will continue to grow and grow and grow. Like the bamboo. There is magic in her hands, just as there is in mine. Not even death can slake our thirst.

For 1,300 years, women could not sit for the Imperial Exam—the state-crafted test by which the literati, the scholar-thinkers, and the government officials were chosen. (The four treasures of the library are a sword. The old Masters understood this.) Women could not sit for the exam, argues a scholar out of Beijing today, because there were no civil service jobs available to them. It was the government, not the exam, that excluded them, he says.

Many disciplines have kept women out: theology, for one, and the one with which I am, of late, most familiar. Places must be kept. European women in the Middle Ages may become illuminators of the sacred text, the old Masters said, but not scribes. (They may self-select sienna and golds to leaf about a holy man's head, but they must not take up the brushpen to record his thoughts.) They may read the sacred text, but not interpret it for a crowd. Women, indeed, cannot be priests. And so on, and so forth.

The tradition of the library was first codified during the Song dynasty by scholar Su I-chien in his Account of the Four (Treasures) of the Library, and later built upon by other scholars in several treatises detailing "objects dear to the scholar." I find the name of one particular treatise the most apropos: Serene Happiness of Communing with Heaven by Tung-t'ien-ch'ing-lu. This feels right to me. That thinkers commune with heaven is a given. That thinkers who subject themselves to the hourly cloister and enclave, the bower and library—this is an act of great difficulty, an act of war. That one might possibly, in some small way, on any given day, commune with heaven is no joke. And one makes every attempt, in this quiet, to get down the good one receives.

Chinese thinkers dedicate themselves to magic considerations, The Essence of Life. It is tradition to place in one's study (along with the four treasures), receptacles of light, receptacles of vital essence. Each shape suggests: I contain light. I capture and throw light. I am magic. Magic considerations caused thinkers to keep cranes and tortoises in their gardens even though the tortoise would later, towards the end of the Ming dynasty, be ousted as a troublemaker. A troublemaker despite his having successfully carried the written word out of the South China Sea on his bones, despite his having saved the ancient kingdom from floodwaters. Nevertheless the old tortoise was ousted—his head too phallic, his shape too vulgar.

I know of one thinker, a physicist, who keeps a prism in his bedroom window. Each morning, with his morning coffee, the ROY-G-BIV spectrum fills his room. He is privileged to study light. I, too, wish to study light. This is the tradition the library holds forth. We moisten the brush with the tip of our tongues, we ingest the magic and brush lampblack onto the skin of a tree. If we are lucky: light! Light appears! Magic! Presto mundo! Worlds and rivers and trees looking like people walk about our pages! The sycamore topples into the river. The poppyseed pops, the mustard seed cracks. The heavens are surely opened and the veil is torn, for the symbols we have laid down have been, somehow, struck.

I have been reading comparative theology and Chinese cosmology. Theologian Tara Hyun Kyung Chung has put forth the idea of endarkment, the idea that healing will arrive through the wisdom of darkness: "Dark people, women, our shadows," she writes, "all of the things we do not want to confront within ourselves."

Though I began as a shy child of trembling knees and voice, it has been my lot of late to confront the powers. There are times when I have tried to stand down, to run, to cower. But that has not worked. It has seemed my inescapable destiny to refuse the words "no" and "impossible" and "cannot." As I take to my study, the voices start: "Do not write as a woman. Forget your context. You should be doing something else." Even Virginia Woolf betrays me. "Stop taking up women's concerns," she counsels as if I, being woman, might become a dis-embodied thing, a mere tool of the library. But the tiger stone speaks from the iris edge of my grandmother's garden, the golden tigers humming, talking story. "How do you transport a kingdom from here to there if not (first) through your mind? Do not be afraid. Write what is given you to write. If you can imagine a different world, it will come to pass."

Ink, the written word, is made of matter. The substance of earth. Black beans and elderberries, purple iris petals, and red berries of the sumac tree. The buckthorn berry and pokeweed berry, the wild grape and grape juice, the goldenrod and onion skin. The skin of the red cabbage and the leaf of the spinach—all can be used to create a stain, an ink, a blot. A row of words, a column of characters, a sentence, a thought. We are hammering away at ideas here with stains on vellum and bamboo slips of paper. Laying down tracks in the snow. Like animals. In the dirt. On the mountain. On the cave wall. We want, with coffee and black bean, with the stain of the burnt sumac on the skin of the pine, to be understood. To understand all mysteries.

My grandmother would frequently order hundreds of dollars in iris bulbs from perfect bound catalogues that arrived by parcel post. We planted them in the cold ground. Not once did it occur to us: make ink! In the spring, the irises became striped tigers in her wild green garden guarding edges, the edges of paths startling orange. Walk here, their throats purred, the hum of a tiger, igniting my imagination.

Now, about the inkstone. It is said the inkstone is its own person with a hand and a mouth (a set of lips), a body and edges. The best inkstones were shale stones from the Duan quarry in China. Ancient inkstone handlers selected stones for their color, their skin: veins, texture, translucence—is there a quality of light by which the thinker might see? Has the stone been properly aged in the earth? Has it touched down to the roots of Mother River, known her rooted sorrows? Then, it might be said, the stone has gathered and can give proper wisdom. Such a stone might throw proper light.

The whole world is a Scriptorium: hushed, sacred, holy. The trees and animals with their skins, the berries with their blood ink, the stone and horsehair, the feather and wood, the brush and pinion.

Bamboo, it might be said, is the oldest consort of the library. The ancient Chinese used stalks for brushpens and leaves for paper making. Bamboo, because it grows near our homes and replenishes itself like magic, apart from our bidding. Who knows on what the bamboo feeds to grow at such a rate for surely, the ancients must have said, the bamboo has its secret source. So, we clip and cut its reeds, we strip its leaves and prepare it for pulp and, like magic, it will return.

But before the bamboo, we wielded other instruments for communing with heaven. We trace the brushpen back to ancient caves, our fingers and palms were the first tools, the living instruments to brush the cave's skin. Did anyone dare tell us we must not take up these tools? Even the black raven and the green-feathered kia know how to use tools to get what they want: a worm, a snack, a meal ticket to heaven. I have seen them take in their beaks a twig to reach the worm just beyond reach. No one tells them they cannot take up tools to seek what is rightfully theirs so they might live, really live! And they, being birds, give themselves over easily, naturally, to communing with heaven. They do this daily and without bidding, without prompting, without fear or reluctance I suppose. Dare anyone resist them in their task? Think of the magic in the quill, the brushpen from the dome above earth, a hollow-boned, razor-pointed pen built from the moon, the moon of our very fingernails, infused with the clarion light of heaven.

The ancient tradition of the library omits the most important gift to the newborn thinker: the reader. A scholar-thinker at Harvard today offers a new reading of a narrative painting of the Devadatta chapter scroll of the Lotus Sutra. I say new reading, but it is an idea likely introduced in the 12th century CE by the women of the Heike court in Japan, women well versed in Sui and Tang Chinese doctrinal commentaries. In the painting under interpretation, the old Masters are debating. Buddhahood is not open to women, some said. Others: yes, it is open to women, women and evil persons. While the men seated on a powdery pavilion of clouds bat the ball back and forth, Dragon King's eight-year-old daughter appears. The girl appears as if she has surfaced from the deep like a god or a dragon walking on water, her long black hair coils and writhes, the sleeves of her garment flow like living branches. Offering the men a rather large blue pearl (almost the size of her small head) perched on a gold cushion, she does not speak. The pearl utters its famous utterance: I have attained Enlightenment.

Clearly the girl has not taken pains to transform herself into a male figure, nor has she flown South to be reborn as a male Buddha. She simply stands there, blue pearl in hand. And that is that.

I have said the writing life, this communing with heaven, is an act of war. There are indeed, as Virginia Woolf contends, a thousand other brushpens ready to suggest what I should do and what effect I will have. There are a thousand other brushpens writing my world; there are a thousand other brushpens that do not know the magic in my hands.

I have said there was a girl, two girls actually, with blue pearls in their possession: Dragon Princess and the tiny girl with the green bird. The girl with the green bird is me, or some version of me I have chosen to pen. I believe Dragon Princess existed, too (walked and talked, grew her fingernails, shot up into blue sky like the bamboo). In fact, during the Song Dynasty, she was likely the wisest in the land, boys included. The people may have spoken of her what was spoken of me, "Eight going on forty. Tiny monk. Old soul."

Old men, old Masters sought out her wisdom, this old girl-woman talking story and taking up the four treasures of the library. She did this daily and without bidding, for she had in her possession the audacity of birds! She told the old men the story I am telling you now: if you keep to the green bower, if you keep the green bird on your shoulder, then the lampblack of your ink will never run dry and your thoughts will never cease to throw light.

How do you take old ideas out of circulation? It seems simple: by positing the new. It seems simple, but it is not easy. Woman you may read, but you may not interpret the sacred text or hold a political post. Was this not an untenable position held by the old Masters from the get-go? A woman who reads, after all, is she not also one who interprets? Is she not, already, one who throws light and brandishes a sword? Is history not chockful of such inconsistencies and illogicalities? If we have any sense at all, any wisdom, we double-back on ourselves with a backward glance. Recognizing, oftentimes, only in hindsight the gross gaps in human reason. Illogicalities, it seems, must be pressed to their illogical conclusions before they die a good death.

What if Nung Shu (not Gutenberg) had never invented the printing press that traveled West along the Silk Road? Inventions are invented, the center shifts, the library burns. Do we begin or end with the reader or the text? We are a de-centered set. The loci of the text, an old theologian once taught me, lies somewhere between the reader and the page, the ink and vellum, stone and chalk.

But to be given the chance to get it wrong! Is that not what each one of us desires? To be given the chance to posit a theory—to be studied enough, and bold enough—to put forth a new idea and to get it wrong. After all, has not the library changed? Today's scholar-thinkers grab for disposable pens and yellow legal pads of paper (if we grab for pen and paper at all). The study is not so romantic anymore. But the scholar-thinker, who is she now? What thought might she think? What rock, what boulder, what living stone—if given the chance—might she heft into The Sorrow with all of her might, and might that rock turn the River? For god's sake world, step aside!

Let us walk then as the prophets walked, marking the skin of the earth with our words, marking the bones of the great sea turtle. I do not say prophet in the sense that our words are adding to a sacred canon, or would survive a test of infallibility, but in the sense that some words contain within them a quickening spirit, a yeast that ever rises, a light quicker than lightning. The dough will not refuse its rising.

Must I string my pearl on such a strand? Must I join this story? Of course. The hour is late. The bright green brushpens from my peach-faced lovebird, I will admit, no longer fit my fingers. I will take up new instruments. Let the eagle or the Great Blue Heron come to drop a dozen or so flight feathers to start. The hour is late, and the time draws near. An army of girl-women gather, scholar-thinkers in legion, row upon row upon row like a field of ginseng (bright, sharp, stung), like a field of bees (a quiet hum, a bright stripe, a queen's hive). We are a thousand-acre field, irrigated, a sound mind irrigated at the roots for we've grown along the banks of the Yellow River. We've just come up from the depths of The Sorrow. At last, we've surfaced. Here we are. Who would dare speak against us? Or keep us from our work?

We gather in the Great Library around the canon of letters, the books of history, the endless poetry and prose. History books silked in red (peony, red sun, ruby), literature in the palest of pinks (eggshell, tulle, rosewater), philosophy, the sciences, and theology perfect bound again, together, in hues of blue-green (pine stem, starlight, indigo, iris lip).

Oh, holy of holies. We are, all of us, bowered in the inner room of the inner room. It is green and verdant here, a birdcage without bars or latched doors, or if there is a door, because in fact there is—I see door upon door upon door—all unlatched, kept open by light. It is the light that props them open. In the inner chamber we have gathered. The leaves of the books are an alcove, a deep, leafy shelter with light bouncing and bending, snapping and tinkling like the sound of jade trinkets clacking against one another.

The new Masters gather around the sacred texts—not giving answers, but gathering questions. We are petaled and gathered around the text. Like the Jewish priests of old, we are robed in white with many colors—pomegranates and purples, golds and silvers illuminating our letters and edges and hems. (Our robes once had the power to rub away the tarnish, the taint, so that the light could bounce, bend, play. The light once bounced off of us.) Layers and layers of ground rock and ink are here, on the pages before us, on the shaved skins of trees, on the soft pine bones. We are the living bones of the G-d, the living Temple and Word, reading the world anew.