The Han-era chronicler Ssu-ma Ch’ien, in his Records of the Grand Historian, recounted the considerable lengths to which unified China’s first emperor, Ch’in Shin Huang Ti, was willing to go to silence criticism of his nascent dynasty and its ruling Legalist ideology. It was in 213 B.C., we are told, that the First Emperor held a sumptuous banquet in his palace at Xianyang, and during these festivities an erudite by the name of Shun-yü Yüeh had the gall to provide some commonsensical but wholly unsolicited advice to his ruler: “In no matter have I heard of anyone being able to endure long without taking the past as his teacher.” The First Emperor’s prime minister, Li Ssu, responded waspishly to what he perceived as Shun-yü Yüeh’s lèse-majesté: “Men of letters do not model themselves on the present but study the past in order to denigrate the present age. Doing so, they sow alarm and doubt among the dark heads [commoners].” If the “sayings of former kings” were going to be used to challenge the fundamentally ahistorical Ch’in dynasty, the prime minister was just then realizing, something had to be done. The past itself would have to go.
The destruction of books may begin as mere cultural vandalism, but can rise to the level of cultural genocide.
Li Ssu promptly proposed to his imperial master that “all the annals in the office of the scribe except the annals of the Ch’in be burned,” and that “whoever in the world dares keep the Shih, the Shu, and the Sayings of the Hundred Persons [Pai Chia Yü] shall all proceed to the grand administrator and have them burned indiscriminately.” Heinrich Heine, in his 1820 play Almansor, famously warned us that “wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen,” or “where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people,” but Ch’in Shin Huang Ti was far more efficient, willing as he was to burn books and break bodies simultaneously. “Those who dare to criticize the present by means of the past,” Li Ssu’s edict declared, “shall be executed along with their families,” while anyone found to be in possession of contraband history books or didactic literature “shall be tattooed and sentenced to become wall-builders.”
Soon the bonfires were shooting up, and though the Tang-era poet Zhang Jie, in his poem “Pits for Book-Burning [Fen Shu Keng],” later lamented that “as the smoke from burning bamboo and silk clears, the empire is weakened,” neither the First Emperor nor Li Ssu would have agreed. As the Sinologist Jens Østergaard Petersen remarked,
the insistence that in order to rule one must subordinate oneself to men who are wiser than oneself is not usually well received by those in power, and here we have the extra irritating comparison with the times of the Former Kings — no matter how extensive one’s world powers are, hindering ghosts like these from the past from interfering in one’s affairs is well-nigh impossible, hence desperate moves like the burning of the books.
Libricide had in fact only whetted the imperial appetite for cultural destruction, and so the following year, after an investigation by the imperial censor revealed widespread thoughtcrimes, some 460 scholars were buried alive at Xianyang, thereby fashioning a grotesque counterpart to the First Emperor’s Terracotta Army interred under Mount Li. History and philosophy, along with historians and philosophers, all became, in Petersen’s words, “the target of the Ch’in … because the fables they told about wise men of the past were used to criticize the brutal present of the Ch’in regime.” And as we all know from Orwell, “who controls the past controls the future,” and “who controls the present controls the past.”
The Ch’in did not invent the abolitio memoriae — Akhenaten of Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty can lay claim to that distinction, incinerating as he did any religious text that contradicted his monolatristic worship of the Egyptian sun. But Chinese history would forever be particularly marked, defined even, by the libricidal and cultural genocidal campaigns carried out by the First Emperor. “We find repeatedly,” writes Wu Guangqing, “that no sooner was a national collection built up than it was partly destroyed or scattered, only to be recovered and restored in the succeeding dynasties, although in the process many works were lost beyond hope of recovery.” A mere seven years after the Ch’in bonfires, the Overlord of Western Chu set the city of Xianyang ablaze, and the fire, which reportedly lasted three entire months, managed to consume most of what the First Emperor himself had failed to destroy. When the usurper Wang Mang looted Chang’an in 23 B.C., it was thought that 13,269 juan (scrolls or fascicles) were lost forever. In 554 A.D., the beleaguered emperor Yüan-ti threw an astounding 140,000 juan onto a pyre while ranting and raving that “civil and military culture will disappear this night.”
He didn’t quite succeed, but the losses only mounted over the centuries, culminating with the Anglo-French sack of the Old Summer Palace in 1860, which ravaged a library specially designed to hold the Ssu-k’u Ch’üan-shu, the renowned Totality of Books; some 168,000 volumes disappeared that day. Mao’s Cultural Revolution went on to systematically target public, academic, and private libraries, and even as recently as December 2019 a library in the north-central Gansu province was burning books as part of a “quick and comprehensive” program of “filtering” books deemed to be “illegal.” It is little wonder that while the Chinese word for a public library is tushuguan, referring generally to texts and maps, the word for a private library is, revealingly, cangshu, “to hide the works.” And it is equally little wonder that the eminently civilized Ming-era essayist Li Zhi drolly entitled his two greatest collections A Book to Burn and A Book to Keep Hidden.
While the Ch’in’s macabre living inhumation of hundreds of scholars in a sort of grim chthonic rite is undoubtedly disturbing to our sensibilities, there has always been something equally taboo about the accidental or intentional burning of books, hence the proliferation of works on the subject that occupy pride of place on my own shelves, including Fernando Báez’s A Universal History of the Destruction of Books, Rebecca Knuth’s Libricide, and Lucien Polastron’s Books on Fire, among others. The medieval English bibliophile Richard de Bury once prayed that the “Almighty Author and Lover of Peace” might “scatter the nations that delight in war, which is above all a plague injurious for books … so many shrines of eternal truth.”
The destruction of books may begin as mere cultural vandalism, but can rise to the level of cultural genocide, as was the case when, to take but one notorious example, Diego de Landa ordered the incremation of precious Mayan codices during an auto-da-fé held in Maní, Yucatán, in the summer of 1562. Modern total war has only exacerbated this risk. The Prussian sack of Strasbourg in 1870 resulted in the destruction of the city library, with its 400,000 volumes, alongside the devastation of the Molsheim Charterhouse, with its priceless collection of medieval manuscripts. True to form, the Teutonic invaders would similarly perpetrate the “Holocaust of Louvain” in 1914, which wrecked the 14th-century University Hall and the 18th-century library wing, wiping out 300,000 books and a further 1,000 irreplaceable manuscripts in the process.
We are all familiar with the Nazi book-burnings of the 1930s, the Säuberung or “cleansing” by fire that was directed at books written by Jewish, decadent, or dissident authors; we are perhaps less familiar with almost identical Soviet campaigns, including those in the Trans-Baikal territory, where entire Buddhist libraries were obliterated, with precious Kanjur manuscripts sent to pulp-mills while sacred woodblocks were fed into the iconoclastic bonfires of a brutal Soviet anti-religious purge. In Birobidzhan, Jewish libraries were likewise set alight, causing the poet Chaim Beyder to observe
With what anguish those Yiddish books burned
And trembled in the smoke’s stationary vortex,
Their very pages upturned
Like lifted limbs
Writhing in pain amid the flames.
Pol Pot, for his part, “declared war on paper,” as Lucien Polastron phrased it, eliminating the use of paper money and declaring that the mere possession of a photograph was a capital offense. The National Library in Phnom Penh was mercilessly sacked, a scene described vividly by Bernard Hamel in De sang et de larmes: la grande déportation du Cambodge: “in the courtyard was a mountain of burned paper from which protruded partially consumed red, green, or white bindings. Torn-out pages were strewn on the stairs and across the floors of different rooms. The precious documents that scholars from all over the world came to consult had been trampled, soaked by the rain that had fallen during the previous days, spattered with mud, and torn in pieces. They now lay scattered in the gardens and in the street running past the front of the building,” while the Buddhist Institute, with its 700,000 of Khmer and Pali manuscripts and documents, some written on delicate latania leaves, was also subjected to a communist auto-da-fé. Alexander Pope summed it all up in his mock-epic poem “The Dunciad”:
Heavens! what a pile! whole ages perish there,
And one bright blaze turns learning into air.
“Today, people do not burn books,” states the preface to one edition of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, that dystopian account of a future in which “firemen” are tasked with eradicating the printed word. In fact books are still being burned, literally and metaphorically, for reasons that Bradbury made clear: “It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.” Modern society loves change, and loves to see the past is eaten away as if by termites. There are a great many among us who would agree with Li Ssu that the study of the past can only denigrate the present, and can only confuse the masses who might even notice that technological progress is not even remotely the same as intellectual, aesthetic, or moral progress. All the same, book-burning itself may soon be considered rather outré, and not because we are see the folly of eradicating the past, but rather because it is no longer strictly speaking necessary.
The move away from physical and towards digital media has its advantages — I can find more material in 15 minutes on JSTOR than I could in an afternoon wandering the library stacks, though in doing so I miss out on the pleasures of rustling through bound periodical collections while breathing in the vanillin and amandine scents released by the lignin and benzaldehyde present in those musky old volumes. Yet there is a far more serious downside to the digitization of formerly analog materials that now presents itself. Joan Donovan, writing in the MIT Technology Review, recently sounded the alarm that “Covid hoaxes are using a loophole to stay alive — even after content is deleted.“ By “using a loophole,” Donovan actually means that it is still possible to access censored and deleted content via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. “Perhaps the most alarming element to a researcher like me,” Donovan continued, “is that these harmful conspiracies permeate private pages and groups on Facebook. This means researchers have access to less than 2% of the interaction data, and that health misinformation circulates in spaces where journalists, independent researchers, and public health advocates cannot assess it or counterbalance these false claims with facts.” Her conclusion, naturally, is that “the Internet Archive will soon have to address how its service can be adapted to deal with disinformation.”
In other words, content deleted from platforms like YouTube or Medium must not even be archived in the Wayback Machine. When YouTube takes down videos of a press conference held by Bakersfield, California, doctors Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi — on the absurd grounds that their opposition to ongoing lockdowns could disrupt “the efficacy of local healthy [sic] authority recommended guidance on social distancing that may lead others to act against that guidance” — we think of the video as having been “memory-holed,” but there are ways in which such videos can still be accessed, and this is a serious predicament for our modern-day “firemen.” It is clear that the Overton window is now being shifted to include editing the Wayback Machine so as to eliminate, once and for all, “harmful conspiracies” and “disinformation.” What once required a bonfire or a bomb will be effectuated with the simple click of a mouse. The ongoing pandemic has certainly been a boon to the technocratic dystopianists and oligarchical collectivists, hasn’t it? We have pandemic drones and immunity certificates in the offing, we have the Constitution being shredded on a daily basis (drive-through burgers are fine, as long the beef supply holds out, but no drive-through communion), we have state governors tweeting about wonderful Amazon hiring opportunities while small businesses founder en masse, so why not throw in some old-fashioned Chinese-style censorship into the mix? We can’t have people sowing “alarm and doubt among the commoners,” after all.
The dystopias imagined by Bradbury and Orwell had the advantages of at least being competent. Our own Thought Police are, in truth, more of the Kafkaesque variety.
We are accustomed to thinking of modernity’s attempts to efface the past as being Orwellian. Big Brother’s agents did whisper “stories of a terrible book, a compendium of all the heresies, of which Goldstein was the author, and which circulated clandestinely here and there,” and therefore made possession of that book a crime. Oceania’s Thought Police wanted free-thinking heretics to be “at our mercy, screaming with pain, broken up, contemptible — and in the end utterly penitent, saved from himself, crawling to our feet of his own accord,” and the only way to do this was to recast ignorance as a kind of strength. But the dystopias imagined by Bradbury and Orwell had the advantages of at least being competent. Our own Thought Police are, in truth, more of the Kafkaesque variety. The sense of impending danger is there, alongside the surreal distortions of historical truth and the bewildering complexities inherent in modern bureaucratic life, but there is an astounding pomposity present as well, mixed with the kind of sheer incompetence and ineptitude that has been increasingly on display for all to see. This is the real reason that the Wayback Machine must be edited, the real reason that American history must be rewritten by Howard Zinn, the 1619 Project, et al. It is better for the oligarchical collectivists of our day to have nothing against which they can be measured and found wanting.
Remember, as Chesterton observed, “the modern world seems to have no notion of preserving different things side by side, of allowing its proper and proportionate place to each, of saving the whole varied heritage of culture. It has no notion except that of simplifying something by destroying nearly everything.” Better to eradicate the past, eliminating what is tried and tested, than to hazard a confrontation in the marketplace of ideas. The risk is that everything will be destroyed in the process, but to the cultural vandal that is no risk at all. I am reminded of the story of the Indian Brahmin and gymnosophist Calanus, who warned the invading, quasi-genocidal Macedonians, who had just burned city after city while hanging Indian holy men left and right, that
In olden times the world was full of barley-meal and wheaten-meal, as now of dust; and fountains then flowed, some with water, others with milk and likewise with honey, and others with wine, and some with olive oil; but, by reason of his gluttony and luxury, man fell into arrogance beyond bounds. But Zeus, hating this state of things, destroyed everything and appointed for man a life of toil. And when self-control and the other virtues in general reappeared, there came again an abundance of blessings. But the condition of man is already close to satiety and arrogance, and there is danger of destruction of everything in existence.
That is the danger that now presents itself, with only a certain amount of literary exaggeration. Calanus, it is worth noting, felt obliged to self-immolate in full view of Alexander’s host. Perhaps the thoughts that came to him in those final moments mirrored those of Peter Kien, protagonist of Elias Canetti’s 1935 novel Auto-da-Fé, who perished in a fire when his massive library was set ablaze: “When the flames reached him at last, he laughed out loud, louder than he had ever laughed in all his life.” We simply don’t know, for history does not record Calanus’ last words. “History does not record” — perhaps we should get used to that phrase, should the imperial censors of our own epoch have their way. In the meantime, we can at least tend to our own private libraries, our cangshu, where we “hide the works” from those petty tyrants and iconoclasts who would, it seems, be content to see culture disappear in the span of a single night.