John Lai at Yenching Library

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           By Charles M. LucasJ

The Arlington Advocate, Thursday, April 2, 1981 p.29

For 30 years John Yung-hsiang Lai has helped scholars research information. He beams when Harvard graduate students come to the Yenching Library on Divinity st.,Cambridge, knowing that Associate Librarian Lai will show them sources in their quest to write “A” theses.

The nine-year Arlington resident says, “A library is a treasure of information. It contains records of everything that has ever happened. The librarian lets the public use the treasure. And I enjoy giving assistance to those wanting to acquire knowledge.”

Lai’s bibliophile career began in 1951 at National Taiwan University. [He worked at the Library and] taught library science there for more than two decades. Harvard University, aware of his background and that he understood Chinese, Japanese and English, invited him to the Yenching Library in 1972.

Yenching Library, the largest East Asian University library outside Asia, contains 600,000 books on five floors. The languages of the volumes vary from Chinese, Japanese and Korean to Manchu, Mongolian and Vietnamese.

In a glass case by the entrance’s swinging doors, the library is exhibiting its Chinese language missionary work collection. A geographical history of the United States by the first american missionary to china, Reverend Bridgeman, faces the viewer from the third shelf.

Pages from the first Chinese tract, “The Sermon 0n the Mount,” printed in 1834, reflect on the glass plate above Bridgeman’s compilation. The collection also includes

Christian primers formed in the Chinese three-character model and the original first Chinese translation (1813) of the New Testament.

 Lai says, ‘European missionaries were the first ones who westernized China. They were ambassadors who introduced European civilization to the Orient. Prior to the Opium War (1842), the Chinese government prohibited the distribution of Christian literature. Men like Reverend Morrison of the London Missionary Society, had to publish translated clergical tracts underground.”

After the opening of the ports (1865), missionaries intrduced Taiwan to the Anglo culture. They taught Western traditions and made onverts in Lai’s native country, where five percent of the Taiwanese practice Christianity today. However, since the Communist takeover of China in 1949, all western influence has diminished on the mainland.

Lai adds, “Besides religious tracts, the missionaries also translated volumes of Western works in international law, ethics and psychology,etc. The missionaries gave an overall perspctive of their countries--not just a religious one.”

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions donated a collection of Protestant missionary works in te Orient to the Harvard-Yenching Library at the same time of the Communist takeover of China. Lai compiled a catalog of those 1000 original books, which G.K.Hall and Co.ublished last summer. Lai’s text attracts readers to Yenching because it indexes the largest assortment of oriental works in the romanized style (26 characters), rather than the chinese style which has 50,000 characters.

In addition to writing other library research guides, such as “The New Classification Scheme for Chinese Libraries,” Lai’s inquiries into Taiwan’s past inspired him to compose “Studies of History of Taiwan.”  He leans both elbows on his office desk and elaborates on his classification book. “It shows how to organize library collections. The system that it describes is widely used in libraries throughout Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia.”

Lai studied library science at George Peabody College for Teachers in Tennessee on his first trek to the United States in the late 1950’s. National University of Taiwan’s Library Science Department promoted him to head upon his return home.

Twice during the 1960s he traveled across the Pacific Ocean to resent papers at the American-hosted International Congress of Orientalists and the Library Educational Congress for Developing Countries.

Lai accepted Harvard’s invitation to work at Yenching because he wanted to keep his family together. He explains, “My daughter and two sons planned to live in the States. My wife,Helen, and I didn’t want to stay so far away from tem, so I took Harvard’s offer. Chen-li Lee, my daughter, has followed in my footsteps.” Lai, his smile broadening, declares, “She works at Wilmington’s Avco Systems Library.”

Residing in Cambridge for a year, he moved to Arlington in 1973. Although baptized a Presbyterian in Taiwan, Lai attends Arlington’s Calvary Methodist Church services, explaining, “No Presbyterian churches are close to my house. And considering that Methodists don’t differ much from presbyterians in concept, I started goin to Calvary Methodist.”

He obtaied his American citizen status four years ago. In the meantime he visited Taiwan once for his mother’s funeral. He may go back again, but has made no specific plans.

Last year’s president of the Chinese-American Librarians Association and a current member of the American Library Association, he reflects..The United States is my home and the home of my children. Harvard’s Yenching Library has few peers in size and none in information accessibility and cnvenience. Harvard University’s Library, taken as a hole, has the greatest treasures in the world. In what other place would i want to be?”

The Yenching Library, which was established in 1928, is open Monday through Saturday from 9 10 p.m. One of the oldest books in the library,which carries volumes on many subjects, is a 960 from the Sung Dynasty in China.