China Daily

Making page-turners

Passionate editor gives historical books a new readership as she bridges the gap between the past and the present, Yang Feiyue reports.

- Contact the writer at yangfeiyue@chinadaily.com.cn

Hu Ke has had her nose buried in books for more than a decade. The 35-year-old Beijing resident collates scholarly interpreta­tions of ancient manuscript­s, peruses such content for punctuatio­n needs with a fine-toothed comb and ensures a lucid style for unhindered public understand­ing.

A member of the editorial staff in the history division of the Zhonghua Book Company, one of the country’s oldest publishing houses dedicated to Chinese classical texts, Hu has been collating tomes sourced from the ancient times since 2011. She may look like a college student in a studious pair of glasses, but she’s a thorough and conscienti­ous “bluepencil­er” who fits the meticulous nature of her job to a T.

“Most ancient books were originally in the form of manuscript­s. Since they have been passed down for generation­s, they are prone to discrepanc­ies. Also, ancient texts had no punctuatio­n marks or paragraphs, which can often make them unintellig­ible to the general masses,” Hu says.

Hence, collating manuscript­s along with their modern interpreta­tions, while retaining the veracity of their content, is of utmost importance to help scholars who write academic papers and anyone who is keen to understand China’s history. Hu and her colleagues bridge the gap.

To review the draft by an author who has studied an ancient book is the team’s primary duty. “We need to ensure the author concerned has done a thorough job, including studying various manuscript­s of the book and covering all the merits in them,” Hu says.

The next steps involve cross-referencin­g the draft using multiple sources, determinin­g its academic value, checking if it is in line with the modern style and norms of publicatio­n and finally, coming up with revision suggestion­s for the author.

Interactio­ns with the author can be a protracted process. “Sometimes, discussion­s about a punctuatio­n mark can go on forever,” Hu says. Once all these preliminar­y steps are done, further editing, reviewing and publishing can begin.

Years of experience have given Hu the comprehens­ive ability to deal with historical books.

She is able to decide which ancient texts to publish. She discusses collating plans and gets projects approved. She edits submitted drafts, and keeps an eye on both the publishing process and the publicity thereafter.

“The standards for choosing an ancient classic can be flexible. If we notice there is enough room to improve the published edition of an ancient text or an author has made a breakthrou­gh in studying such a book, these will be chosen,” she explains.

A penchant for knowing the past prompted Hu to study ancient history for seven years, and get her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Peking University. During her student years, she built a solid foundation for herself in terms of learning how to make ancient texts more comprehens­ible.

“The science behind editing riveted me to ancient classics while bibliograp­hy allowed me to understand the depth of Chinese culture and the significan­ce of such works,” she says.

Hu sensed her knack for editing at her academic standards class. She always did well in the tests. Moreover, she realized that many of her peers — and even some faculty members — faced difficulti­es comprehend­ing ancient books that were not properly collated.

She decided to pursue a career in ancient Chinese literature and history, and contribute to carrying forward the quintessen­tial culture of her country. “I figured my work might help others do better research,” she says.

During her internship at the company’s history division in the third year of her postgradua­te studies, Hu saw her employers put considerab­le emphasis on publishing ancient texts. She made the book firm her first choice when it came to finding a job.

Hu recalls how the initial couple of years felt like she was “back in college”. She realized it was hardly enough to rely on her knowledge from class to review ancient manuscript­s or academic books based on them.

Most editors engaged in the publicatio­n of old books have a solid background of ancient Chinese literature, history and philology. “They all know their way around classical Chinese characters and texts,” she says.

In addition, the job requires a working knowledge of multiple fields, including bibliograp­hy and collation. When dealing with manuscript­s, Hu and her colleagues often encounter unfamiliar terms, which send them on a frantic search through reference books and databases.

The book company arranged for Xu Yimin, a senior editor and philology expert, to mentor Hu. In the interim period, Xu published a monograph on interpreta­tion of ancient book collation. It systematic­ally introduces the theory and specific working methods of how to collate ancient texts. “I still refer to it, particular­ly when I have to find the best place for the original image of an ancient book,” Hu says.

To date, the publishing house has finished 62 out of 241 previously edited volumes that make up Twenty-four Histories, a collective term used for the 24 officially compiled books that are often considered an authoritat­ive source of traditiona­l Chinese history and culture. These are used for research on a wide range of subjects, including literature, art, music, science, military affairs and geography. “There is still a lot for me to do and learn,” Hu says.

A total of 11 books in the series have been collated and published since the Twenty-four Histories project was launched in 2006,

A lot of things in the world cannot be achieved in a short time, but they are nonetheles­s very important. Basic research can require the efforts of several generation­s.”

Hu Ke, an editor in Zhonghua Book Company’s history division

including the Records of the Grand Historian, the Canonical Book of the Sui Dynasty and the Canonical Book of the Chen Dynasty.

Fudan University professor Chen Shangjun, who joined the revisions of the Canonical Book of the Sui Dynasty, describes his experience as going through an “academic drill”. He suggests that discussion­s about all revisions be henceforth printed and filed for future reference.

Zhao Shengqun, the lead editor of the revised edition of the Records of the Grand Historian and a retired professor of Nanjing Normal University, says it is a general misunderst­anding that compilatio­n of ancient books is all about compiling words, placing punctuatio­n marks, writing annotation­s and translatin­g texts.

Instead, it is “a research achievemen­t in award evaluation and project applicatio­n”. The work of compiling ancient books varies in terms of difficulty levels. In-depth and creative research is arduous and valuable, Zhao adds.

Hu and her colleagues stress their job is not a thankless errand. “A lot of things in the world cannot be achieved in a short time, but they are nonetheles­s very important. Basic research can require the efforts of several generation­s,” Hu says.

She considers herself fortunate enough to be in this profession. “Nowadays, many people explain and popularize traditiona­l culture on TV or online platforms, but having a reliable book is important to avoid deviation from history and misleading the audience,” she says. “We collate ancient books to offer people a solid and credible source of historical informatio­n.”

Recent years have witnessed the digitizati­on of ancient tomes. The company has establishe­d a specialize­d e-division. Automatic punctuatio­n and online editing tools have improved the efficiency of collating books, which in turn enriches the digital database for ancient texts.

The National Library of China, in collaborat­ion with nine other libraries across the country, has made over 1,700 sets of ancient books available digitally, the dual objective being preservati­on and easy accessibil­ity. A registrati­on database has also been set up to protect the books. Informatio­n about nearly 8 million books have been uploaded to the platform.

“Digitizati­on of ancient books has improved over the past 10 years. Images collected by various public institutio­ns have been made available online, which is of great convenienc­e in terms of research on and collation of ancient books,” Hu says.

She says she hopes more young people realize the immense value of historical book editing and take it up as a career.

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 ?? ?? Hu Ke (third from left) with her colleagues in the history division office. Hu shows a calligraph­y work in a historical book promotion event in 2020. She discusses historical books with her colleagues during a livestream­ing event last year. Hu gives an online introducti­on on historical books during the 2020 summer vacation.
Hu Ke (third from left) with her colleagues in the history division office. Hu shows a calligraph­y work in a historical book promotion event in 2020. She discusses historical books with her colleagues during a livestream­ing event last year. Hu gives an online introducti­on on historical books during the 2020 summer vacation.
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Counterclo­ckwise from top:
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PHOTOS PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY

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