In the eyes of antique collectors, relics from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the last feudal regime in China's 5,000-year history, were considered much less valuable than those from previous periods.
Yet what were snubbed by antique dealers were sought after and treasured by historians, who believed these Qing artefacts would one day be precious testimonies to the passing of history.
One such historian was Tian Jiaying (1922-66) who was, first and foremost, secretary to the late Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976) for 18 years.
In between his busy work, Tian collected about 1,500 pieces of script written by historically important figures in Qing Dynasty. He hoped that one day, with the aid of these first-hand materials, he would write a comprehensive history of the dynasty.
These days, his collection, which has been published in a finely-bound album entitled "Tian Jiaying and the Little Vast Wilderness Study" (Tian Jiaying yu xiao mangcangcang zhai) are drawing interest from sinologists and antique collectors around the country.
Lost and found
The album has aroused great curiosity not only for its scholarly repute.
Chen Lie, 52, Tian's son-in-law and associate research fellow of the Tianjin Museum of History, has many stories to tell about the collection.
Above all, it was once lost, confiscated and taken away in the early months of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), immediately after Tian committed suicide on May 26, 1966. As a historian, Tian seemed to have foreseen the tumult the "cultural revolution" would bring upon the Chinese. It was contradictory to what he had believed and he did not want to live through it.
In 1980, four years after the "cultural revolution" ended, the collection - a whole truck load of scrolls, plates, and manuscripts - was returned to Dong Bian, Tian's widow.
"My hand trembled when I was signing the dozens of pages on the item list," she recalled later.
For behind each one of these hand-written works, lay a story of the people who had produced it in special circumstances and in a time long-gone, as well as the story of the collector who had so painstakingly retrieved them from virtual oblivion and who himself was no more.
The mound of dust-covered heritage surely would make people sense the almost tangible heaviness of history, and of human life.
This highly informative and beautiful album, published by Sanlian Bookstore, conveys just such a sense of heaviness.
When compiling works for the album, Chen Lie tried to give a full account of the stories around some of the main items in the "Little Vast Wilderness Study" collection, illustrated by exquisitely printed original pieces.
Anecdotes about historic personalities and touching episodes that happened to Tian Jiaying, are juxtaposed together.
From a special perspective, readers can catch a glimpse of the ideas, thoughts, and tastes which characterize two radically different ages, as well as the interdependence of one with the other.
Of all the Qing cultural celebrities, Chen said that Tian had the greatest respect for Tan Sitong (1865-98), one of the six reformers executed after the Reform Movement of 1898 failed. A stalwart and noble-minded character, Tan refused to leave China even after he was warned his life was threatened.
Tian borrowed the name for his study from Tan's "Mangcangcang zhai," or "Vast Wilderness Study," placing the word "little" in front as a mark of his respect and to achieve a sense of dramatic contrast.
Mao Zedong had once teased his young secretary, saying that after Tian died, on his tombstone should be engraved: "Here lies a man whose passion was for books."
Chen retrieved from the memories of Tian's old classmates, friends and colleagues anecdotes and stories about his subject, all of which went towards illustrating how Tian was able to accomplish what he did.
Tian was born in 1922 in Chengdu, Southwest China's Sichuan Province, and named Zeng Zhengchang. He adopted the name Tian Jiaying in his early teens, following the convention of that time.
An old classmate recalled that Tian, orphaned at 9 and brought up by his eldest brother, had to sleep in the cramped attic of his family-run pharmacy. The attic doubled as a storehouse.
Lighting a lamp was prohibited in the attic, to prevent the dried herbal medicines from catching fire.
It was by the dim light of a street lamp outside his small window, that Tian devoured one by one the many bulky Chinese literary and historical canons borrowed from one of his classmates' parents.
He began publishing his first essays, works of fiction and poems at the age of 12. At 14, he moved out of his brother's house for good and lodged temporarily in his school.
From the "Communist Manifesto" he read at 14, he caught a glimpse of the path leading to China's emancipation. The next year, in 1937, after Japan announced its all-out act of war against China following the July 7 Incident, together with several other comrades, the thin, puny teenager made the 3,500-kilometre dangerous journey to Yan'an, a remote city in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, where the Communist Party of China had its base.
In 1948, Tian became the then youngest and a very popular history lecturer for cadres in Yan'an. Mao picked the 26-year-old scholar to be his secretary, a position he was to hold for the next 18 years, until the day before he died.
In Mao's literary career Tian played the role of an indispensable assistant. Tian helped Mao build his library as he always found, without delay, the provenance of the little-known quotations Mao might embed in his poems later, or the historical characters Mao might allude to.
As others around Mao recalled, the two chatted for hours about all kinds of things pertaining to traditional knowledge, ranging from the lofty and serious to the trivial and funny, such as what the words printed on mah-jong tiles were supposed to represent.
In the long history of China, many brilliant intellectuals, especially those near the centre of politics, would culminate their scholastic accomplishments by compiling a history of previous eras.
Tian also inherited from them this yearning to write a history. Like his ancient counterparts, he believed the past to be a mirror for the present, and judicious rulers will know how to glean lessons from history.
The Beijing of the 1950s was an ideal workshop for history aficionados to probe into the past. Bookstores selling old tomes and pamphlets abounded in the city. Manuscripts, letters, and notes left by those from the Qing Dynasty could often be found cluttered among the jumble of time-worn books for sale.
During those years, it was Tian's habit to take a walk after supper from Zhongnanhai, headquarters of the Communist Party of China and the central government, to the many used-book markets scattered about the city. Each time he would come back carrying a pile of books whose pages were yellowed and crisp, and occasionally several pieces of calligraphic works drawn during the Qing period. Tian spent almost all his salary and other remunerations he received for published articles on buying such works.
Through his painstaking gathering, the collection of "Little Vast Wilderness Study" quickly accumulated. Before his death, it had extended to a treasury including around 1,500 calligraphic works written in an assortment of forms by 500 or so scholars, artists or officials of the Qing Dynasty.
While the album is receiving critical acclaim, Chen Lie and other members of Tian's family are preparing to place all the originals of Tian's collection under the curatorship of the National Museum.
Tian had reportedly said: "The collection belongs to the people. One day it will be returned to the people."
In line with his expressed wishes, Tian's family has donated more than 100 pieces of script written by famous Qing scholars to the Museum of Chinese History.
In 1991 and 2002, the family held two exhibitions in Beijing and Tianjin featuring some of the best pieces from his collections.
In 1995 and 1999, they published two large albums, "Selected Calligraphic Works of the Scholars in the Qing Dynasty Collected by Little Vast Wilderness Study" I and II, an effort to make the collection accessible for study and appreciation.
According to Tian's daughter, Zeng Zi, the collection will be preserved and exhibited permanently in an exclusive hall in the National Museum - the result of the merger between the Museum of Chinese History and Museum of the Chinese Revolution.
"That will be the best home for them," she said. (China Daily News)