The Long White Mountain, or, A journey in Manchuria – H.E.M. James

20140515_002426Okay, so the complete title of this hefty volume (which would function perfectly as the proverbial ‘blunt object’ in a different setting -with Mrs. White, Mr. Green, Mrs. Peacock, Professor Plum, Miss Scarlet and Colonel Mustard in the library for instance) is this: The Long White Mountain, or, A journey in Manchuria with some account of the history, people, administration and relgion of that country. Bloody hell, I’m quite sure this would never fit in the average search box on digital library catalogue pages. Anyway, this is a book like a book is supposed to be. Was supposed to be, I guess, because no-one today would publish 500 pages (thick paper also, almost impossible to fold) on Changbai-shan or Paektu-san and expect to make a profit. This is the kind of tome (how I love that word) that could only have been written by erudite Victorian gentlemen with impeccable educational and social backgrounds, eminently at home in any situation, unperturbed by anything nature (or those nasty natives) might throw at them and funded by the surpluses of illegally (let’s face it) and certainly immorally gotten gains of one (or more) of the British Empire’s colonial projects. H.E.M. James (Sir Henry Evan Murchison James, to be complete) could have been a character in an Agatha Christie novel (and perhaps he was, I don’t know. The Miss Marple TV-series was sufficiently traumatic for me never to open an Agatha Christie novel) or should perhaps have been drinking tea with Mrs. White and Colonal Mustard in the library, but in real life (to the extent that playing the colonial master may be called ‘real life’) he was part of the Indian Civil Service.

From 1886 to 1887 he took a a two-year leave (just imagine trying that now without first obtaining loads of immorally gotten gains) to travel to China with the now legendary explorer-cum-invader-of-Tibet Francis Younghusband and the diplomat Harry English Fulford. He reached the Changbai Mountains, or Paektu-san from a Koreaphone perspective, and profited much from Fulford’s linguistic expertise (who spoke Chinese) and presumably also from Younghusband’s scientific measurements that proved Paektu-san to be only 8,000 feet high (it had been thought to have been higher) when he published The Long White Mountain in 1888. Yes, that’s right. Henry Evan Murchison James may sound like he belongs in a game of Cluedo, but by God, the man wrote fast. The book was used as basic reference material for a century. Which says something about the quality of the book of course, but probably more about the inability of too many scholars to read works in at least one of the relevant languages when researching Manchuria (Chinese, Manchu, Korean, Russian, Japanese to name the most important). 

My copy once belonged to the Public Library of the city of Lawrence and could be found on Shelf No. D682 (Reg. No 24011). The library’s inserts and stamps still grace the book. The horror, the horror! I can hear bibliophiles scream and cry, but although I love books, I am no bibliophile. I like to see some history of being read in books. I like the stamps, the registration card and the shelf number in this book. It would have been even better if an anonymous reader from the past had scribbled notes in the margins, but alas, one cannot have everything. 

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