Dizi Gui (弟子规) (Standards for Being a Good Student and Child) is an ancient Chinese text for children that teaches moral values and proper etiquette. It was written during the Qing Dynasty during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (康熙帝) (1661-1722) by Li Yuxiu.
Beneath the conservative, “old-school” verbose of this ancient classic, one can still find gems of wisdom that remain surprisingly relevant to our modern society. A new lesson is covered in each issue.
Books should be classified, placed on the bookshelves, and in their proper places. After finishing a book, put it back where it belongs.
Even if I am in a hurry, I must neatly roll up and bind the open bamboo scroll I have been reading. All missing or damaged pages must be immediately repaired.
From a young age, my parents fostered a love for books in my siblings and I. We looked forward to the weekly excursions to the Queenstown National Library, where we would borrow as many books as we could.
I remember clearly that—stamped on the inside covers of the library books—would always be the words, “Please be gentle with me, I am only a book”. And there’d always be a reflexive twinge of regret when I came across library books that were ripped, torn, or damaged.
Taking care of books remains a significant part of Asian cultures. Since young, we were taught to handle books with care—wrapping up new books in plastic sheets, cleaning them when the covers got mouldy from the humid climate, and sticking loose pages back with clear tape.
And this particular value dates thousands of years. The ancient Chinese text, Dizi Gui, contains some rules on how to treat books:
“Books should be classified, placed on the bookshelves, and in their proper places. After finishing a book, put it back where it belongs.
“Even if I am in a hurry, I must neatly roll up and bind the open bamboo scroll I have been reading. All missing or damaged pages must be immediately repaired.”
The Frugal Historian
The great Chinese historian Sima Guang (司马光) (1019–1086) lived during the Song Dynasty, and is the author of Zizhi Tongjian(资治通鉴)(Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance), one of China’s most valued records of Chinese history.
Sima Guang was known for emphasising respect and care for books, a value that he imbued in his son Sima Kang.
During his epic 19-year project of writing Zizhi Tongjian, Sima Guang enlisted the help of several historians and his son, Sima Kang.
But Sima Guang became very upset when he saw how his son handled books—including picking up and flipping pages with his fingernails, leaving creases on the paper.
He seriously sat his son down and systematically taught him his methods of taking care of books: Make sure the desk is cleaned and draped before putting books on it. Turn pages by lifting the page corner with the fleshy part of the thumb and index finger. When the weather is good, make sure to sun your books regularly to get rid of any mould or dampness.
He emphasised that just as businessmen value money, scholars should value and look after their books.
Part of the reason why Sima Guang took such great care of his books was because he was thrifty by nature, and books were not cheap. Taking proper care of the books would ensure that they lasted for a lifetime.
The second reason was respect for books, as they provided knowledge and wisdom. Books were a scholar’s greatest treasure and asset in furthering his knowledge and moral character.
Furthermore, a person who treated books disrespectfully was displaying arrogance and disrespect of the past scholars and wise men who produced the content of the books.
Sima Guang took such good care of his library collection that, even after decades of use, his books remained as good as new. Under his careful tutelage, his son Sima Kang too became a successful scholar and head of secretaries for the state.