Inevitably an unusual treasure will show up in an archives that seems to have to no apparent relationship to any of the other materials or even the collection policy of the repository. It is even more challenging when that treasure is written entirely in Chinese. The Cambridge Room Archivist, Alyssa Pacy, found among the rare book collection, an unusual looking book, bound in wooden leaves neatly tied together with string, written in Chinese, a language Pacy is not familiar with to say the least. Fortunately, Pacy was able to consult with Tim Connor, Research Librarian and Chinese Historian at the Cambridge Public Library, who was able to translate the book’s title and author. The book, written by Ko K’ún-hua in 1879, is titled The Hall of Longevity. (According to Conner, Ko K’un-hua is the old-fashioned way of spelling the poet’s name. Today it is spelled Ge Kunhua with Ge being the family name.) Ko donated the privately printed two-volume set to the Cambridge Public Library the year he arrived in Cambridge. The book was most likely the library’s first written in an Asian language.
Connor immediately recognized Ko as the first Chinese instructor at Harvard University and provided Pacy with various resources and articles to learn more about the poet’s life in Cambridge. Ko’s story begins with a group of Boston and Salem business men – all Harvard alumni – engaged in trade with China who wanted their alma mater to offer Chinese language instruction in order to prepare graduates to assist them in their work. Harvard agreed and recruited Ko, who had spent five years working at the British embassy and two years at the American consulate in Shanghai. Although there was some debate around Ko’s credentials and the fact that he was unable to speak English, he arrived in Cambridge with his family in 1879 bringing with him the first books that Harvard had ever owned written in any Asian language. Subsequently Ko’s collection of Chinese books became the beginning of Harvard’s Yenching Library, the largest collection of East Asian books outside Asia.
Ko had only one student his first year at Harvard and despite low enrollment the next, he received much praise in his ability to teach his students, who quickly became conversant in Mandarin. However, his success was not to last – Ko unexpectedly died from pneumonia in his third year of teaching. Harvard paid for his family’s return to China and raised funds for his sons’ education.
Ko was remarkable not only for being the first Chinese professor at Harvard but also for not assimilating into western culture during his brief three-year stay in Cambridge. He could be seen walking through Harvard Square dressed in traditional Chinese clothing – the long, high-necked heavy garments of a scholar-official of the Qing dynasty. The Cambridge Room is very fortunate to have a signed copy of Ko’s book of poetry. It is certainly one of the more unusual treasures in the collection.
Read more about Ko K’ún-hua in the March-April 2008 edition of the Harvard Magazine.