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A Great Cloud of Witnesses

Yes, I was an English major. In publishing, that’s so common that it’s embarrassing, and I have encouraged my kids to major in anything else — preferably in a science. “You can read great literature on your own,” I say, “but you probably won’t learn chemistry or physics.” And I have become a huge advocate of scientific and economic literacy — you might see my publishing activities as trying to fill in the multitudinous gaps in my own education. But I appreciate a literary education, too, and you will see how it gave me a way to think about one important aspect of the Encyclopedia of China in this bit from the introduction:

This Encyclopedia of China is not solely the creation of those whose names you see on its pages. It has been inspired and spurred by many others: “a great cloud of witnesses.” Trying to explain how this publication fits into the history of Western study of China, that phrase popped into my Western-literature-trained mind. It comes from the New Testament of the Bible, Letter to the Hebrews (12:1), and is addressed as a rallying cry to a group of converts thought to be in danger of reverting to Judaism: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and . . . so easily entangles and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”

The author meant to reassure his readers that they were not alone; that even those who were not present with them constituted part of their community. The imagery, as translated from the Greek, suggests an athletic contest in a great amphitheater (“run with perseverance”). Many of those involved in the Encyclopedia of China are convinced that through scholarly cooperation—which, like running a race, can be as arduous as it is exhilarating—we can bridge differences, create new understanding, and build a better world and future for children in China, Western nations, and around the world.

My sense that there has been “a great cloud of witnesses” involved in this endeavor extends beyond that theme. There were scholars who did not say “yes” when invited to contribute to this encyclopedia, and some made it plain that they did not believe that this work could be done. I am deeply grateful to those who joined our venture, but I am also grateful to those who said “no.” Their skepticism goaded me, and sometimes brought a laugh and renewed enthusiasm. One of my colleagues passed on the remark of a Chinese scholar who said that he hadn’t thought such a project was possible, “But somebody has the nerve to try. Best wishes to them.”

Encouragement came as word of the project spread (and as Berkshire began to publish other, smaller China-related books and a monthly newsletter, Guanxi: The China Letter). An e-mail from an eminent historian I kept before me during some of the most challenging months read, “Yours is a worthy cause. The world does need to know more about China. The Chinese are not all that good about telling foreigners about themselves, so an outside publisher is the best thing for them. All the best. Wang Gungwu.”

And a sense of cooperation was evident at the end, too, coming from some of China’s leading young social networking entrepreneurs. They worked with us to decide on the correct translation for the title and subtitle, Berkshire Encyclopedia of China: Modern and Historic Views of the World’s Newest and Oldest Global Power 宝库山中华全书 跨越历史和现代 审视最新和最古老的全球大国, and also helped to rename Berkshire itself (in Chinese) as 宝库山 (bǎo kù shān), which means something like Treasure Mountain Reference Books. There were a dozen people, most of them in China, involved in this translation, including the volunteers at a company that translates English-language blogs into Chinese. In the course of the discussion, our friend Isaac Mao (who had recently visited us in Great Barrington, a small town nestled in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, and thus added the “mountain” to our company name) wrote that this was a great example of “crow wisdom.” He meant to type “crowd,” but our American editor Mary Bagg thought at first that he was alluding to a Native American tradition—which wouldn’t have been surprising, given the rich diversity of our international exchanges.

Click here for the introduction in full.

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