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Understanding the Myth of Widener’s Chinese Proverbs
Shao Wei Chew Chia and the book that inspired her thesis

An enthusiastic crowd of library staff gathered in Widener on May 4 to listen to Shao Wei Chew Chia ’17 and her academic advisor Suzanne Smith discuss Shao Wei’s senior thesis research on a topic of special interest to Harvard Library. The discussion brought together staff from Harvard-Yenching, Houghton, the Archives, Preservation Services, Lamont and Widener.

Shao Wei Chew Chia will graduate from Harvard this May with concentrations in history and literature and anthropology. Her senior thesis explores the myth of Chinese proverbs in Widener. Harvard Library’s Ask A Librarian answer on this topic has been viewed more than 176,000 times, and Robert Darnton’s Wall Street Journal op-ed from 2012 discusses the strength of this myth. Shao Wei uses as a primary source for her research a best-selling book from 2008 by Danny Feng titled Allocutions on the Wall of the Harvard University Library and explores the concept of secular pilgrimage. As Shao Wei described, although the book is fiction, its claims were accepted as fact by many in China, bringing fame and financial gain to its author.

Suzanne Smith, a lecturer in the Committee on Degrees in History and Literature and the director of the Center for Writing and Communicating Ideas, discussed the process of serving as Shao Wei’s academic advisor. She described the intellectual journey of narrowing Shao Wei’s research topic and the various theoretical constructs they considered through the research process. She provided suggestions for effective library outreach to sophomores and juniors as they explore their research interests.

Shao Wei described the series of conversations she had with library staff as she delved deeper into the myth of the proverbs. Several library staff reminisced about moments when their conversations with Shao Wei helped her to find primary sources and contextualize her work. Suzanne described how Shao Wei has unearthed new scholarship on this topic, breaking new ground by finding primary source materials in English- and Chinese-language publications. Barbara Meloni, public services archivist, described how the Archives has looked repeatedly without finding any evidence of engraved proverbs.

Laura Farwell Blake, Head of Services for Academic Programs, reflected, “Harvard as a locus of secular pilgrimage is a familiar concept for all of us who see the many visitors who share the Yard with us. This view of a specific mythology with its home in Widener was a marvelous thesis topic and Shao Wei has created a new piece of scholarship that I so appreciate.”

Cheryl LaGuardia, research librarian at Widener Library, commented, “It was a real pleasure to hear about the research, the process, and how the library contributed to the project.”

Anu Vedantham, Director of Learning and Teaching Services for the FAS Libraries, observed, “At Harvard Library, we help undergraduate students with thesis research all the time. It’s a rare moment when an undergraduate chooses a research topic close to the history of our libraries.”

 In addition to this presentation for library staff, Shao Wei has shared her work at Widener as part of Junior Family Weekend in February 2017.

By Anu Vedantham, Director of Learning and Teaching Services for the FAS Libraries

Published on May 10, 2017.