Renaissance, China

It is in universities that I am usually overwhelmed by the complete break between India and China. In China universities, learning, invention, are now deemed to be so important that they stand outside firewalls, and several other such compulsions of day-to-day politics. Universities were destroyed within living memory, and had to be built up again. Younger colleagues speak of the difficulty with which their senior colleagues, now a generation which is swiftly passing into history, kept the sciences barely alive. The beginning of Cixin Liu‘s famous science fiction novel, The Three-body Problem, accurately captures what I have heard of about those dark days of the Cultural Revolution. The Renaissance (I capitalize this word with intent; how is it that no one has recognized it yet?) has been planned and executed so thoroughly that it is overwhelming to come in touch with it. It will take me a book to write about it, not a blog.

So it was with some relief that I came on this ordinary sight of a “end-of-year giveaway” of used books in Hefei’s University of Science and Technology of China. It reminded me of my own student days when departing seniors would get rid of all the books that they no longer needed. Like the give-away you see in the featured photo, they were not sales, but places where books would be left out for others to take. I took a closer look at what was on offer. There were good textbooks, but a lot of it was preparatory material for the GRE and SATs. Another clear parallel with India.

The university of Coimbra

I’d booked our flat in Coimbra by the map: it was close to the railway station and very close to the university and the cathedral. What I hadn’t realized that the distance was mostly steep uphill.

Eaination hall in the university of CoimbraThe other thing that we realized only after reaching Coimbra is that the most important thing in the town is the university. It stands much higher up the hill even than the cathedral! The featured image in the post is a panorama taken from the top level of the university building, not the tower. And you can clearly see that the cathedral is far below.

Ceiling of the hall of exaination in the university of CoimbraThe hierarchy is clear even inside. The Great Hall of Acts in the university (photo above) is where important oral examinations are taken, for example the examination for a doctoral degree. It is lined with portraits of the kings, and details of who made the paintings, who did the woodwork, etc, are all recorded. The great importance given to learning is even visible in the coat of arms which is in the thumbnail picture above.

Chapel in the  university of CoimbraWe had to decide on what tour to take inside the university, and opted to go everywhere in the main building except climb the tower. It is also possible to take a longer tour which includes the Royal Palace, the Natural History Museum and the Old Physics Laboratories. These are supposed to be worth seeing, but we were a little short of time. After the hall we visited the chapel of St. Michael. This bright and very ornate room comes with azelujos, of course. The large organ is decorated in what is called the "Chinese style". This turned out to be largely because scenes from China are painted in gold on it.

The library of the university of CoimbraThe high point of this tour is supposed to be the Baroque Library. Since the number of people in the library is strictly controlled, you are given an entry time when you buy the ticket. We queued up to enter the grand room. We thought it was baroque, but not very large. It would be right at home in a movie with a teenaged magician looking for old spells. The press of people included a guided tour which took up the center of the small room, leaving the rest of us quite constrained. We walked around as best as we could, but it was not really possible to figure out which books were on the shelf. It was not the sort of place where I could have done much reading: it was too dark and ornate.

Don Quixoite, early edition, university of CoimbraWe escaped to the middle level, which had the hushed and clean book-lined atmosphere of a modern library. It seems that most books were actually stored here, and were taken upstairs only on request. This is what we call "closed shelf" today. Some of their more remarkable holdings were on display. In honour of Cervantes, who died exactly 400 years ago, several copies of his books were on display. I saw a book by Cervantes published in 1617, but it was not a book I knew. The oldest edition of Don Quixote which I spotted is from 1744 (see photo) . It is interesting that this edition was published 139 years after the first edition. Don Quixote still has a score of 3.8/5 on Goodreads. That is something!

A cademic prison, university of CoimbraAnother level down a little gift shop softens your entry to the only university dungeon in the world. Unseemly behaviour in the library, or disrespect shown to teachers and learning could land you here once upon a time. I’m sure the place was damp, cold, and dark. There was little you could have done in there except to jangle your chains or meditate upon ways of making sure that you were not incarcerated again. I wonder why they gave up the practice. Like much that is modern in Portugal, I’m sure that an answer would lead back to the late 18th century and Marquez de Pombal.