In Memoriam: Anthony Yu 余國藩

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Anthony C Yu was Carl Darling Buck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Humanities at The University of Chicago. In his work he sought to reinterpret classical Chinese narratives and poetry in light of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. He is noted for his masterful four-volume translation of Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West 吳承恩著《西遊記》 and a profound study of The Story of the Stone (《石頭記》, also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber 《紅樓夢》), Rereading the Stone: Desire and the Making of Fiction in “Dream of the Red Chamber” (1997).

Tony visited Canberra in February 2009 with his wife Priscilla at the invitation of The ANU China Institute and Professor John Minford. During his stay he gave a number of public seminars, met with graduate scholars and participated in a forum on ‘Sinology Old & New’, a subject central to the creation of the Australian Centre on China in the World (see here). He also took part in a public conversation with John Minford on The Story of the Stone. He also allowed China Heritage Quarterly, a precursor and sororal publication of The China Story Journal, to publish Days at 15 Shelley Street‘, written in 2004, a memoir that reflects the complex interaction between the generations and the intermingling of reading, study, the modern and the classical. It is also a modest paean to the unique position of Hong Kong in modern Chinese cultural history, and its role in bringing the world of Chinese culture into contact with the international environment.

The following essay was written in memoriam by John Minford, professor of Chinese Studies at ANU, on 30 May 2015. — The Editors

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The passing of Professor Anthony C Yu 余國藩 in Chicago on 12 May has deeply saddened his countless friends, admirers and readers across the world. It is especially sad, in this age of the worldwide managerial dismantling of the university, to have to say goodbye to one of the last great defenders of true humanistic scholarship. Professor Yu was absolutely at home in the great traditions of both European and Asian letters, a true scholar and a fine translator: his four-volume translation — itself a re-reading — of The Journey to the West 西遊記 will endure for a very long time to come. He was an inspiring teacher and speaker, a sparkling conversationalist, a man of firmly held principle, and a loyal friend whose warmth and kindness will be sorely missed. In his breadth of vision and generosity of spirit he gave so much to so many.

Several of us here at the ANU still remember vividly Tony and Priscilla from their visit in early 2009, under the auspices of the China Institute. For me, it was one of the high points of Chinese Studies here since I first came in 1977. In particular, I recall a memorable dinner, hosted by the elderly Professor Liu, who was in splendidly mischievous form that night. Tony knew he was among friends and kindred spirits.

I first came to know Tony personally in 1986, when we met in Taiwan. Our friendship deepened gradually over the subsequent three decades. His superb study of the great novel Story of the Stone 紅樓夢, entitled Rereading the Stone: Desire and the Making of Fiction in Dream of the Red Chamber, was published by Princeton University Press in 1997. It appeared in an excellent Chinese translation in Taiwan (重讀石頭記, 麥田人文, 2004). A mainland publishing house subsequently wished to issue this translation in China, but insisted on removing the dedication: ‘In memoriam the Dead at Tiananmen Square, June 4 1989’. Tony refused to permit this alteration. They could publish the book with the dedication or not at all.

I wrote a lengthy review of the book for China Review International. It ended with these words, which can be ‘re-read’ today as my personal tribute to my friend, as well as to his book:

All too few books such as this cross one’s path in the arid life of sinological letters. Few books challenge the reader so fiercely, few tease, stretch, enrich and haunt as this one does on every page. Even fewer books succeed in connecting the modern sensibility, the puzzling wealth of the late twentieth-century heart and mind, with another world so far removed in language, time, and space. Yu brings home to us a rich world, captured in such lovingly intimate detail by Cao Xueqin that miracle-worker of Chinese literature. He shares with us, through his own way of reading, a passionate sense of the underlying universal links between literature and life. In this life-giving oasis, one can only linger gratefully, and quench one’s thirst.

Alas, we can now visit that oasis only in the many wonderful writings he has left us. I know that Tony’s other friends here join me in sending our deepest condolences to Priscilla and to their son Christopher.