Encore — John Minford on Change

In the following lecture, offered here as one of The Wairarapa Talks, John Minford discusses translating the I Ching 易經, or Book of Changes. His translation of the book, with an introduction and extensive commentary, was published by Penguin Classics in 2015.


The Wairarapa Talks are recorded and transcribed lectures, speeches and lessons by members of The Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology. Other lectures on the history and practice of translation by John Minford are given below.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
18 May 2018


Further Reading:

易: A Cable into the Abyss of a Darker Time

Other Lectures on Translation in The Wairarapa Talks

A Lineage of Light — Four Translators

John Minford’s Reflections on
Translating the I Ching


The I Ching was one of the very first of the Chinese classics to be translated into a European language. An extraordinary group of French Jesuits at the court of the Kangxi Emperor produced a complete and fluent Latin version in the early eighteenth-century, which however remained in manuscript until it was printed in Germany a hundred years later.

John Minford’s translation of the I Ching was published in October 2016. In the following seminar, presented under the auspices of the Australian Centre on China in the World, first offers a consideration of the Jesuit and other early translations before the lecturer offers his own reflections on some of the challenges faced by the modern translator of an enigmatic, and ultimately mysterious, text.


John Minford, Reflections on Translating the I Ching
(click here for a link to the podcast recording)


John Minford was educated at Winchester College and Balliol College, Oxford, where he graduated in 1968 with a degree in Chinese Studies. Over the subsequent fifteen years he worked closely with David Hawkes on the Penguin Classics version of the eighteenth-century novel The Story of the Stone 紅樓夢. In 1977, he moved to Canberra and studied for his PhD under the late Liu Ts’unyan 柳存仁. He went on to translate for Penguin a selection from Pu Songling’s Strange Tales 聊齋志異 and Sunzi’s The Art of War 孫子兵法. In 2016, he co-founded The Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology in Featherston, New Zealand.

His translation of the Tao Te Ching 道德經 is published by Viking Penguin in 2018.

John Minford: An Appreciation

As we have previously noted in The Wairarapa Talks, in 2015, John Minford gave a final series of nineteen lectures over two semesters on Chinese literature and translation at The Australian National University. At the time, Asian Studies at the university was in a state of disarray due to a ‘review’ of the teaching faculty which, in the name of cost-cutting and efficiencies, rained down a shower of absurdities on what was the former Faculty of Asian Studies, a faculty where both John Minford and Geremie Barmé were trained.

For years prior to that, the latest round of ill-conceived and mismanaged restructuring the Faculty had been a wounded beast, long in search of a serious intellectual rationale and increasingly prey to the mercurial whims of the Managerial Class and their academic collaborators. The academocratic authors of the folly of 2015-2016 would themselves fall from grace, but the ethos of mindless reform and economism continued to hold sway.

Although John’s 2015 course on Chinese literature was ‘on the books’, no teaching facilities or lecture theatre were provided by what John would later call ‘The Sunken Ship’ of the Asian Studies Faculty. In his capacity as Director of the Austalian Centre on China in the World (CIW), Geremie Barmé invited John to present the lectures in the CIW Building from March 2015. Those lectures would be an academic ‘swan song’ for them both and, as chance would have it, they would help forge the basis for The Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology. Below for material related to those lectures, see The Wairarapa Talks.

Here we present two essays and a poem by three young scholars who attended those lectures.

The Editor

Licensed to Ramble


The translator John Minford personifies the quality by which he judges prose — its ‘generous spirit’. For two marvelous hours on Thursday mornings in late 2015, Professor Minford taught a class on Chinese literature at The Australian National University in Canberra. He introduced us to the characters and the worlds of China’s cultural tradition. He explained to us the tribulations and the revelations of its translators.

Hidden on an obscure university website, three of Minford’s six seminars survive. Recorded at the Australian Center on China in the World, these sessions (labeled, somewhat peculiarly, as ‘podcasts’) transport listeners from the present into a past that brims with vaster life. [The details of the lectures, and the available recordings, can also be found under The Wairarapa Talks in China Heritage. — Ed.]

Minford taught to the book. His book, that is, the planned second volume of Classical Chinese Literature: An Anthology of Translations, which collects writings from the Song dynasty up to the late Qing. Its Chinese title is Relishing the Joys of Literature 含英咀華. No phrase is more apt.

For Minford did not teach his subject so much as savour it. He expounded on what it meant to live in another time, and regaled us with riotous tales of his intellectual forebears and contemporaries. ‘Forgive me for rambling,’ he would say. But to forgive would be to acknowledge fault — absurd! This is why we came, to share in these glorious ‘ramblings’ of a brilliant scholar. It was our pleasure and our profit.

Minford’s seminars exemplified a pedagogical philosophy based on showing ways of living rather than ways to make a living. In contrast to most teaching today, the only ‘learning outcome’ set for Minford’s course was ‘self-cultivation’ 修養, the essence of what he called ‘real education’. Self-cultivation, Minford taught, is the conscious refinement of a state of being that seeks deeper understanding of the human experience; a state of being that is predisposed to art, beauty, poetry and imagination. The rich possibilities of a contemplative life unfurled before us. [See also An Educated Man is Not a Pot 君子不器 — on the university, China Heritage, 13 March 2017 — Ed.]

Yet, as a friend once counseled: You’ve got to eat! Can one pursue self-cultivation and still earn a crust? Most professional pathways in the ‘China space’, and most writing on China, focus obsessively on the practical problems of the present: territorial disputes, trade relations, North Korean nukes and whatever will Chairman Xi do next? China Studies implies a public issue not a private vocation.

One cannot live in a world without worldly concerns, of course, and we inhabit an anti-intellectual era ruled by markets, metrics and the gospel of productivity. Employers and funders pay attention to China because its economy makes them money or because its government threatens their power. The danger is that students of China neglect the country’s rich humanistic tradition because we cannot peg career advancement to the enrichment of our inner lives.

Minford’s three available recordings — two seminars on the Song dynasty lyric 宋詞 and a seminar on Qing writer Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio 聊齋志異 — offer hope. Almost all the authors Minford discussed were scholar-officials who worked day-jobs as bureaucrats or teachers. Ouyang Xiu and Yan Shu rose to high office. Liu Yong and Pu Songling never made it. But we keep reading all four.

These literati enjoyed an imperial system that rewarded immersion in the classics, but their writings demonstrate the enduring worth of self-cultivation even for people immersed in the here and now. Moreover, an appreciation for ‘useless’ learning about Chinese culture will make anyone a more perceptive observer of the ideological impulses that animate contemporary China. So even for utilitarians, as Simon Leys famously observed, uselessness can be useful! It’s also the only sure path to a fulfilling human connection with China.

Minford described the relationship between the English translator Arthur Waley and Tang dynasty poet Bo Juyi as a ‘spiritual friendship’ 神交, one that spanned a millennium through the meeting of their minds. That mingling of artistic sensibility illustrates the transcendent value of self-cultivation and of humanistic study more broadly. As we race against time and our peers to reach new heights, it is easy to forget the futile ambitions and ephemeral triumphs of those who came before us. While success is evanescent, only our humanity is eternal and universal. As Wang Ya, another Tang poet, wrote: ‘Our joy is here in drinking wine.’

I personally came to John Minford’s class feeling like a philistine and a cynic. Having studied the language for some years, I had not read a single Chinese poem. What use was it? My pursuits were motivated by achievement not enlightenment. I cherished texts because academic success motivated me to do so. And I reflect on Minford’s classes essentially still a philistine and a cynic. I have not the courage (nor the resources) to abandon myself.

But self-cultivation demands attention and perseverance. Today, I read poetry. I fumble with classical Chinese. I sometimes sense, I feel, the sentiments of a former time.

Neil Thomas


Gleanings for the Heart 心得 

The Way that can be told of is not an Unvarying Way
道可道, 非恒道

Lao Tzu


In essence, this is what Professor Minford’s course on classical Chinese literature was about. What he expresses throughout the course, is the Dao ─ a way of reading Chinese classics and Chinese literature as a whole, providing a passage to the hearts and minds of those who created it and its translators. It is an approach towards understanding Chinese literary tradition and above all, a glimpse of the enigmatic ‘Chinese mind’. 

Professor Minford does not speak of the Dao directly, for he knows too well that true enlightenment cannot be achieved through description. Instead, he brings with him the great Chinese tradition of storytelling. To be more precise, his stories are of those ‘finding the one who knows the sound’ 知音. It may be one author’s tribute to another across centuries, like the admiration Pu Songling had for Zuo Qiuming’s Zuo Commentary 左傳. It may also be literary motifs found throughout time, just compare Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream to The Story of the Stone! 

Moreover, Professor Minford kindly shares personal stories about his relationship with his mentor David Hawkes, and between David Hawkes and his friend and mentor Arthur Waley. And how each of these translators identifies strongly with one particular Chinese writer and how it seems ‘pre-destined’ for them to translate the works of a certain author. Through this seemingly simple act (and art) of storytelling, a stream of literary and philosophical continuity, one through which courses the writings of Chinese authors writing of different times and places, and their translators who through arduous labour re-created their works for a different audience, vividly fills one’s field of vision. You find yourself in the stream, perhaps even going with the flow, overwhelmed by a sense of enlightenment, tranquility and, over time, a hint of familiarity. 

Perhaps despite the differences in language, expression and style, and variations between translations, in the essence of Chinese literature and the ‘Chinese mind’ there is something universal 人同此心.

To be moved by Professor Minford’s stories, and to join the stream of continuity, is the Dao.

Annie Ren 任路曼

Delight 快哉*
to the tune of ‘the sunken ship’


Dear Professor Minford
Translator and teacher
Of the immortal arts of China

With Hawkes on the Stone
You laboured for a decade
In love

Thunder in the classroom you wield
Where hooves stomp
Echoes of Su Dongpo
And the Northern Song lyricists

Sing-Song girls from the South you enchant
Lyrics and broken strings
Requiem to the gentleman-scholar
Forever in thought

O Professor Minford
You teach us to savour Strange Tales
From the smoke Chinese Studio
Where paper dragons line the window sills

O John
The last of the great translators
Of a sunken age

For now

We rest at leisure
Bathing in the light of the august moon

Ahhhh, is that not a delight?

Will Zou 鄒述丞


  • For Jin Shengtan’s ‘Thirty-three Happy Moments’ 不亦快哉三十三則, see Occupied with Idleness, China Heritage, 23 March 2018