Professor John Minford: living the classical ways
“sometimes old-fashioned is the best.”… Continue reading
The interviewee, Professor John Minford, is a sinologist and translator. He has translated such Chinese classics as The Story of the Stone (with David Hawkes), I Ching, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, and The Deer and the Cauldron. He is the student and the son-in-law of David Hawkes, the great sinologist and translator.
Article by Man-ying A. Ho
I. Fifty Years
“I don’t call that random, I call that yuanfen （the Chinese term has a meaning close to fate, chance, serendipity）. I made that choice 50 years ago, or that choice made itself.”
50 years ago, John was disappointed that he was not qualified to study forestry. In fact he was so disappointed, that he decided to casually drop a pin on the prospectus of Oxford University, and to enrol in whatever degree it fell on.
That pin was destined for Chinese; so was John. For half a century he has been studying Chinese and translating Chinese Literature. Luckily for him, he said, that was and still is what his heart desires. He has found so much pleasure with his work, be it poetry, fiction, or prose. “Always – always, there is something there that pleases me. Sometimes it takes me a very long time to discover the real meaning – what Cao Xueqin calls the qi zhong wei.” Cao wrote The Story of the Stone （1791）, the greatest Novel of China, and qi zhong wei was translated by David Hawkes as “the secret message”.
The secret message is beyond comparison; he could not think of a better career than translation. He kept saying to students that they should realise that translators have a wonderful opportunity to encounter great minds. “They become your friends – how lucky is that. I know they are all dead, so what? A dead friend is in many ways just as good as a living one.” Shenjiao – I said – friends in spirit who might not have met. “Yes, exactly, it’s a kind of shenjiao.”
II. Three books
He loves the Chinese classics he translated, the only exception being the Art of War. The “horrible little book” (as he describes it) sells very well, but were it not for the request of the publisher he might never have translated it. “The Art of War is about how to take advantage of your neighbours, how to destroy people, how to succeed at the expense of other people.” The book has no room for altruism, whilst he believes in the importance of generous motivations to the happiness of humankind.
As little as he likes it, it led him on to his next project. “Now that’s a good book – that’s an amazing book.” He said with his eyes lit up. It was also a long book – it reached 1,000 pages due to the necessary inclusion of many commentaries. That’s the I Ching, his most recent publication.
In a sharp contrast with the Art, the I Ching is always about xiuyang – the ways to become a more cultivated person. He finds xiuyang at the core of what he calls “real education.” Education risks triviality if it focuses solely on technicality, he explains. It should be “about getting to know yourself better; about acquiring a broader understanding of life, of culture, of history, of literature – of everything.” This is why it is so important today, and he thinks we need to pass on this message to the next generation.
The I Ching has become his constant companion and friend, like some of the other Chinese classics he has worked with. He always consults it for advice. “It is so full of wisdom, so full of good ideas, about how to lead your life.” Having dedicated 12 years to this book alone, he finds its publication a reward for a lifetime of study. “It was really worthwhile.”
Many different kinds of Chinese literature give him pleasure, but that is not because they are Chinese. He rejoices rather “because they are good, because they are literature, because they are good literature.”
“Some people want me to say that I wish to promote Chinese culture. But I don’t, you see.” He recalled a televised interview in China. “I don’t want to promote Chinese culture because it’s Chinese. I just want to promote culture, because it’s good.”
Having said that, his favourite book is in Chinese. That is The Stone, “without the slightest hesitation” he answered my question; among all the books he has read, in any language. “It’s an absolutely magical work.” There is so much in this book – feelings and enlightenment, human nature and human relationships, the nature of love and the nature of life. “It’s about everything, so much detail, and yet the bigger picture is so inspiring. It’s about that extraordinary cross connection between human feelings and the ability to see through human feelings – kan po hong chen（看破紅塵）.”
“But even though you kan po hong chen, you still have strong feelings. That’s what so special about The Stone. It captures that. For me that’s what I read about. Every time you read, you find more depth, more detail.” One of John’s former PhD students likes The Stone because, “In the winter it keeps me warm, and in the summer it keeps me cool.” He considers this to be the highest kind of literary appreciation – a book becoming an inseparable part of one’s life.
He appreciates the book unreservedly, and this magical work has indeed swept many others off their feet. Some of them become obsessed with the academic study of the novel, which is coined Redology. (The novel was also known as Dream of the Red Chamber.) John disapproves Zhou Yuchang（周汝昌） and Liu Xinwu（劉心武）, two wellknown Redologists in China. To write in that obsessive way is their choice, he said, but he personally would not do what they do. That does not help him to understand the book better. He prefers the traditional commentaries, such as that of Wang Xilian（王希廉）.
John told an anecdote about the title of The Stone, when he was giving a lecture in Hang Seng Management College of Hong Kong. The translator and his teacher, David Hawkes, found the older English title Dream of the Red Chamber confusing in the English context, and decided to publish his translation as The Story of The Stone (in Chinese 石頭記, another name of the book). Yet Penguin insisted to include Dream as a subtitle, because the book was then better known as Dream. This was to the great dismay of David Hawkes. His title echoes the general rule of English book titles in the 18th to 19th century. Think of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859) for example, which was published around 70 years after The Stone.
III. Great Literature
I quoted Eileen Zhang’s comments on The Stone during the interview, just to discover that John does not hold this prominent writer in high regard. He finds her small-minded, constantly proving herself. What he looks for in literature is the generosity of spirit. “Of course it can talk about tragic things, about darkness, but I want it to be uplifting – I want to feel uplifted, to feel that I have been given a gift.” He dislikes writers who are always criticising and desirous of proving themselves. “They always want to put people down. I have no time for them.”
Working with The Stone, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, and I Ching has been most meaningful to John. Of course they are very different, he said, but they all have a very generous spirit. I entreated him to elaborate on “generous spirit”. “At the risk of sounding stupid,” As he articulated his thought, “by generous spirit, I mean that the author communicates – for lack of a better word, what I would just call – love. It’s a love for humanity.” For example, almost every story in Strange Tales is about love, and about humans behaving toward each other in a way that exhibits true love. Some characters of the book give non-judgmental, unconditional love. Some stories demonstrate the power of love and human nature in different relationships. Strange Tales is therefore a very generous book.
“Love is one of the great mysteries of life. There is nothing more sacred, nothing more mysterious, nothing more powerful. I come back to that – great literature is nearly always full of love, in a very broad sense. Love can have many forms.” Tragic, happy, physical, spiritual – No matter what love it expresses, good literature is healing. “You come out of the book with a warm feeling.”
Some literature is clever and funny, but it does not help. It does not make people feel better. “It actually makes you feel quite annoyed, like meeting with people who just want to show off.” Good literature can be clever, can be funny, but it also has an extra quality of expressing love. He thinks that great masters of every form of art have this generosity of spirit.
Here he humbly recalled the reason why one of his friends likes his translation: “because yours is a kind translation.” His translation cares about the words, and the readers.
IV. Eternal Patience
In a response to what it is that makes him so dedicated a translator, John said, “I suppose my personality.”
“I liked to engage myself very fully in things, even when I was a teenager.” When he was twelve, and in his first year at Winchester College in Hampshire, England, he spent all his time writing a history of Latin literature. His father was worried that his son was not having enough fun. “But it kind of gave me a world of my own, where I could lose myself and which nobody could rob me of. A sanctuary. For me there are two places like that. One is – as an adult – translating Chinese, the other is to play the piano. When I sit down at the piano, I’m in my own world. I like to improvise, I like to make up music of my own. That’s my private world. And it’s the same with translating.”
He concedes that he is quite dedicated to translation. Being quite dedicated, he revised his I Ching 27 times over 12 years. He was never in a hurry. He realises that a literary work can never be perfect, but he has to wait until it is as right as it can be. He has to feel comfortable enough before sending his works to print. None of them ever got finished “on time”.
“‘Eternal patience.’” He quoted Michelangelo, “‘‘is what makes genius’. For translation it’s the same. I think you have to be eternally patient as a translator.”
Translating the last part of The Stone took him 16 years. Strange Tales took him 15 years. If these lengths of time sound surreal, it is because in the modern world, things have to be done absurdly fast. “I don’t ever believe that there is a quick solution. I try to tell my students that you have to be patient. You have to be eternally patient. You must read, and read, and read.”
He learnt patience from I Ching. “I’m always asking it to give me help, to tell me what to do, and it always gives me the same answer.” He explained Jian-gua（漸卦）of the book. Jian means to be gradual; to do things slowly. It depicts the trees on the mountain as a metaphor: trees grow gradually, and there is no way to make them hurry up. “For me that is what translation is. It really has to take its time.”
Yet translation is not only about laborious work. He told the story of his connection with The Stone, of how the translation of this novel had the quality of yuanfen. It was destiny.
V. The Story with The Stone
His connection with The Stone had its roots in Hong Kong, when he was very young. In 1966, he came to the small city to study Chinese, because foreigners had little access to China back then due to the Cultural Revolution （1966—1976）. In search of a place to live, he put an advertisement in the newspaper, which read, “Young Oxford Student available to teach English, French, music in return for accommodation.” A wealthy family in Homantin Hill Road reached out, and took him on to teach their three children everything he mentioned in the advertisement. The family and John grew very fond of each other, and they often had meals together. “I shall never forget the old lady – the mother, who was a bit like Grandma Jia （a character in The Stone）. She spoke very slowly to me in Chinese because my Chinese was then elementary. She said to me one day at lunch time, ‘If you want to understand us Chinese, there is one book you must read.’ She wrote it down, and that was, of course, Hongloumeng (The Stone).” Those days he recognised the first Chinese character of the book title, but not the others. He kept that piece of paper. When he returned to Oxford, he proposed to study The Stone as part of his degree, with David Hawkes.
Hawkes was amazed. “His eyes lit up,” John recalled. He was the first student who asked to study it, so it was just him and Hawkes. They met every week, and studied the first ten chapters of The Stone together. Those meetings later ripened into their beautiful 16-year collaboration to translate the book. “He very generously asked me to.” So John went on to visit him every week, and had listened to him for probably a thousand of hours. Such was his apprenticeship under the great master.
I asked John, “Are you as good as he was then?” He almost exclaimed, “Oh goodness, no, no. Me? No, no, no, no, no!”
He then paused for a second, I think to make sure that he had the right words. “He was on a different level altogether. He was a very, very – well, he knew more than me, he read more than me, and his English was better than mine, and his Chinese was better than mine, his attitude was better than mine.” He said this, lovingly and admiringly, before another silence. “I am just grateful to have been his student and his friend. He taught me so much. We just used to sit and talk, for hours and hours and hours, because we have so many shared interests.”
Hawkes’s death in July 2009 was a terrible blow to John. Hawkes referred to their friendship as zhiyin（知音）, a confidant who understands deeply. They used to call each other shixiong and shidi*, which mean, respectively, elder brother Stone and young brother Stone. These Chinese terms delicately define their connection. They translated The Stone together, and studied together. John still kept the 70 letters Hawkes wrote to him.
Hawkes’s daughter, Rachel May, became John’s dear wife. They were married for nearly 40 years, until she passed away in 2015. Rachel was a very fine editor, and she always read everything John wrote, with only one exception: she never finished reading the translation of The Stone, although it is the magnum opus of both her father and her husband. The translation had waited to be read to her until three months before she deceased. She asked John to read it aloud, and they got as far as chapter 31. She said then, “That’s enough. I don’t want it anymore. It’s so annoying.” Some wealthy characters of the book could not dress and undress without four maids helping them, John pointed out, and Rachel rightfully found it annoying.
All the boring details about the food, the clothes, and the locations, are part of the art of the novel, however. John thinks they make it real. “You know where everywhere leads to. You know where everybody is. It’s very precise.”
VI. The Old Ways
John loves to take things slowly, which was well demonstrated by his own translation career as well as his adherence to the old ways of life. He still has his letters written by hand; sent by post. “When you sit down with a pen on a piece of paper, it’s a wholly different state of mind.” Things have to be taken slowly, indeed, when you are deprived of Back, Ctrl+X, C, and P. You craft your thoughts carefully. Your hands express your feelings genuinely.
“Then you put the letter inside the envelope. You write the address. You go to the post office and then you buy a stamp. The letter travels across the world, physically. It arrives. It is put into somebody’s mailbox. That person comes back from work. ‘Oh my goodness, I got a letter! From my friend!’ The letter is held in their hand. They sits down, maybe have a cup of tea, and then opens it, reads it in a way they never reads an email……”
He noticed that he was sounding very old-fashioned. In an admirable way, yes – if I may, and he insists that sometimes old-fashioned is the best. “When you do Microsoft Word, everyone’s letter looks the same. And your Microsoft Word tries to change your letter for you, which makes me very angry.” He said.
Yet he is not completely against technology. He wants to build a website for The Stone, which includes a character map to crystalise the notoriously intricate relationships. He also thinks of including a clip of a film adaptation to the website. Many of such adaptations disappointed him, by making Jia Baoyu （賈寶玉） silly and annoying, except the one directed by Richard Li（李翰祥）. “Brigitte Lin（林青霞） was wonderful. Her performance as Jia Baoyu was just brilliant.” After all, Baoyu was a very feminine boy. “A girl in disguise”, John said, “a boy who’s made contact with this inner woman.”
VII. The New Plans
For the rest of his life, he wants to pass on “one or two little messages.” That is the traditional way of living and education; the importance of xiuyang. He told me that he will cofound a private academy, Baishui Shuyuan 白水書院. Baishui means White Water, which is the meaning of the name of a beautiful valley in New Zealand, where the academy will be situated. Hang Seng Management College has just agreed to collaborate. “We’re going to stand for these traditional ideas. We’re going to focus on things like traditional Chinese culture, traditional Chinese literature, traditional art. We’re going to give intensive workshops, symposia and online content.” So people can actually lead better lives, and be kinder to each other.
He finds the education today short of true values. He has seen so many academics whose primary goal was to promote their own career and to prove their brilliance. He has no tolerance for that anymore. Teachers should be generous, encouraging, and nurturing. Education should be free, so students do not have to shoulder a huge debt when they graduate. “I believe it is the responsibility of the society to look after people when they are old, and to educate them when they are young.” He said he shared these beliefs with many others of the hippie generation, which believed in ideals, love and peace, and not in making more money.
Standing up for one’s ideals is not always easy, but John thinks he must. He had had a very difficult life two years ago. A stroke hit him very hard In January 2014. He spent 6 months in rehabilitation and fought back his normal speech and movements. A year later he suffered another terrible blow. His wife passed away. Now he wants to do something when he is still “doing okay”, and that something, he knows very clearly.
Editor’s Note: This article is written bilingual to pay tribute to the great sinologist and translator. Click here for the Chinese Version.
*An earlier version mistook the two Chinese Terms shixiong and shidi for 師兄 and 師弟（an elder brother and a younger brother in apprenticeship）, when the two terms are actually 石兄 and 石弟. Corrected on 31 March 2016.
Photos: Jay YC Chan, Master Insight Media