Dec. 9, 1993
Vol. 13, No. 8

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    Roy translates controversial Chinese classic

    When David Roy, Professor in East Asian Languages & Civilizations, arrived at Chicago in 1967, one of his first course offerings was a yearlong seminar on "Chin P'ing Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase)," a 3,000-page novel from the 16th century that is considered one of the four classic works of traditional Chinese fiction. Only one student signed up for the course.

    Still, Roy taught the course again many times over the next 15 years, each time exploring new elements of this complex text. In 1983, Roy decided to translate the entire, unexpurgated novel into English and add annotations.

    This autumn -- 10 years after that decision, 26 years after his original course -- the first volume in what will eventually be a five-volume set was published by Princeton University Press. The book received a rave review in the Chicago Tribune book-review section, which called Roy's work "enthusiastic and definitive."

    "I was astounded and highly pleased, to say the least, by the review," Roy said. "It's always been my secret wish -- or not so secret -- that the book might appeal to a broader audience than specialists in the field of Chinese literature."

    The book has also been warmly received in the China Times, the major cultural journal of Taiwan. Roy's translation -- and his theoretical preface to the work -- had been eagerly anticipated in East Asia as well as in the United States. So it was fitting that Roy should receive his first copy of the book while on a three-week trip to China in mid-September.

    "Since I was not due back until October, I thought I'd miss the publication date. But William Sibley, chairman of my department, had a copy sent to my brother, James Stapleton Roy, who is the U.S. ambassador to China," Roy said. "My wife and I were traveling in the interior, and when we arrived back in Beijing, the book was in my brother's hands. It certainly was a high point in my career."

    Roy's career includes many articles for scholarly publications as well as a major work on the early years of Kuo Mo-jo, one of China's leading modern intellectuals. But for Roy, who spent most of his childhood in China, translating "The Plum in the Golden Vase" is more than a personal accomplishment -- it is a major contribution to the cultural history of China itself.

    "When my translation is complete, there will be modern translations of all four classics," Roy said. "I have always felt that the novel deserved the kind of care shown in my colleague Anthony Yu's translation of 'Journey to the West,' a work that preceded 'The Plum in the Golden Vase' in the 16th century." (Yu is the Carl Darling Buck Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities.)

    "The Plum in the Golden Vase" focuses on the domestic life of Hsi-men Ch'ing, a corrupt, upwardly mobile merchant in a provincial town who maintains a harem of six wives and concubines and eventually exhausts himself economically, politically and sexually through years of conspicuous consumption.

    Although the action in the novel takes place between 1112 and 1127, during the final years of the Northern Sung dynasty, the conditions described in the novel are those of the 16th century, a period of burgeoning economic growth and volatile social change that threatened traditional values.

    "The story of the corrupt rise and eventual fall of Hsi-men Ch'ing's household is both a reflection and a critique of these conditions, and it can be seen as a microcosm of the Chinese body politic, whose moral disintegration culminated in the collapse of the ruling dynasty," Roy said.

    "Ever since it appeared, the book has been considered a masterpiece. It works on many levels at once -- as a soap opera, a political allegory, a compendium of details about 16th-century Chinese everyday life. But it was also notorious -- and has remained notorious -- because it contains very vivid descriptions of sexual activity, which affected the critical response to it to a great extent. The book has been officially banned from public distribution on mainland China -- indeed, almost from the time of its publication -- due to its political subtext and its explicit sexual imagery."

    Roy's translation is the first complete European-language translation of the complex novel. All previous translations were either abridged in the translation or based on abridged Chinese versions of the text.

    "The pioneering translations of Chinese and Japanese literature that were done before World War II were done on the assumption that Western readers were not prepared to deal with unfamiliar literary conventions or learned annotations," Roy said. "So rhetorical features that would have been unfamiliar to Western readers were left out altogether or translated into some more familiar form. The philosophy behind my own translation is that the great works of Chinese and Japanese literature deserve to be taken as seriously as we treat our own literary masterpieces."

    Roy planned his translation to be understood and appreciated by audiences ranging from specialists in Chinese literature to general readers looking for a compelling narrative containing portraits of the darker side of human nature.

    "The book is a landmark of literature. With the possible exception of 'The Tale of Genji' in 1010 and 'Don Quixote' in 1615 -- with both of which it can bear comparison -- there is no earlier work of prose fiction of equal sophistication in world literature," Roy said. "And although the book is published by a university press and is highly annotated, readers should not be scared off by the scholarly apparatus. While a lot of readers don't think of novels as needing annotation, many classics such as 'Ulysses,' 'Lolita' and even 'Alice in Wonderland' have appeared in annotated editions. Indeed, most works of any degree of complexity -- whether fiction or not -- require annotation to be fully understood. Not all readers are interested in this, but it's important to have."

    For Roy, the book is a lot like "Moby Dick" -- "You can appreciate it without notes, but you can appreciate it a lot more if you read the notes," he said. But the book also has much in common with more modern novels. "It's written in a very Joycean style," Roy said. "Like Joyce's 'Ulysses,' it weaves into its plot verbatim quotations from the entire Chinese cultural spectrum -- songs, jokes, popular literature, parodies of a variety of conventional styles. There are more than 900 poems and nonprose elements in different genres -- probably none of which are by the author, who to this day is still unknown. The sources of more than 50 percent of these elements have been located by scholars, but they are not identified in the text. Even a modern Chinese reader doesn't begin to get half the games the author is playing. He or she reads right through quotations without realizing they are quotations."

    Roy's introduction and annotations may be translated into Chinese, since much information in them is new to Chinese scholars.

    "The unexpurgated text is still not generally available on the mainland, although it is accessible to high government officials and scholars," Roy said. "But there is a lot more recent interest in the novel. Until the death of Mao Tse-tung, not only was it legally unavailable, but there was little or no scholarship about it. In the last decade, however, scholarship on the work has become a growth industry in China. There have been more than 100 book-length studies in Chinese, all in the last 10 years, although a lot of them have not been very good, since the mainland was cut off for many years from the scholarship done in the West and in Japan."

    Roy expects that his own scholarship on "The Plum in the Golden Vase" will continue through this decade and into the next century.

    "I've already translated one-half of the second volume in draft, and that could be published in the next two years," Roy said. "The subsequent volumes will take longer. It's tough to translate while teaching full time. If I get some time off, it may take between 10 and 12 years. If not, it will probably take between 15 and 20 years. In any case, I expect it to take the rest of my working life."

    -- Jeff Makos