China Conversations

John Minford and the Dao De Jing

A sinologist and translator reveals his secrets to Jonathan Chatwin

John Minford is a Sinologist and literary translator, known particularly for his translations of Chinese classics such as The Story of the Stone, Strange Tales and The Art of War. John's recent work includes a translation of the famous Chinese divination text, the Yi Jing, and a new version of the Dao De Jing, the foundational text of Daoism, published in late 2018. Writer Jonathan Chatwin sat down with him to discuss his path into Chinese translation, the ineffability of the Tao, and the challenges of translating classical Chinese into modern English.

You studied Chinese at Oxford in the 1960s. How unusual a choice was undergraduate Chinese at that time, and what drew you to the subject?

When I began studying Chinese, in the summer of 1966, China was launching itself into the Cultural Revolution and was very isolated. There were few students doing Chinese at Oxford – I think there were about five who enrolled in my year. By then I had already been a student at Oxford for two years – I entered Balliol College from Winchester on a Brackenbury Scholarship in Classics in the autumn of 1964. What I really wanted to do all along was study the piano, and I had been offered a place at the Royal College of Music. But neither my parents nor my college approved of the idea. So I was obliged to continue studying something or other at Oxford, and somewhat reluctantly drifted into the Philosophy, Politics and Economics program.

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Where did your interest in China – and the particular period of imperial Chinese history you deal with in your novels – come from?

My interest in 18th-century China developed during days spent on the scree slopes and alpine meadows of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Yunnan Province. I traveled to Kunming and Lijiang for the first time in 2010 when my husband, a biologist who studies mountain plants, was doing fieldwork for his dissertation. We returned to the area in 2011 and spent most of the following three years there. It was in Lijiang that I learned about the network of old trade routes between China and Tibet known as the Tea Horse Road. And a visit to the ancient observatory in Beijing inspired me to read about the Jesuits who oversaw the construction of its instruments in the 17th and early 18th centuries.

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Where did the research for City of Devils start?

My first port of call is newspapers, specifically the old China coast newspapers, which are mainly – though not exclusively – in English: the North China Daily News; the China Press; the Shanghai Mercury; the Peking Gazette. Some of it is online, but not much has been scanned, so you have to go to the British Library newspaper archive, Hong Kong University library or the Zikawei library in the Xujiahui district of Shanghai, and use originals or microfilms. In going through those, you find stories which give you threads to pull at. And the stories are important in context of the Sinology. City of Devils, for instance, takes its lead from Frederic Wakeman’s Sinological work. He wrote two books, on policing Shanghai in the 1930s and on Shanghai’s Badlands. But both are focused on the Chinese experience, whereas I write about the foreigners.

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Did you always have an interest in Chinese history?

My first degree was actually nothing to do with history; it was in librarianship, which has been hugely useful in preparing me to do archival research – I walk straight into the archives and know where to start! When I came to the UK, my academic interest was more around the history of religion, in particular Judaism. Through that I met a group of Jewish people who were born in Manchuria and became interested in their story. I initially wanted to pursue a PhD on the subject, but as I started, I changed my mind as I came across a vast amount of material on Chinese perception of the Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries; it was this that really began my interest in modern Chinese history.

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Could you outline how your interest in China, and Chinese history, began?

The logical answer might be: I spent three years of my childhood living in Hong Kong, where my father was posted with the Royal Air Force to a helicopter squadron. I was just six when we arrived, but remember the first day vividly. But it’s not that. Applying to London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to study Mandarin just seemed like a good idea at the time. I might say specifically that it was a course on ‘Chinese Peasants and Revolution’ at SOAS, led by Charles Curwen, who had worked in China with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and stayed on in China until 1954. In London in the mid-1980s, Curwen was no less wrapped up in the Chinese revolution than he had been in China. But it’s probably not that course either. Again, it just seemed a good idea at the time when I applied to study for a doctorate in Chinese studies; there weren’t many people in that field in the UK then.