Forgive Me For Rambling5 min read

Neil Thomas reviews John Minford’s recorded seminars on Chinese literature

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, where he introduced his students (myself among them) to the characters and the worlds of China’s cultural tradition.

Hidden on an obscure university website, three of Minford’s six seminars survive. (A lecture series on similar themes that Minford gave at the Hang Seng Management College in Hong Kong is also available on YouTube.) Recorded at the Australian Center on China in the World, these sessions transport listeners from the present into a past that brims with vaster life, illuminating the tribulations and the revelations of ancient writers and their modern translators.

That’s because Minford taught to the book. His book. That is, Classical Chinese Literature: An Anthology of Translations, Volume 1: From Antiquity to the Tang Dynasty (co-edited with Joseph S.M. Lau), and the forthcoming second volume An Anthology of Translations (co-edited with Christina Sanderson), which will collect 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 savor 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 in those glorious ramblings of a brilliant scholar. It was our pleasure and our profit.

Minford’s seminars exemplified a pedagogical philosophy based on 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” (修养), 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 that is predisposed to art, beauty, poetry and imagination. The rich possibilities of a contemplative life unfurled before us.

“Minford’s seminars exemplified a pedagogical philosophy based on ways of living rather than ways to make a living.”

Skeptical readers might say, “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 Chairman Xi’s wisdom of the week. China Studies implies public issues, not a private vocation.

One cannot live in a world without worldly concerns, of course, yet we are unfortunate to inhabit an anti-intellectual era ruled by markets, metrics, and the gospel of productivity. Most businesses and states watch China because its economy makes them money – or because its government threatens their market power and geopolitical influence. 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 from Canberra – two seminars on the Song dynasty lyric (宋词) and a seminar on Qing writer Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio 聊斋志异 – offer hope. Most of the authors Minford discusses are 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 Chinese culture will make anyone a more perceptive observer of the ideological impulses that animate contemporary China. It’s also the only sure path to a fulfilling human connection with China, as the many projects of the Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology (co-founded by Minford and Geremie Barmé) exemplify.

“Success may be evanescent, but our humanity is eternal and universal.”

Minford described the relationship between the English translator Arthur Waley and Tang dynasty poet Bo Juyi as a “spiritual friendship” that spanned a millennium through the meeting of their minds. Their relationship 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. Success may be evanescent, but our humanity is eternal and universal. As Wang Ya, another Tang poet, wrote: “Our joy is here in drinking wine.”

I personally came to 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 read what was assigned because academic success motivated me to do so.

Self-cultivation demands attention and perseverance. Today, I may still a philistine, but I’m less of a cynic. I read poetry. I fumble with classical Chinese. I sometimes feel the sentiments of a former time. ∎

John Minford, “CIW Chinese Literature Seminars,” Australian Center on China in the World, The Australian National University, September-October 2015. Header image generated by MOEDict. An earlier version of this essay appeared on China Heritage.