Anthony C. Yu, translator and scholar of religion and literature, 1938-2015

Susan Allen
News Officer for Arts and HumanitiesUniversity Communications

Anthony C. Yu, a scholar of religion and literature best known for his landmark translation of the Chinese epic The Journey to the West, died May 12 after a brief illness. He was 76.

Yu, the Carl Darling Buck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and the Divinity School, introduced a comparative approach to the study of religion and literature that drew on both Eastern and Western traditions. Over his distinguished career, he made contributions on figures as wide-ranging as Aeschylus, Dante, Milton and William Faulkner. His work engages Chinese religions as well as classic texts of Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism.

“Professor Anthony C. Yu was an outstanding scholar, whose work was marked by uncommon erudition, range of reference and interpretive sophistication. He embodied the highest virtues of the University of Chicago, his alma mater and his academic home as a professor for 46 years, with an appointment spanning five departments of the University. Tony was also a person of inimitable elegance, dignity, passion and the highest standards for everything he did,” said Margaret M. Mitchell, the Shailer Mathews Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and dean of the Divinity School.

Yu was born on Oct. 6, 1938 in Hong Kong. The outbreak of World War II forced his family to flee to mainland China in 1941. To distract him from the fear and danger of the conflict, Yu’s grandfather began to tell him fantastical stories of a wise monk and his companions Monkey and Pig.

These stories were drawn from Journey to the West, a 16th-century novel that is considered a classic in China. The novel follows the monk’s adventures as he travels across China in search of Buddhist scriptures from India.

“I was crazy about the stories and would badger my grandpa all the time, whether we would be in air-raid shelters or fleeing from some terrible dangers,” recalled Yu.

Yu, PhD’69, rediscovered Journey to the West as a young scholar at the University of Chicago. At the time, only one abridged English edition was available.

Yu’s colleagues Herrlee Creel in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and Joseph Mitsuo Kitagawa, then dean of the Divinity School, encouraged him to undertake a fresh translation.

With more than 100 chapters containing both prose and verse, as well as complex religious and literary allusions, Journey to the West posed enormous challenges to a modern translator. Yu chased down every poem, song and piece of scripture referenced in the sprawling novel. Yet he also wanted to balance scholarly thoroughness with a text that would appeal to a broad audience.

“The most important thing is to make the text available,” he told the University of Chicago Chronicle.

Yu’s translation of Journey to the West appeared to wide acclaim in 1983. “While his translation does full justice to the adventure, lyricism and buffoonery of The Journey to the West, it is completely sensitive to the spiritual content of the text as well,” David Lattimore wrote in The New York Times. The book received the Laing Prize from the University of Chicago Press in 1984.

But Yu still wasn’t done with Journey to the West: He published an abridged translation, The Monkey and the Monk in 2006. He also updated and revised the unabridged text. A second edition of Journey to the West appeared in 2012.

Edward Shaughnessy, the Lorraine J. and Herrlee G. Creel Distinguished Service Professor in Early Chinese Studies and the College, taught The Monkey and the Monk in his Readings and World Literature Core course. Yu visited the class and delighted students with the story of the novel and its translation.

“Tony was not only a great translator of literature, but someone who personified the translation of culture in his urbanity and in his ability to speak with everyone,” Shaughnessy said.

'man of wide reading and deep insight'

Yu’s expertise went far beyond Journey to the West and Chinese literature. His undergraduate studies at Houghton College and his graduate training at the University of Chicago gave him command of the Western classics as well.

“He was really a comparativist in the truest sense, and a man of wide reading and deep insight,” said Bruce Lincoln, the Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School.

The field of religion and literature perfectly suited Yu’s far-reaching interests and expertise. He wrote influential articles arguing for the importance of studying religion and literature together.

“He theorized [the study of religion and literature] as well as exemplified it,” said Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School.

Doniger, who co-taught a course on the mythology of evil with Yu, recalled an agile and energetic teacher who rarely even glanced at his prepared notes.

“Studying with him was a tremendous privilege,” said Yu’s former student Eric Ziolkowski, who now teaches at Lafayette College. “He exuded a passion and an intensity that were contagious to anyone fortunate enough to be his student.”

Yu was a demanding teacher, but he paired his high expectations with generosity and attentiveness. Yu regularly hosted dinners at his home and invited students to attend the opera or symphony. He maintained warm relationships with many of his advisees long after they graduated.

As a colleague, Yu was “a warm presence in the life of the Divinity School, even after his retirement. He was invariably the first to congratulate colleagues on their scholarly achievements. Indeed, he took a genuine interest in our work,” said Paul Mendes-Flohr, the Dorothy Grant Maclear Professor of Modern Jewish History and Thought in the Divinity School. “He was an embodiment of the collegial and academic ethos of the Divinity School.”

Yu was an elected member of the American Academy of the Arts & Sciences, the American Council of Learned Societies and Academia Sinica. Among other appointments he was a board member of the Modern Language Association, and he received Guggenheim, ACLS, Mellon and other prestigious fellowships to support his research.

A pianist and lover of classical music, Yu and his wife Priscilla regularly attended the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera. Yu organized small chamber ensembles with his colleagues at the University.

Friends and colleagues recalled Yu’s excellent taste in wine and fondness for gourmet cooking. “That was one of the great pleasures of knowing Tony—you ate very well,” Doniger said. They also remembered him as a devoted husband and father.

For his student Ziolkowski, Yu “was living proof that beneath every truly great humanist is a great human being.”

Yu is survived by his wife Priscilla and son Christopher. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Divinity School and Division of the Humanities at the University of Chicago. A University memorial service will be held on Sunday, June 14 at 3 p.m. in Bond Chapel.