David Tod Roy, translator of Chinese literary classic, 1933-2016

Prof. David Tod Roy, best known for his exhaustive translation of a famous 16th-century Chinese novel, died May 29 at his home in Chicago from complications of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 83.

A professor emeritus in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Roy spent three decades completing a five-volume translation of the Ming Dynasty classic Chin P’ing Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase). Well known for its eroticism, the novel chronicles the life of a corrupt, middle-class merchant and his numerous sexual liaisons. Princeton University Press published the series over a period of 20 years, with the final volume, “The Dissolution,” completed in 2013.

“David worked on his translation with single-minded fixity,” said longtime colleague and friend Ed Shaughnessy, the Lorraine J. and Herrlee G. Creel Distinguished Service Professor in Early Chinese Studies. “It is looked upon as a monument to scholarship.”

Scholars praised Roy’s work for its masterful research, reflected in more than 4,400 endnotes that provide a window onto ordinary peoples’ lives, with meticulous descriptions of everything from dinner party banter to bribery schemes to funeral rites. One critic called it a “masterly rendering of a richly encyclopedic novel of Ming dynasty manners.” Another wrote: “Reading Roy’s translation is a remarkable experience. It ought to be done slowly, savoring the keen detail, the setups and payoffs of the plot, and the novel’s many traditional verses, which comment, often ironically, upon the selfish motives and squalid actions of its characters. Roy translates the verse with a fine, unmannered ear.” 

Roy was born in Nanjing, China in 1933 to Presbyterian missionary parents. His father, Andrew Tod Roy, was a philosophy professor at what is now the University of Nanking. The family spent the Sino-Japanese War years (1938-1945) in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, where they were subjected to frequent Japanese bombing raids. After some years in the United States, Roy returned to China in 1948, just as the Communist revolution was culminating. His parents enrolled him in the Shanghai American School, a boarding school, where Roy recalled taking his final exams as Communist forces marched into the city.

“He was a great brother, and we had some real adventures together,” said his younger brother, J. Stapleton Roy, who joined him at the school, which was promptly shut down with the Communist takeover of Shanghai. “All the Americans had left, but we stayed on,” he added. “We lived in a dormitory, cut off from our parents who were miles away in Nanjing.” Eventually the brothers were sent out of the country to complete high school in the United States. Their parents, adhering to their missionary convictions, stayed behind and were placed under house arrest and later expelled from China.

As a teen, Roy developed an obsession with the Chinese language and, with the help of tutors, learned to read and write it. He had heard about the Chin P’ing Mei, particularly its notorious pornographic passages, and went in search of a copy where the graphic sexual material had not been deleted, Roy said in a 2013 interview. At 16, he found a complete, 3,000-page Chinese edition in a used-book store and thus began his lifelong fascination with the work. Years later, as a scholar, Roy found that the Chin P’ing Mei borrowed so creatively from such a wide range of literature that he made a file card for each line of poetry, parallel prose and proverbial saying, creating an index containing tens of thousands of cards.

Roy earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at Harvard University, completing his PhD in History and Far Eastern Languages in 1965. During his undergraduate years, he spent a two-year stint in the U.S. Army that included service in Japan and Taiwan. Roy’s first teaching job was at Princeton, where he taught Chinese literature for four years and met and married his wife, Barbara Chew, in 1967. That same year, he accepted a position as associate professor of Chinese literature at the University of Chicago. During the 1980s, he began translating the Chin P’ing Mei, what Roy himself once called “an extraordinarily detailed description of a morally derelict and corrupt society.” He also taught the novel in his classes, inspiring generations of students to pursue the study of Chinese literature. His first volume, “The Gathering,” was published in 1993.

Roy’s single-mindedness toward his scholarship was matched only by his tireless acquisition of any and all books related to Chinese studies, colleagues said. His former student David Rolston recalled graduate seminars in Roy’s office seated around a table piled high with his newest purchases, often from overseas, that sometimes remained there for months before Roy catalogued and shelved them. “The piles would get so high that we had to sit very straight and tall in order to lay out the material we were working on or write our notes on top of them,” said Rolston, PhD’88, now an associate professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Michigan.

Other students recalled the impact Roy had on their scholarship and life trajectory. “Having David Roy as my teacher transformed my life,” said Katherine Carlitz, PhD’78, who recently retired from the Asian Studies Center at the University of Pittsburgh. “I had never quite understood what being a serious scholar would mean before I was lucky enough to come and study with him. There was so much humor in our classes; we students retained forever the joy of scholarship as he felt it and taught it.”

The University of Notre Dame acquired the bulk of Roy’s Chinese-language collection, totaling more than 4,000 volumes, in 2013. His English-language Chinese studies books went to the University of Nanking, where his father had been a faculty member.

Roy is survived by his wife, Barbara Chew Roy, and by his younger brother, J. Stapleton Roy, who served as the U.S. ambassador to China from 1991-1995. A University memorial service is planned for late October.