John Minford | Four Classics of Chinese Literature: Thoughts from Another Great Civilisation

Feb 9, 2023 | Announcements, News & Media

World’s foremost living translator of classic Chinese literature, John Minford, delivers the first Ramsay Lecture for 2023

Sydney, Thursday 09 February 2023: China has become a theme of consuming interest for many people working in geopolitical, business, academic, economic and trade fields across the world. But what do we know about Chinese civilisation itself? What can Chinese literature teach us about a civilisation fully equal to our own in antiquity, richness, and complexity? And further still, what can it teach us about ourselves?

To help uncover some of the deep structures and key concepts of spirit, culture and mindset that inform and define Chinese civilisation, the Ramsay Centre has invited John Minford, Emeritus Professor of Chinese at the ANU, and Sin Wai Kin Distinguished Professor of Chinese Culture and Translation at the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong, to deliver our first Ramsay Lecture for 2023.

His recorded talk, ‘Four Classics of Chinese Literature: Thoughts from Another Great Civilisation’, explores four great works in the Chinese tradition that Professor Minford believes best reveal the ancient lineaments and undercurrents still running through the hearts and spirits of Chinese people today.

Specifically, Professor Minford examines the following ‘great books’ in the Chinese tradition:

*The I Ching c. 700 BC;

*The Tao Te Ching c. 300 BC;

*a selection of the most famous Chinese poems; and

*The Story of the Stone c. 1750-90

In a wide-spanning dive into these ‘four plus’ great works, Professor Minford discusses:

*The peculiarity, as he terms it, of the I Ching, the most ancient Chinese classic,which he says is ‘really a spirit’ and which the Chinese say ‘is not a book at all’;

*The I Ching’s exploration of two polarities, yin and yang, and how they impact on all environments and situations;

*Tao or Dao, the ultimate logos and goal of all virtue, the fundamental concept of Chinese philosophy;

*The curious form of the Tao Te Ching, the ‘great mystical classic of Daoism’, which Professor Minford reads as a composite of ‘ecstatic hymns’ and which teach that the Dao cannot be known intellectually but only through experience and embodiment;

*The contrast between Chinese and Western poetry, with Chinese poetry ‘very much about being absorbed into the universe rather than standing apart and having wonderful, deep, emotional feelings’; and

*Why he believes the epic The Story of the Stone, a very long autobiographical novel by an 18th-century aristocrat,is the most influential work in Chinese civilisation, far surpassing any works relating to Confucianism, and equivalent in stature and influence to Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy and Homer all rolled into one.

Emeritus Professor John Minford was educated at Winchester College, where he was awarded the Goddard Prize in Classics in 1962, and in the same year the Queen’s Gold Medal for Latin Verse Composition. In 1964 he won a scholarship in classics to Balliol College, Oxford. He began studying Chinese in 1966, graduating in 1968 with First Class Honours.

In 1970 he and David Hawkes began their collaborative 5-volume translation of the great 18th-century novel The Story of the Stone, sometimes known as The Dream of the Red Chamber, completing it in 1986. He wrote his doctoral dissertation at the Australian National University from 1977 to 1980, under the supervision of Professor Liu Ts’un-yan. In 1980 he travelled to China, where he taught translation for two years in Tianjin.

From 1982 to 1986 he worked at the Chinese University of Hong Kong with Stephen C. Soong, editing the translation journal Renditions. Since then he has published several translations of Chinese literature, classical and modern, and taught Chinese literature and translation in various universities in China, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia.

Now retired and living in rural New Zealand, John Minford is Emeritus Professor of Chinese at the ANU and Sin Wai Kin Distinguished Professor of Chinese Culture and Translation at the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong. In November 2016 he was awarded the Australian Academy of the Humanities Inaugural Award for Excellence in Translation, for I Ching.

**This recorded lecture will be available via our website on 16 February 2023.

Media contact: Sarah Switzer 0407 816 098 /