David Tod Roy: An Appreciation
Harold L. Kahn
June 12, 2016

This essay originally appeared in The SASA News, Published by the Shanghai American School Association, Posted by permission

The Things He Carried

By the time David Roy arrived at Harvard in 1951, hauling the baggage of his youth as a mish kid in China, he was stamped forever as a SAS brat and brainy swashbuckler.  It was as obvious as the mark of Zorro.  He walked with the hunched gait of either an elder on the slopes of Olympus or a seeker of spare change on the sidewalk.  He talked of slaying rats on the dump heaps of Shanghai and of lubricious readings far beyond his age.  He talked of Hoagy Carmichael singing the Hong Kong Blues and Bessie Smith belting out naughty New Orleans classics. His parents would not have approved.

 They would have approved, however, his love of books.  It was almost physical, that love.  He handled them with the kind of affection others conferred on friends and lovers.  In later years he hewed to a rigorous principle.  He regarded no book as fully read until everything, including end notes and indexes, colophons and acknowledgements were put in his trophy bag.  David kept a log of every book he read, and I wish I had a copy of it.  It surely comprises an autobiography in itself.

We all know the consequences of this love affair.  But not everybody knows its origins.  It began in the fateful decision he made as a 16-year old “looking for a dirty book at a used book store in Nanjing….”  [The quote is from the New York Times: David Tod Roy Completes His Translation of ‘Chin P’ing Mei’]  As anyone at SAS even partially awake at the time knew, he found one.  And more.  He and his bunk mates—precocious lads they were—already distinguished between the literary Frank Harris and the anonymous authors of such, er, classics as The Autobiography of a Flea. Connoisseurship began at an early age.  It was a practice David continued at Harvard.  Many of us, innocent of the hallowed bibliography of pornographic literature, became, as it were, salivating disciples of The Man Who Knew.

The Harvard Years

                     By the time David arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was already well schooled in Chinese.  His interest had been sparked way back in Nanjing when a scholar tutoring him and his brother in the spoken language taught him to write his Chinese name and later gave him a basic facility in written Chinese.  At the time he also met Frederick (Fritz) Mote, a student of Chinese at Nanjing University who was to go on to become the eminent professor of Chinese history at Princeton.  We have no evidence that the learned Mote was reading naughty Chinese books.  But for David the connection was obvious: read Chinese—all of it: classics, fiction, verse, drama, newspapers, candy and toilet paper wrappers, movie marquees, even, occasionally, passages in the Book of Common Prayer—and buy a dirty book.  Voila!  The table was set.

            When he left China in 1950 David found himself outside of Philadelphia attending the Quaker Friends Central private high school for his senior year.  Twice a week however, he took the train in to the University of Pennsylvania where he had been accepted to join a graduate-level course in Chinese under the direction of the renowned sinologist Derke Bodde.  There is no record of what the graduate students thought of being upstaged by the Nerd from Nanjing, but I bet it wasn’t pretty. 

            Harvard at first was not kind to David.  Or rather he was not kind to himself.  Professor Bodde back in Pennsylvania had impressed upon young David that if he were to become a serious sinological scholar—did teenagers aspire to such things?—he would need to know the European languages as well as the East Asian languages.  David signed up for German.  Trouble came quickly.  He did not take to declensions.  They, in turn, did not take to him.  The “ders” and “dens and “dems” and “deses” and “dies” violated his sense of disorder, so he took to another kind of disorder, missing classes (except Chinese and literature), spending his time in Boston’s used book stores and other unseemly joints.  His tutor was not amused.  By the end of his second year, he was invited to leave the university with a right to come back when the adult broke out of its tough teen chrysalis.  David joined the army and was sent off to Taiwan where he spent two years listening in to Chinese military broadcasts from Korea.  He listened well.  His spoken language comprehension flourished, and in his ample spare time he read and read and read.  He was ready to return to that great brick Valhalla on the Charles River.

            Once Professor John King Fairbank, the most influential historian of modern China in the West, brought David under his wing, the die was cast.  Fairbank inspired unswerving loyalty, almost abject admiration, and quivering fear among his graduate students. He also believed in comic relief, the only defense against the hopeless scope of Chinese history.  It was too hard, he said, and there was too much of it.   David, still formally an undergraduate, admired and feared and laughed with the rest of us, and as he segued naturally into the graduate program, he began what would be his first book.  We tend to think of David as the Jin Ping Mei guy, as if that’s all he was or did.  But his little monograph on the early career of Guo Moruo is still cited today by scholars of modern China.  Guo was famous and infamous, hailed at one time as the Goethe of China—a sobriquet he immodestly claimed for himself—but also as a toady to the eminence of Mao.  He was modern China’s all-purpose intellectual.  Bad or good, he was in his time, the 1930s to the ‘60s, a legitimately important figure in contemporary Chinese literature, archaeology, history and poetry.  David dawdled over the manuscript.  He took it with him in 1962, still unfinished, to Princeton where he accepted a position as an assistant professor of history. Therein lies a tale.  Professor Fairbank did not approve of procrastination, even in the guise of perfectionism.  He was visiting Princeton to give a talk, visited David in his office, spied the manuscript on his desk, took it in hand, and while leaving, congratulated David on having completed his Ph.D. degree.  David was fond of telling the story on himself.

            Truth be told, he had lost interest in Guo Moruo long before.  By 1958 David was inducted into Harvard’s Society of Fellows, the most prestigious honor a young scholar could hope to receive.  To read its requirements is to foresee such coveted awards as the MacArthur “genius” fellowships.  “They must,” says the Society’s official brochure, “ be persons of exceptional ability, originality, and resourcefulness, and should be of the highest caliber of intellectual achievement, comparable to successful candidates for junior faculty positions at leading universities.”  Members had no responsibilities except to work on whatever they wished to, either toward a Ph.D. degree or not.  For the next three years David was free to do what he wished.  So he spent the years reading widely in Chinese and English literature and history. One could find him of evenings in the smoking lounge of Dunster House, where he served as a tutor.  Over wine, beer, or single malt whiskey and in a cloud of cigarette smoke, he held forth to anyone who happened to stop by.  It was brilliant.  David was a raconteur, a critic, an authority all in one, with firm—sometimes rock hard—opinions. As the evening wore on and the libations wore down, David would become more voluble, and finally we would all trudge off to Hayes and Bickford, an all night joint, for a 4:00 AM booster of coffee, tobacco, and pie.

Translating Jin Ping Mei*

            David was already reading the Jin Ping Mei in these years.  He began to assemble a library of works he would need to seriously study the great work.  By the time the last volume appeared in 2013, his shelves contained several thousand such books.  He also purchased while still at Harvard the 1962 complete Japanese edition of Jin Ping Mei, and when it was not on David’s desk it was making the rounds of his Chinese colleagues.  The story is still told that Dr. Chang Hsin-pao (Zhang Xinbao) insisted on hiding the book in paper wrappers when walking in Harvard Square.  He did not wish to be exposed as a pervert!   And it cannot be denied that the dirty parts were a magnet too strong to resist.  This led to the famous night when David and his medievalist friend John Bruckman sat down to do some serious translating.  David owned a little red book which comprised in its entirety the Latin passages primly published in Clement Egerton’s 1939 translation, and they wanted to get things right.  David’s SAS-acquired Latin had long since joined German in the trash heap of history.  Bruckman knew his stuff.  (I watched as they poured over the Chinese and the Latin.)  The result was a delightful and silly surprise.  The Latin too was expurgated!  We would have to wait decades for David to lay it all out for us in its full undress.

            For the next thirty years, from his time at Princeton and then at the University of Chicago, he taught and read and studied the book.  In the process he produced a generation of brilliant young literary scholars who went on to eminent careers in the academy, including his cousin Catherine Swatek, now a professor of  Chinese literature at the University of British Columbia.  He taught them to be what he was, a close reader of the text.  His aim over the decades was to produce not only the first complete English translation but a scholarly reading of the work, identifying every allusion to earlier writings, every passage or fragment of earlier plays, operas, vernacular literature, philosophy, street slang, poetry, religious texts and practices, including corrupt latter-day popular proclamations of faith.  These efforts were of a piece with his reading of Jin Ping Mei as both an ironic reflection on and satiric exposé of late Ming culture and society. This remarkable scholarship led eventually to over 5373 end notes over the course of the five volumes.  By doing so David created an an encyclopedic repository of literary and cultural knowledge unprecedented in the annals of vernacular literature.

            Jin Pin Mei may be the world’s most comprehensive examination of bad behavior.  The varieties of corruption and excess in all things is stunning: The book begins with a murder and ends, almost three thousand pages later, in ignominious death of the remaining survivors of the fall of the house Xi-men Qing, the wealthy merchant who gave late Ming villainy a bad name!  The novel teems with characters—over eight hundred of them—who range up and down the ladder of success.  The Ming dynasty court was on the take; so were its great officials.  Bankers, sellers, buyers, con-men, forgers, bribers, brokers, delinquents, fraudulent Buddhist bonzes, dishonest Daoist priests, and quack doctors pushing tainted or fake cures: all danced across the seductive stage of corruption.  Women at all levels, courtesans and whores, wives and concubines, singing girls and slaves, sold their bodies or were sold by others.  They murdered and poisoned with as much brio as the men. Money ruled the world, indifferent to the winners and losers.

Jin Ping Mei was the first and greatest Chinese urban novel.  You can almost smell the incense and dung, cloy at the rich banquet fare, savor the sweets of street snacks and later in the book, reel at the stink of ruin. Crowds gawk at women walking the streets for the Lantern Festival; funerals unfold in mind-boggling detail, and corrupt eunuchs and venal officials come and go. David commands the entire scene. He gives us the feel and texture of things: elaborate clothing sported by the nouveau riche, baubles piled up in the hairdos of their women, sumptuous gardens and courtyards within courtyards, and embroidered shoes and filigreed hairpins that are the tokens of status.  He (and the anonymous author) are masters of the minute. The devil, they show us, is brilliantly in the details.

            If the Jin Ping Mei is portrayed as an immoral universe, David shows us how much the anonymous author (his identity is still debated) meant it.  David argues that the author grounded his satire in the teachings of the ancient Confucian philosopher Xun Zi.  What better way to expose the wickedness of his times than to enlist a sage who sought to expose the wickedness of his!  The tale then is a deeply moralistic one, but you wouldn’t know it for all the naughtiness that spreads its delightful stain over those thousands of pages.  This is a translation for the ages.

*I am grateful to Professor Catherine Swatek for advice on this section.

A Fond Farewell

            Dear David, old friend, you were sui generis, one of a kind.  You were eccentric to a fault. It adorned your genius.  You were compulsive and obsessive.  You memorized early on the names and makes and models of cars; then it was trains.  Then it was—how do I put this?—oral hygiene.  You brushed your teeth five, ten times a day.  I watched in awe and puzzlement.  Then it was smoking.  Every cigarette had to pass the freshness test.  If it failed, it was thrown out.  The tobacco industry loved you.  You bought pack upon pack only to dismiss them, having failed to live up to your exacting standards.  The Republic of Letters must have sighed in relief when you stopped smoking; you would live to write another day.  Then, and finally, there was the Jin Ping Mei.  Yours was a magnificent obsession.  We are your eternal beneficiaries. 

            No, dear friend, you didn’t do by yourself, though the notion of the reclusive scholar must have been attractive.  The world has a debt to pay to Barbara Chew Roy, psychoanalyst and, whenever you looked up from your manuscript, your wife!  She became custodian of the last citizen of the Age of Reason.  It couldn’t have been easy.  She managed your life with grace.  And she took you skiing!  I always thought that you were of the tribe that believed that if god wanted us to ski s/he would have given us long feet.  Your survival was our good luck.  Your brother Stape nods in agreement.

            The sweetest way to say farewell is to give the final word to your father.  An accomplished poet, he wrote this at the age of 96 to celebrate your retirement in 1999.  No one could have put it better:


Now sixty-six, and what a mix

of wisdom and hilarity!

His brain still ticks; he still lights wicks

as beacons for posterity.


In his scholarship he's thorough

but pugnacious as a burro

if he's thwarted or aborted

or delayed.


He's addicted to translation

and has earned our admiration

for his plethora of footnotes

on each page.


If he doesn't know an answer,

it affects him like a cancer,

and he'll fly as far as Shanghai

for new facts.


He'll research and recompose

till he's certain that he knows

all the petty little details

that he lacks.


If he sees a book, he gets it,

reads it, files it and neglects it,

but he never quite forgets it,

He’s a scholar.


His library keeps on growing

without any sign of slowing,

and bookcases in his office

can't be taller.


When he finally meets St. Peter

He'll demand that, as a reader,

he must have his books in heaven,

or be damned.