Anthony Yu, U. of C. prof who did landmark translation of beloved Chinese story, dead at 76

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Every culture loves a good quest, whether it’s “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Odyssey” or “The Wizard of Oz.”

In China, one of the greatest is “The Journey to the West,” a 500-year-old novel — based on stories that had circulated for 500 years before that — about a 7th-century monk who travels to India in search of Buddhist scriptures. Along the way, he and his sidekicks — clever, cocky Monkey; gluttonous, earthy Pigsy; and another human, Sandy —face tests thrown their way by demons, sirens and shape-shifters. It takes 15 or so years, but the monk finally makes it back to China, with the Buddhist texts intact.

Anthony C. Yu from the University of Chicago was the first to translate all 100 chapters into English. The 1,873 pages he produced —four volumes in all — took him about eight years. His introduction alone runs about 62 pages.

Mr. Yu, a professor of religion and literature at the U. of C., died May 12 after a short illness. He was 76.

“It was a giant achievement,” Edward Shaughnessy, a professor in East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the university, said of Mr. Yu’s work on “The Journey to the West.”

In a 1983 review, The New York Times said Mr. Yu’s translation “magnificently” supplanted the partial versions available previously and called it “one of the great ventures of our time in humanistic translation and publication.”

“Journey to the West” is a wave that created 1,000 ripples, according to Shaughnessy.

“Perhaps the essential Chinese story,” it has been told and retold in comics, books and movies, Shaughnessy said. “The exploits are fantastic. This gets replayed in Peking Opera all the time, and the Monkey is able to go somersaulting through the heavens. Much of Chinese ‘gongfu’ movies are inspired by the antics of Monkey. ‘Kung Fu Panda’ is really just a kind of transformation of the Monkey.”

It’s a story widely known in Chinese culture, especially among first-generation immigrants, said Anita Luk, executive director of the Chinese American Museum of Chicago. Monkey, also known as the Monkey King, “has a lot of tricks. The Monkey is very clever, but he is also a troublemaker,” Luk said.

Pigsy, or Piggy, “is another troublemaker,” she said. “But he is not as clever, so he could create the trouble for the Monkey to solve, and then the Monk is tempted with different temptations.”

His work inspired Mary Zimmerman to adapt and direct “Journey to the West” in 1995 for the Goodman Theatre, a production praised as “pure theatrical transcendence” by Chicago Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss. “His translation in English is the standard,” said Zimmerman, a professor of performance studies at Northwestern University. “Journey to the West” is “profound about how to live, and how to integrate the different parts of yourself into a complete whole.”

Mr. Yu also produced a condensed version, titled “The Monkey and the Monk.’’

When Shaughnessy invited Mr. Yu to visit a class he was teaching on the abridged version, several Chinese and Chinese-American students were excited to hear from him, recalling its influence on the comic books and cartoons of their childhoods.

His life mingled Eastern and Western influences. Growing up in Hong Kong, his grandfather told him stories about the monk and Monkey and Piggy. And they liked going to the cinema, where his grandfather savored cartoons as much as Westerns. “Judging by the way my grandfather laughed in the theatre and talked about the episodes afterwards (his favorites included Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, and Yosemite Sam), I’d say that the adult most certainly enjoyed the looney adventures of these uniquely American characters as much as the child,” Mr. Yu said in a memoir published in AustralianCQ National University’s China Heritage Quarterly.

He did undergraduate studies at Houghton College and earned a doctorate at the University of Chicago in 1969. He received ACLS, Guggenheim and Mellon fellowships, among others.

Mr. Yu enjoyed good wine and food, and often invited students to dinner at the home he shared with his wife, Priscilla. The couple enjoyed attending performances of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera.

He is also survived by his son, Christopher. A memorial service is planned for 3 p.m. June 14 at the University of Chicago’s Bond Chapel.

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