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  • A Matter of Life and Death:The Translator Fou Lei
  • John Minford (bio)
Mingyuan Hu. Fou Lei: An Insistence on Truth. Leiden: Brill, 2017. x, 251 pp. Hardcover $165.00, ISBN 978-90-04-34391-7.

Fou Lei 傅雷 (1908–1966)1 was the celebrated translator who brought to Chinese readers numerous masterpieces of French literature, including works by Romain Rolland, Balzac, Voltaire and Hippolyte Taine. He spent three and a half years as an idealistic and adventurous young man in France, Switzerland and Italy, from 1928 to 1931, before returning to Shanghai and launching himself into a prolific career as a cultural critic and translator, becoming one of China's leading public men of letters. After 1949, like so many Chinese intellectuals and creative artists of his generation, he was courted by the new regime (a courting made easier by his own wishful thinking), and during the early 1950s he made ever more strenuous efforts to be accepted by the new cultural commissars. He sincerely hoped that he might be allowed to play a genuine role in the New China, provided he could appear to believe in its underlying ideology (even partially), and could be seen to help to promote it. After a few years of this fruitless self-abasement he was, like thousands of others, rejected and ultimately destroyed in the double holocaust of the Anti-Rightist Purge of 1957 and the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Early in September 1966, after three days of relentless verbal and physical abuse from the Red Guards of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, he and his wife Zhu Meifu 朱梅馥 committed suicide in their Shanghai home. His poignant life-story mirrors the destiny of countless Chinese intellectuals caught in the meshes of the ruthless party-state.

Fou is most widely known today in the Chinese-speaking world for the posthumous best-selling volume Letters to Fou Ts'ong (Fulei Jiashu 傅雷家書), consisting of letters he and his wife wrote to their talented older son Fou Ts'ong 傅聰, who after a period studying the piano in Warsaw (having won third prize in the 1955 Chopin Competition) sought refuge in London in late 1958. Fou Ts'ong went on to become one of the leading concert pianists of his time, acclaimed especially for his performances of the Chopin Mazurkas.2 The Letters were edited and published in Hong Kong and China by the couple's second son Fu Min 傅敏, using material he collected from his brother's London home.3 They are a moving testimony to the inner life of a tormented [End Page 77] Chinese intellectual under the yoke of Communism. Hu Mingyuan, in this remarkable new study, quotes extensively from the Letters, which she perceptively characterizes as "an epic poem from beginning to end."

I am taking the liberty to append to this review-essay a few examples from the aborted translation of the Letters themselves. From this sampling of the dialogue Fou Lei conducted with his brilliant young son, readers can form a first-hand impression of his character, which can serve as a counterpoint to Hu Mingyuan's critical study, placing it in an intimate personal context.4

The Letters vividly illustrate the evolution of Fou Lei's thinking during the mid-1950s, crucial years in the establishment of the new party-state and its cultural policies. In 1954–1955, immediately after Fou Ts'ong's departure for Poland, Fou père sought tirelessly to share with him the fundamentals of Chinese and European philosophy and aesthetics—sending him carefully selected Chinese books and quoting passages from the great Chinese poets. The Letters are peppered with references to classical Chinese literature and philosophy, which is one reason why translating them required the copious addition of footnotes (which I have abbreviated here). In addition to this classical background, there was also the need for the translator to sketch in for the lay reader the fraught political landscape of the years 1954–1958, against which Fou Lei was writing. The heavy-handed denunciation in 1954 of Yu Pingbo 俞平伯 (1900–1990), one of China's most distinguished literary scholars, and the 1955 Purge of the writer Hu Feng 胡風 (1902–1985) loom darkly behind the Letters. Despite...


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