Brief bio sketch

Lloyd Haft (1946- ) was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA and lived as a boy in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Kansas. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and went to Leiden, The Netherlands for graduate study in Chinese (M. A. 1973, Ph. D. 1981). From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chinese language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden. His sinological publications include Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983/2011; published in Chinese translation as 发现卞之琳: 一位西方学者的探索之旅 in 2010) and Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness (2006).

He has translated extensively into English from the Dutch of Herman Gorter and Willem Hussem, and from the Chinese of various poets including Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.

Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Uitgeverij Vesuvius in 2011). His most recent book of poems (in Dutch) is Deze poelen, deze geest (2008). His newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog.

After early retirement in 2004, for a number of years Lloyd Haft spent much of his time in Taiwan with his wife Katie Su. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. He sings in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

‘Not on the Lineage List’ – Part One

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 16)

In my sinological youth, I read a number of books which even then fell somewhat outside the recognized ‘field,’ but which down through the years have stayed with me more than many of the ritually approved Standard Works. Maybe if I live long enough, and if I ever again have blocks of time free from the Toils of the Swirling Dust, I will sit down someday and write a tribute to some of the writers, like Lily Abegg and Robert Payne, who pointed out to me some things that mainstream (‘academic’) sinologists were too cautious, or too focused on maintaining their credentials, to put on the table.
        One of those authors was, and is, R. G. H. Siu (1917-1998). He is also known – to the extent that he is ‘known’ at all – as ‘Ralph Siu’ or ‘Ralph Gun-Hoy Siu.’ I wish at this point I could follow the common sinological tradition of immediately adding his name in Chinese characters and Mandarin transcription. But – and to me this is close to the core of his whole ‘story’ – nobody seems to know what it was. I, at any rate, have not been able to find it in library catalogs, web material, lists of ‘famous Chinese-Americans from Hawaii,’ or anywhere else.
        Would ‘Ralph’ have been outraged by his own failure to gain a lasting name? I don’t think so. The whole tenor of his writing suggests he would have assented gladly. At the end of his first widely-read book, The Tao of Science,[1] we read: ‘This book is yet another illustration of the infinity of influences which shape any given event. The author merely happens to be a collating eddy of the myriad contributions to the current of the Tao.’
        That quote, it seems to me, contains two very Chinese ideas: (1) that there is such a thing as a single overall (‘the’) current, and (2) that the ‘author’ is a collator of existing things rather than a creator of new ones.
        On the other hand, just a few lines further on in the acknowledgments, Siu thanks ‘the millions of ancestors.’ Somehow, in a Chinese context, that sounds a little weird to me. ‘Millions’ sounds too many, too non-specific. If you have ‘millions’ of ancestors, then in a way you have none at all. And what is worse: even if you have them, none of them are Illustrious...
        Contrast this – just to get back at once to the milieu of very credential-rich writers – with the specificity of what we read on pages 358-359 of the autobiography of ‘Yuen Ren Chao’ (Zhao Yuanren 趙元任, 1892-1982).[2] There, the author informs us that he is a ‘31st generation descendant’ of the founder of the Song Dynasty, and that his ‘sixth generation grandfather’ was a ‘prominent writer.’ (I bet in their family, in whatever generation, shengren wu ming 聖人無名 ‘The true Sage has no name-and-fame’ would not have been one of the mottoes hanging on the wall!)[3]
        Would ‘a Chinese’, or should we, assume Zhao Yuanren’s spectacular worldly success was due to continuing behind-the-scenes support from his Illustrious Forebears? And that Ralph’s post-mortem difficulty even in getting his own Wikipedia page (more on this shortly!) was because he didn’t have anough nameable Ancestors rooting from him from the Unseen Bleachers? Let’s look at the background.
        Soon after it came out in 1974, I read Siu’s Ch’i: A Neo-Taoist Approach to Life.[4] I found a great deal of it meaningful, but what really won my heart was the very last passage, in which he describes what happened on the hundredth anniversary of his deceased father’s birth. The surviving family, we read, ‘gathered in Honolulu’ and shared observances at Chinese temples there. At home, Siu’s mother lit candles, ‘touched her head to the earth,’ and chanted. Later that evening she divulged to him, as eldest son and ‘future head of the family group,’ that she had explained some things to the ancestors: that it was not realistic to expect that future generations of their line would carry on the Chinese ritual traditions in their American environment. She had asked them to accept this final hundredth-year observance as also fulfilling all future requirements – and to continue always to ‘rain blessings upon their descendants.’
        And what happened after this family event which happened in 1965? For a while, all went well. In 1968, the prestigious MIT Press published another of Siu’s books: The Man of Many Qualities: A Legacy of the I Ching. This was followed in 1974 by Ch’i: A Neo-Taoist Approach to Life. In 1979 and 1980, John Wiley and Sons still published a couple of new books by Siu, this time on management. By now, getting into his sixties, he was the ‘sole author’ (as the coveted phrase goes) of an impressive list of books with blue-chip publishers. All this in addition to holding a Ph.D. in biochemistry and having held important posts with U. S. Government agencies.
        But then...ahh yes, what then? In the 1990s we pick him up again as an author, very prolific. But his productions are no longer in the hands of a recognized publisher. They are issued by The International Society for Panetics, of which Siu was co-founder (in 1991) and guiding spirit. In case you’re wondering what ‘panetics’ is – in three recent dictionaries, I couldn’t find it – it is ‘the study of the infliction of suffering.’
        In other words, by the time he was in his mid-seventies, Siu had apparently drifted pretty badly out of mainstream sight and become, in his own term, an ‘eddy’ in a sense he might not have foreseen: ‘a drift or tendency that is counter to or separate from a main current, as of opinion.’[5] By 2007-2008, his followers were engaged in a hard struggle to get even a brief article on him accepted by the administrators of Wikipedia, who objected that his ‘notability’ was ‘not established.’ The page does now exist.[6] The word ‘notable’ too. Wikipedia does not mention Ch’i among Siu’s ‘notable’ publications, though I personally think it is one of the most memorable books on its subject. The page does, however, mention what many academics would probably consider Siu’s only ‘straight’ book: Microbial Decomposition of Cellulose, published by Reinhold in 1951. I must confess I haven’t yet quite gotten around to reading that one.
        Are we to conclude that Siu’s ancestors, angered at the sudden discontinuation of the traditional sacrifices to them, punished him by withdrawing their Invisible Support and striking him off the Surname and Lineage List to the extent that nowadays even his Chinese name can no longer be found? Will his descendants 31 generations from now even know that at one time he was a ‘prominent writer’?
        We need to take a closer look at what he actually wrote.

[to be continued]

[1] MIT Press and John Wiley and Sons, 1957. Quote from ‘List of Contributors.’
[2] Zhao Yuanren quanji 趙元任全集, vol. 15a, Beijing: Commercial Press 2007.
[3] This is a well-known quote from the first chapter of Zhuangzi.
[4] MIT Press.
[5] From the Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia.
[6] Just in case you want to glance at the background: