Chaucer in China: Reading Fang Chong (Fang Zhong)


Fang and ChaucerAbove: On left, Fang Chong (方重). On right, Chaucer portrait printed in Fang’s 1983 Chinese translation of The Canterbury Tales. (Chaucer image based upon the well-known Bodleian portrait; Fang photo found here)

Candace Barrington and I are very excited to be co-presenting a paper at the upcoming conference in St. Andrews on “The Middle Ages in the Modern World” (see information and abstracts HERE). In addition to introducing people to the rapidly expanding Global Chaucers project, we plan to discuss how one Chaucerian narrative (The Miller’s Tale) gets re-appropriated in a number of different languages.

Candace and I are planning to start posting (and inviting guest postings!) that feature interesting examples of non-Anglophone Chaucer translation or adaptation. In this posting, I’d like to offer some initial thoughts on one of the works we’ll discuss in our presentation: a 1983 Chinese prose translation of Chaucer by Fang Chong (see the Library of Congress citation HERE). In this posting, I provide a glimpse into my research process as a Chaucerian who happens to have some working knowledge of Mandarin Chinese but is not a trained China specialist. I will also discuss some of the challenges currently facing scholars who conduct research (or would like to do more research) on Chinese appropriation of Chaucer. I’ll end—shamelessly!—with a plug for our ongoing Global Chaucers project.

Who is Fang Chong?

Fang Chong (方重), sometimes identified as Fang Zhong (1902-1991), was born in China and studied English literature at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, from 1923-1927; he enjoyed a long career as a respected literary translator and Chaucer scholar upon his return to China.[1] Fang published, among many other things, scholarship on Chinese poetry, Chinese translations of Shakespeare, and Chinese renditions of Chaucer’s works: he first translated Troilus and Criseyde and the dream visions into prose and short lyrics into verse (starting in the 1930’s and 1940’s), and he published a complete prose edition of the Canterbury Tales in 1955 (which were reprinted as part of Chaucer’s collected works in 1979, with a new revision of Canterbury Tales published in 1983). These works were published by the Shanghai Translation Press, and Fang remains an important aspect of the legacy of Shanghai International Studies University. In 2011 (the twentieth anniversary of Fang’s death), SISU established an award for literary translation in Fang’s honor.

The Miller’s Tale: Back-Back-Translation

How did I become interested in the work of Fang Chong? My first inkling of Fang’s existence comes through a little-known piece by Peter G. Beidler and Xiao Anpin called “The Miller’s Tale in China” (first published in the Chaucer Newsletter in 1989, later reprinted in a collection of essays by Beidler).[2] Beidler, visiting as a Fulbright professor at Sichuan University in 1987-1988, collaborated with a Chinese colleague Xiao Anpu, a professor in the Foreign Language Department of Shichuan University in Chengdu, to examine Fang’s translation of Chaucer. Focusing primarily on plot and general themes, they read Fang’s 1983 translation of the tale alongside F. N. Robinson’s The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957) [fortunately Fang’s preface indicates he used Robinson’s edition, so Beidler and Xiao were on solid ground there]. This enterprise faced a significant challenge due to the respective language capacities and prior experience of the collaborators. Beidler did not know Chinese, and Xiao had never read the Middle English. So Xiao “back-translated” Fang’s Chinese into modern English and shared this translation with Beidler. Beidler and Xiao then compared notes, and they observed curious discrepancies between Chaucer and Fang (some of which I’ll discuss below).

When I first read this piece by Beidler and Xiao, I was quite intrigued—but I also found myself frustrated not knowing exactly how find out more about Fang’s work. The article pointed to relevant passages in Chaucer’s Middle English, but it didn’t provide any actual Chinese-language quotations from Fang’s text—it only cited Xiao’s mediated “back-translation.” And I didn’t even know the Chinese characters for Fang’s name (more on the issue of Fang’s name in just a bit). After some creative experiments in “back-back-translation” from Beidler’s citation of Xiao’s English translation, I was eventually able to identify the correct author name and determine that a copy of Fang’s 1983 translation is in the collection of the Library of Congress. On the first day I arrived in the LOC Asian Reading Room I called up the item, and was told it would take a day to arrive from off-site storage. While I was waiting for the physical book to arrive, I was able to gain remote access to an electronic version of the text (more on this process below) and I began to find and compare the Chinese passages equivalent to the ones mentioned by Beidler and Xiao.

As I viewed the electronic copy of Fang’s text, I found I agreed with Beidler and Xiao that many of the changes that Fang had made to Chaucer’s text were quite minor. For instance, the Middle English “knedyng trogh” or “kymelyn” (3548) is difficult to translate (it’s a container one uses to brew liquor or salt meat)—so Fang’s functional approximation was 澡盆 [bathtub] (69). Other times, more meaningful wordplay got “lost in translation.” Chaucer’s punning Middle English references to Alisoun’s “queynte” (vagina), most noticeably, became references to 她的腰 [her waist] (54). (For for more on the double entendre involved in Chaucer’s use of “queynte,” see this entry in the Middle English Dictionary and this related blog posting.)

Beidler surmises that Fang was “toning down” or sanitizing the bawdy narrative for a new Chinese audience, but I’d say—taking a second look at certain moments in the Chinese text—that Fang actually preserves some of the original tale’s sensibility. For instance, the narrator states that the carpenter John “demed hymself been lik a cokewold” (3226), and Fang renders this as 很怕做乌龟 [he very much feared he’d be a tortoise] (63). This translation might seem utterly baffling—until you learn that “tortoise” is one of many turtle-related Chinese expressions for mocking an old husband with an unfaithful wife.[3] Here Fang finds a functionally equivalent Chinese phrase (animal metaphor) in order to express a Middle English vernacular idea.

Fang 1983 GP Opening
Above: Opening of the General Prologue (partial screenshot taken while accessing the Duxiu Database; taken May 30, 2013). Previously posted on the Global Chaucers Facebook page.

It seems clear to me that a fuller sense of Fang’s strategies of translating the Miller’s Tale can be gained once the tale is put in its wider context, i.e., Fang’s rendition of The Canterbury Tales as a whole. As I see it, Fang’s translation suggests an investment in the idea of Chaucer as a “serious” writer. In addition to transmitting the plot and themes of Chaucer’s narratives (as Beidler and Xiao note), Fang also preserves aspects of the poet’s literary register and style. Above are the opening lines of the General Prologue in Fang’s 1983 prose translation; since I’m still unaccustomed to typing lengthy passages in Chinese, I provide a partial screenshot I took while viewing the text electronically via the Duxiu Database (read more about this unique resource HERE). Fang’s text is not in verse, but it closely follows the clauses of the Chaucer’s opening lines: 当 … 当 … [When… when…] with subsequent references to the young sun and spring, birds, people going on pilgrimage, and (finally) the shrine of Thomas Becket.

Fang sometimes makes some bold choices in order to render the text intelligible to a modern Chinese reader. For instance, Fang clarifies he is translating “Zephyrus” (Classical personification of the West Wind) as 和风 [gentle breeze or wind]—since a more faithful translation of “Zephyrus” as 西风 [West Wind] might strike unacquainted Chinese readers as too obscure. A few lines down, Fang clarifies Chaucer’s allusion to “the Ram” by referring instead to the Aries constellation (白羊宮座). Fang explains these translations of “Zephyrus” and “Ram” with footnotes to the reader. [4] In these opening lines, Fang makes an attempt to smooth out the text for the reader while also preserving some sense of its elevated diction.

Fang 1983 Pilgrims and Contents

Above: Canterbury pilgrim portraits (based on the Ellesmere manuscript) immediately before Fang’s table of contents.

At this point, Fang’s translation does strike me as less interested in the bawdy aspects of the poet and more invested in cultivating a learned register—perhaps to convey the notion of Chaucer as weighty, “sententious” author. But Fang’s translation isn’t entirely serious, as he does seem to exhibit a nuanced (if highly understated) sense of irony. Although the online digital scan of Fang’s 1983 edition didn’t make this aspect of the book readily apparent, I did notice—when physical copy of the text arrived the next day—that the front matter of the book actually includes a few pages of pilgrim portraits (see above); these are modeled after the Ellesmere portraits, with each pilgrim bearing a Chinese caption that corresponds to how he or she is identified in the table of contents.

Fang 1983 Pilgrim as Thopas

Above: Chaucer pilgrim, as he appears in the front matter to Fang’s 1983 translation.

This is all well and good, but something curious happens with the Chaucer portrait (above). This pilgrim is given the caption 托巴斯先生 (Sir Tuōbāsī, i.e., Sir Thopas) – which is a very odd misattribution. What we call in English The Tale of Sir Thopas is not the story told by Sir Thopas, but rather Chaucer’s story about Sir Thopas. So is the protagonist of this tale being conflated with the tale’s pilgrim-narrator? Things become even stranger when we compare these printed images to the illustrations in the Ellesmere manuscript, the visual “source” for these portraits (see all the images reproduced on the Digital Scriptorium). The medieval manuscript actually depicts the Chaucer-pilgrim pointing toward The Tale of Melibee, and not The Tale of Sir Thopas (see fol. 153v). While Fang seems to appreciate Chaucer as a “serious” writer, this front matter—intentionally or not—aligns Chaucer with his own “bad” tale, and not his “serious” one. Is this all a mistake, or an “inside joke” on Fang’s part? (After all, the name 托巴斯先生  does correspond to the tale’s title in Fang’s title of contents.) Perhaps the textual apparatus as a whole—Fang’s own preface, footnotes, and transformations of the Middle English text—suggest a sly, mischievous Chaucerian mode, a wink to those readers “in the know.”

Take Home Messages

I’ll conclude this posting with some “take home messages.” What can be learned from my brief examination of one Chinese translator’s engagement with Chaucer?

Unexpected linguistic challenges. Ideally a scholar working on Chaucer reception in China should have mastery of both Middle English and Chinese; if not, some creative modes of collaboration might be in order (Beidler and Xiao offer one early model). But even for people know both English and Chinese (or people like myself who know the two languages unevenly), there are a number of challenges that could be addressed to better facilitate future work in the field. One difficulty in locating existing texts and scholarship is the variety of ways to transliterate foreign names in Chinese and (conversely) Chinese names the Roman alphabet. It seems standard for Chinese publications to render “Chaucer” as 乔叟 [Qiáosǒu] but the exact characters used for the personal name “Geoffrey” or place name “Canterbury” can differ (e.g., Fang approximates “Geoffrey” through the characters 杰弗雷 [Jiéfúlǐ] but in other Chinese-language contexts use 杰弗里). The Romanization of the name of the Chinese translator I’ve discussed, 方重, isn’t stable either. In Mandarin Chinese, the character 重 can be pronounced chóng or zhòng (depending on context), and for some reason most of the scholarship in Chinese I’ve encountered uses the Romanization of “Chong” (or “Chung”) while scholarship in English uses “Zhong.” To complicate things even more, mainland China uses a set of Simplified characters while other Sinophone areas such as Taiwan employ Traditional ones. So conflicting modes of transliteration (different forms of pronouncing and transcribing proper names), as well as different script systems (written characters within Chinese), all have consequences for how one enters data or inquiries into online search engines or catalogs (whether or not such databases character-based or alphabetic).

Access. The vast majority of Chinese translations of Chaucer are still obscure (to Anglophone scholars working in the US, anyway). Many Chinese-language materials can be viewed through the Duxiu Database, but electronic access is only partial—in more ways that one. First, you can only access the Duxiu Database if you have some sort of institutional access (people here in DC can consult the Chinese e-resources page at the Asian Reading Room at the Library of Congress, but I would imagine libraries and institutions in other places subscribe as well). Second, the entire content of any digitized text cannot be accessed in one sitting. (The Duxiu interface is much like a limited preview in Google Books; only a fixed amount of pages can be viewed. It is possible to make a request to receive a link via email to view up to 50 pages or 20% of a given book, but access to those 50 pages ends expires and even when they are visible pages cannot be downloaded.) Third, digital scans can lack certain “other” aspects of the text, such as illustrations or other front matter. Even if illustrations are scanned as well, they might not show up on a user’s “radar” if one searches a digitized text only by key words/characters.

Book history matters. My initial goal, I thought, was rather simple: I wanted to find the original Chinese text of the 1983 translation of The Miller’s Tale by Fang Chong, and to compare particular Chinese passages to the ones already discussed by Beidler and Xiao. My initial access to an electronic copy of the text helped me start much of this work. But I found that just quick look at the physical book invited many more questions than I could have anticipated. The textual apparatus in this particular edition—including the front matter (i.e. translator preface), footnotes, revisions across editions, and images—is potentially as useful for shaping a full understanding of the work as a complete Chinese-language transcription of the “main text” itself.

Building an online database. My exploration of this rendition of a single tale is just the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to a wider field of Chaucer translation studies. The Global Chaucers project is indeed ambitious (and utopian), aiming—among other things—to generate a catalog of all the modern non-English translations and adaptations of Chaucer that exist “out there” in the world. We certainly hope this project—which can only succeed through increased collaboration—will continue to grow and expand and go as far as it can to provide knowledge of and access to non-English materials. In assembling an online catalog of Chaucerian translations and adaptations, we hope to provide as much information we can to aid future scholars in their search for resources. So in the case of Chinese, this means somehow accounting for variant spellings of authorial names and providing the necessary Chinese characters for all proper names and titles—and if full access to a Chaucerian translation can’t be provided online, then we can at least start pointing users in the right direction.

THANK YOU to many people for their help so far! I am grateful to Yuwu Song, Chinese Reference Librarian, Asian Division, Library of Congress, for guiding me through some of the major Chinese e-resources accessible at the LOC for showing me how to navigate Duxiu Databse system (see also Song’s helpful e-resources guide as a PDF here). I also thank my colleagues Alexander Huang and Liana Chen for their very helpful general comments on Fang’s translation. Alex directed me to the Bibliography of Asian Studies (which provided information on additional English-language scholarship on Fang Chong). Thanks also to Alex for introducing me and Candace to Michael Gibbs Hill; he has been helping us to locate prose translations by other Chinese writers and to brainstorm other research approaches.

All of this, of course, is work in progress, and any corrections or suggestions are welcome!


CAO Hang (曹航). “Fang Chong and Chaucer.” Comparative Literature in China 88, 3 (2012): 27-38. See abstract in Chinese and in English HERE.

CHAN, Mimi. “On Translating Chaucer into Chinese.” Renditions 8 (1977): 39-51.

FAN, Shouyi. “Translation of English Fiction and Drama in Modern China: Social Context, Literary Trends, and Impact.” Meta: journal des traducteurs / Meta: Translators’ Journal, 44, 1 (1999), 154-177; see HERE.

FANG Zhong (trans.), Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Shanghai: Shanghai Yiwen Press, 1983). Chinese Title: 坎特伯雷故事 / 杰弗雷・乔叟 ; 方重译. Transliteration: Kantebolei gu shi / Jiefulei Qiaosou ; Fang Zhong yi. See HERE.

LIU Qin. “A Study of Fang Zhong as a Translator.” Sichuan University (People’s Republic of China), Ph.D. Dissertation, 2008. [I haven’t been able to acquire this dissertation, but I know it exists!] See HERE.

[1] Fang also wrote under the pen name 芦浪 (Lú Làng). For a general sense of Fang’s publications and career, see the online Chinese article on Baidu and a more cursory entry on Chinese-language Wikipedia; for more detailed accounts, see Cao and Liu (listed in bibliography).

[2] Beidler, Peter G., and Xiao Anpu, “The Miller’s Tale in China.” Chaucer Newsletter 11, 2 (1989): 3, 8. Reprinted in Beidler, Chaucer’s Canterbury Comedies: Origins and Originality (Coffeetown Press, 2011), 17-22.

[3] Not quite a scholarly source, but see HERE on the “turtle” as cuckold reference in Chinese.

[4] For “Zephyrus” Fang’s earlier 1955 and 1979 translations used the phrase 东风 (East Wind) for political reasons; see Fan Shouyi (1999), at p. 171, and note 7 on p. 175.