Renowned scholar devoted life to classic novel

Updated: 2012-06-02 07:44

By Mei Jia (China Daily)

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Zhou Ruchang, China's leading scholar of the classic novel A Dream of Red Mansions, died at age of 95 at his home at midnight on Thursday. His death stirred nationwide mourning and excited a new tide of interest in the literary masterpiece, which is important to the Chinese and is thought to have reached unprecedented heights.

Renowned scholar devoted life to classic novel

Zhou Ruchang, 95, China's leading scholar of A Dream of Red Mansions

Zhou began his lifelong study of the book in 1947. He kept working even from his sickbed, though he had bad eyesight and was almost deaf, and dictated a 12-point synopsis on a new book to his daughter Zhou Lunling, only a week ago.

"My father did not care about fame and did not fear death. Being able to do more in-depth research on the book is the only thing he couldn't let go of," the daughter said. "He wished he had been able to accomplish more."

"Zhou is the only one to have devoted so much time - 65 years - to delving deep into the novel's world," Zhao Jianzhong, a Tianjin Normal University professor and council member of the Chinese Society of A Dream of Red Mansions, told China Daily.

"His devotion and contribution are beyond the reach of many others," Zhao said.

Zhou was considered the trendsetter in modern studies of the book. He unveiled information about the life, family and history of Cao Xueqin, the mysterious author of the book, using credible sources to help reveal the hidden aspects of the text.

"To be frank, what I've done with Red Mansion studies is that I look at it from a broad perspective," Zhou said. "The novel contains the essence of Chinese culture, and represents the entity of beauty."

Born to a well-off family in Tianjin, Zhou got a good early education in traditional classics and was a fluent English speaker who later became an English-language major at Yenching University. His language talent helped in introducing the Chinese classic and related culture to foreign readers, especially when he visited four American universities, including Princeton, in the 1980s.

It also impressed the US scholar Ronald Gray, who visited Zhou many times for the translation of the first-ever English-language biography of Cao.

"I view Zhou Ruchang as my teacher. I have learned so much from him about the novel and Chinese culture, and greatly admire his long and heartfelt devotion to the novel," Gray told China Daily in a previous interview.

After graduation, Zhou became a teacher at Sichuan University. There he published the influential book New Evidences to A Dream of Red Mansions, which is considered a landmark, and won him the recognition of pioneering scholar Hu Shi.

He later specialized in Red Mansions studies at the Chinese National Academy of Arts, and produced 60 books.

Zhao, the Tianjin Normal University professor, said he had the greatest respect for Zhou's diligence and passion. Because Zhou in recent decades wasn't able to write and read, he dictated his last books, and his children recorded and read them to him for revision.

"When it came to A Dream of Red Mansions, he had such irrepressible energy that his children sometimes couldn't keep up with him," Zhao said.

"Because I'm cut off from the outer world (because of deafness and poor vision), I'm very good at inspecting my inner thoughts," Zhou told Chinese media in 2011.

Zhou was easy-going and humorous. "He treated people equally and with sincere affection," Zhao said, adding that Zhou's devotion to Red Mansion studies made him "pure" in personality and in social relations.

Zhou was also an accomplished calligrapher, "who was generous and never traded his artworks for money", as Zhao said.

Zhou Lunling said her father died peacefully surrounded by his family. She said the family will honor his wish of "leaving the world silently with no memorial services".

"I have lived a life with no regrets, though there were expectations I didn't live up to," were Zhou's last words.