ATHENS — Julia Chang Lin, a scholar of Chinese literature who brought a forgotten generation of women poets in China and a new generation of post-war Chinese women poets to a western audience, died on Thursday, Aug. 1, of complications from neuroendocrine cancer in New York City. She was 85.
The daughter of Tsang Foh-Sing and Sung Zong-Cui, she was born Ming-hui Tsang in Shanghai on May 4, 1928, and raised there and in the small southern coastal town of Amoy. Her mother, who died when Julia was eight, was a nurse; her father, a successful ophthalmologist who received his education at the University of Pennsylvania. His patients included Madame Sun Yat-sen. (Both of her grandmothers were doctors, long before Chinese women were accorded either independence or ready access to such professions.)
She attended St. Mary’s Hall School for Girls and St. John’s University in Shanghai. On the same day in May of 1949 that the Communists marched into Shanghai, a telegram arrived from Smith College, announcing her acceptance and awarding her a scholarship. The family housekeeper, Liu Ma, sewed the telegram and two $10 bills into the collars of Julia’s Chinese dress. As the Nationalist government bombed the coast, she was smuggled to the United States on a fishing boat with her best friend, Shirley Wang. Detained for weeks on an island held by the Nationalists, Julia arrived at Smith one month after the semester had started, in October 1949. Three decades would pass before she again saw her two brothers, whom she had helped raise after their mother’s death. By the time she made her first trip back to China, in 1979, her father, two grandmothers, and Liu Ma had died.
Though her godmother, Hao Po, hoped Julia would enter the medical profession, Julia had, even before she left China, discovered English literature. After graduating from Smith with a BA in English in 1951, she earned an MA in English from the University of Washington in 1952, and in 1965 a PhD in the emerging field of Chinese Language and Literature.
At Washington, she developed her skills as a writer and translator of poetry. She spoke Mandarin, Shanghainese, an Amoy dialect (her summer language), English, Cantonese, French, Fukienese (her husband’s native tongue), and a bit of Japanese. One of her teachers, Theodore Roethke, liked one of her poems, “Song of the Crazy Monk,” so much that he mailed it off to the prominent literary journal Botteghe Oscure, which published it. It was Julia’s first publication. Her thesis advisor at UW was so impressed with her PhD thesis that he helped secure its publication as “Modern Chinese Poetry: An Introduction.”
In Seattle, she met her husband, the late Henry Huan Lin, son of Lin Chang-Min, a patriarch, politician and calligrapher instrumental in establishing the Chinese League of Nations, and stepbrother to Lin Huiyin, considered the first female architect in China. Julia’s father was opposed to the marriage, but relatives living in Seattle agreed to give her away. The Lins eventually moved, in 1959, to Athens, Ohio, where Henry started the ceramics program (and later became Dean of the Fine Arts College) and Julia became a professor of English. They raised their family, learned to barbecue, and even bought a 102-acre farm. She learned to drive a car (a Chevrolet), boil an egg (hard-boiled) and cook American (Rice-A-Roni), with the plaid-covered Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book at her side. One year, her husband installed a kitchen blower to vent out the smell of cooking to the outside. Guests to the house were always served Chinese food.
All that aside, her favorite activity (besides going to garage sales, of course) was sitting in her chair, quietly reading, and occasionally looking out at a weeping cherry tree at 30 Cable Lane.
In the classroom, Julia was a radiant presence, especially known for her meticulous enunciation of the sounds of poetry in the classroom. Elizabeth Dodd, a prominent poet and former student, recalls the “careful precision of her elocution carrying the knowledge of another language altogether.” Julia mentored students at formative stages in their careers, inviting them to her house for tea and conversations that ranged, as another former student Tom Mantey remembers, from mystery books, to the therapeutic benefit of green over Black Gunpowder tea, to giving ma-po tofu the proper mouth-numbing heat known as ma la (not just la). Mantey recalled the “marvelous gifts from her, which include a gorgeous little tetsubin, an even smaller Yixing pot around which little squirrels scamper and a set of baoding balls.” To her son, Tan, now a poet, she gave the “The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950” by T.S. Eliot on his graduation from 8th grade.
Dr. Lin made groundbreaking contributions to the field of modern and contemporary Chinese poetry. “Modern Chinese Poetry: An Introduction,” completed shortly after the Nixon detente made visits to China possible, enabled her to go to China to gather poetic materials and small literary journals and produce pioneering scholarly/critical studies of modern and contemporary Chinese poetry. Lin became friends with many of these poets, including Shu-Ting, who was persecuted during the “anti-spiritual pollution” movement that was launched in 1983. Among the poets translated in her first book, was Ping Hsin and Lin Huiyin whose short lyric mini-poems were pioneering works in modern China. At Ohio University she helped inaugurate Chinese language courses and, in her courses and colloquiums, she was the one-person Asian Studies department, introducing students to “The Tale of Genji” and “Journey to the West.” After retiring in 1998, she continued to champion the works of women writers in China. Her four books have been influential in bringing recognition to, and appreciation of, Chinese women poets from mainland China and Taiwan. She, as it turns out, was uneasy about being called a poet, but she was. From the poem that Roethke so admired, “Song of a Crazy Monk:”
Where are the plum-lipped ladies
Of Tang? In beds of spider dust.
O let them pass, O let them go,
As the Long River eastward flows,
Never to return nor backward flow,
O forget all, O forget none.
To the many who loved her (a friend from Smith spoke of her being one of the few people one can genuinely say possessed “a real aura of holiness, and sweetness”), Julia was called Ming-hui, her Chinese name. When she moved from Athens, in 2004, to Pennswood Village in Newtown, Pa., she soon found herself as beloved there as she was in Athens.
She was preceded in death by her husband, Henry Lin, in 1989, and her brother Ke-Yong, in 2010, and was at work on an autobiography when she passed away.
She is survived by a daughter, Maya, the artist who created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and a son, Tan, a poet and English professor, both of New York City; a brother Ke-Heng of Beijing; a stepsister, Yining Zhang of Lawrenceville, N.J.; and three grandchildren, Ahn Churchouse Lin, Rachel Ming Wolf and India Lin Wolf.
A memorial service will be held at Pennswood Village, Newtown, Pa., on Oct. 19 at 10 a.m. Donations in Julia’s honor can be made to the Henry and Julia Lin Scholarship Fund. Mail checks to: Ohio University Foundation, P.O. Box 869, Athens, OH 45701.