UK Expert Follows Lifelong Passion for Chinese Art, Literature

September 4, 2017  Editor: Sherry Song
UK Expert Follows Lifelong Passion for Chinese Art, Literature  

Frances Wood, a famous sinologist and historian who worked at the Division of Chinese Literature of British Library for nearly four decades. [Xinhua/Gui Tao]



Frances Wood, a prominent sinologist and historian who previously worked at the British Library in London, has been preserving and writing about classic Chinese manuscripts for nearly four decades.

Reading an ultimate habit

Wood's parents greatly aroused her interest in reading when she was a young girl.

Her father studied medieval Bibles texts at Oxford University and worked at the British Library as an expert in French. Wood’s mother was a French teacher at a local middle school.

Wood said her parents always recommended books to her as she got older.

In addition, she used to look for books at a second-hand bookstore in London before she was 11. After finishing them, Wood usually sold the books back to the store and brought more.

The strong enthusiasm for reading influenced Wood’s career. She originally intended to work at a museum after graduation from college; however, the offer from the British Library finally attracted her.

Speaking of Chinese literature, Wood believes that Chinese people know more about English literature than the other way round. She still remembers a taxi driver in Shanghai whose Sherlock Holmes book was heavily thumbed.

Wood said it is her responsibility to introduce Chinese literature to English people.

Although Wood has already retired, she is still writing all the day. Her upcoming publication is a book that aims to show 60 great Chinese books from various periods  to Western readers.

Studying Chinese, a life-altering decision

Due to her parents' influence, Wood mastered French and Spanish at a young age. Wood chose to study Chinese when she was in middle school and persisted in learning the language later on.

However, there were only four universities that offered Chinese classes in England at that time. After consideration, Wood chose to study at Cambridge, which was also one of the centers of British sinologists.

During the end of the 1960s, Wood recalled: "I was really hardworking and I almost spent all my time learning Chinese every day."

Moreover, she was also fond of studying Chinese archeology. The topic of her undergraduate thesis was the relationship between cultures and potteries before the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC).In 1971, Wood was selected to China for a one-month visit.

Later, in 1975, Wood went to China again and studied at Peking University as an exchange student for a year.

She said she did not notice the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in those days and there was no difference in China between her two visits. She loved the romantic atmosphere of the country.

Preserving the scriptures of Dunhuang

The end of the Cultural Revolution provided many Chinese professors with the chance to study at Western academic institutions, and also offered Wood many opportunities to contact Chinese people.

At that time, the British Library started to study scriptures at Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang in northwest China's Gansu Province, collected by famous archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein.

The scriptures record various aspects of Chinese societies from the former Qin Dynasty (350-394) to the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279).

Wood said she was lucky to protect and study the precious collection. She guided her team to reorganize and digitize 7,000 complete scriptures and 7,000 remaining materials.

"You must be careful when opening them," said Wood. "Hearing the charming sound of shaking the paper just like hearing the sound of history."

Wood also firmly stated that she would like to give these scriptures back to China if the country could carefully preserve them and display them to the public.

"I felt proud of  taking care of the valuable cultural relics and I believe that it will be dangerous if someone views the scriptures as the British Library's own property," Wood said.

More understanding needed

Although people in different parts of world have more opportunities to communicate with each other, Wood said that traveling to China is still an astonishing event.

"Until now, I don't think the Western world's understanding of China is any better than it used to be."

Wood encouraged people to abandon their preconceived notion about the difficulties of learning Chinese and she believed that the best way for scholars to know China is to study its language.

She said, "Understanding and empathy make you become half Chinese."

When asked if she had already become half Chinese, Wood said: "Maybe I'm still less than half and I should learn even more."

(Source: Xinhua/Translated and edited by Women of China)

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