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Prof. Charles Wu [Chinese 1988–2002]

March 17, 2021, in Tempe, Arizona, of natural causes.

An accomplished scholar and lifelong educator, Prof. Wu was born in Shanghai in 1935, where he showed early promise. Prior to his 16th birthday, he began at Beijing Foreign Language Institute and had graduated by the time he was 18. Three years later, he began 20 years of teaching at his alma mater.

He was one of the main editors of the widely used Chinese-English Dictionary (1978, Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press) and in the late ’70s gave intermediate English lessons on Beijing’s state-owned radio station. After China began its market reform policy, Wu was among the first Chinese students allowed to study in the West and was the first student from the People’s Republic of China to obtain a doctorate in English literature from Columbia University. A year later, he established the Department of Chinese at Reed, devoting himself to advancing young minds on their paths towards understanding Chinese culture and contributing to the spread of local Chinese culture.

Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland was dear to him. He loved looking after it; was the author of Listen to the Fragrance, an insightful literary tour of the Chinese poetry and inscriptions found throughout the garden; and always visited it when he was back in Portland. The other book he wrote after retiring in 2002 was Thus Spoke Laozi, a new translation with commentaries of the Taoist classic Dao De Ching. Wu also led several tours of American friends to China, acting as a guide and lecturer along the way.

He became active in the Northwest China Council in the late ’80s, a time of general euphoria in U.S.-China relations that was obliterated by the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Wu gave many enlightening talks for the Northwest China Council and wrote with authority about the Peking Opera, qigong, the Han tombs, the philosophy of Chinese medicine, and Chinese and American views of democracy. He joined the board of the Council in 1992.

Wu organized a Tao tour through the Chinese province of Fujian, which featured lectures on Taoism as the group traveled to seven mountains, ten cities, and many temples. In his pre-tour instructions, Wu included a Taoist tip: “While you should always be alert and aware, take things easy on this trip, and bring a sense of humor. There will be glitches on this trip, but ‘you can rob me of my money and my time, but not my peace of mind.’ Travel like a cloud . . . ”

Having spent the first half of his life in China and the second half in the United States, Wu was proud of providing a bridge between the two cultures and peoples.

Jane Leung Larson, founding executive director of the Northwest China Council, recalled phone conversations about Chinese and American politics with Wu after he moved to Arizona. “He followed with great distress the ever-hardening autocracy under Xi Jinping and spoke about the dangerously stifled dissent he observed,” she remembered. “Charles noted that Laozi, for all his inward reflection, spoke bluntly about the abuse of political power. Charles, in one of his commentaries on the Dao De Jing, wrote: ‘Here Laozi sees a correlation between the good life for the rulers at the top and the poverty and hunger of the common people below. As poverty and hunger lead to desperation, desperation leads to unrest. What Laozi prescribes for the ruler is to give up their insatiable quest for the luxurious life and show greater care for the well-being of the common people.’ I keep Charles’s book, Thus Spoke Laozi, at my bedside to browse when I seek clarity amidst the clamor inside and out. It is Charles speaking to me as much as Laozi.”

He is survived by his wife, Diane Ma, and his son, Stephen Wu.

Appeared in Reed magazine: September 2021

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