11 November 2019
By Lars Peter Laamann
When Göran Malmqvist walked the corridors of the School of Oriental and African Studies in the early 1950s, China had assumed centre-stage in Cold War politics. The study of Chinese language and culture, however, was relegated to the ivory towers of a small minority of universities in the Western world. SOAS was one of these places, which Göran Malmqvist found himself magnetically drawn to when he started working as lector in 1953. As a microcosm of the new world order after 1945, SOAS was at the juncture between training civil servants for the British Empire and potential ‘special agents’ for British and NATO interests. As a Swedish citizen, Malmqvist found himself exonerated from the potential task of spying for a Western power. As a Chinese classicist, he could exchange the ideologically charged discourse of the Cold War with the philosophical struggles of the Zhou and early Han periods – in the very best company of Sinological scholars such as Angus Graham (葛瑞漢), D.C. Lau (劉殿爵) or Walter Simon (西門華德). Göran Malmqvist’s recollections concerning his time at SOAS can be found by following this link.
That he felt familiar in the company of classicists was not surprising, given that he spent his formative years at a time-honoured grammar school in western Sweden (Borås Högre Allmänna Läroverk), followed by classical studies at the University of Uppsala. An encounter with Bernhard Karlgren (高本漢) in 1946 moved Malmqvist to orient his gaze to the East and to study Chinese in Stockholm. Both men were from provincial Jönköping – which by the early twentieth century produced paper, matches and Latinists. Both studied languages in Uppsala and both shared an interest in local dialects: those of their native province of Småland, but also of the provinces which they inhabited during their sojourns in China (Shanxi in Karlgren’s case and Sichuan for Malmqvist). The Sinological departments in Uppsala, Stockholm and Gothenburg which Karlgren helped create were filled with life once Malmqvist returned from his appointments at SOAS (1953–1955), in China (cultural attaché of the Swedish embassy, 1956–58) and at the Australian National University in Canberra, where he was employed as a Sinologist between 1959 and 1965. As late as in 1965, he accepted a professorship at the University of Stockholm, where the emphasis was by now on the teaching of modern standard Chinese. Having been awarded with honorary doctorates by Stockholm University (1969), Charles University (Prague, 1977), an Honorary Fellowship at SOAS, University of London (SOAS, 1984) and another honorary doctorate by the Chinese University of Hong Kong (1998), Malmqvist concluded the active phase of his academic teaching career.
The more Göran Malmqvist became established as the leading authority of Swedish Sinology, the more public offices he assumed: Chairman of the Nordic Asia Institute (1967–77), Director of the European Science Foundation project “Chinese Literature 1900–1949” (1979–87), twice President of EACS (European Association of Chinese Studies, 1980–84 and 1988–90), Member of the [Swedish] Royal Academy, of the Royal Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities, the Academia Europaea, as well as of the Swedish Academy. This institution bears particular relevance, since the Swedish Academy selects the candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature. It was also the latter which would cause the only major upheaval in his life as a Sinologist, namely when in 2012 the Swedish Academy chose Mo Yan (莫言, i.e. Guan Moye 管謨業) as the winner of the prestigious prize. Malmqvist only revealed during the very announcement of the Nobel Prize committee that he had produced a translation of Mo Yan’s work, which he was going to submit for publication the same day. The secrecy surrounding this announcement gave rise to misgivings, namely that the committee could have been biased towards the Chinese candidate – an accusation which Malmqvist emphatically rejected.
The Mo Yan translation crowned an oeuvre which over the length of his career had produced more than forty volumes of translated Chinese literature from different historical eras – from Tang poetry and Ming novels to May Fourth literature, writings by Mao Zedong and poetry of intellectuals who had found refuge in the West after the events of 1989. In Sweden, Malmqvist was also known for his attempts to popularise the study of Mandarin Chinese, as well as by his recollections concerning the “old China”. He was also a familiar voice in the Swedish newspaper press as well as on radio. His dedication to translation was not confined to the Chinese language: William Blake was rendered into Swedish and Swedish poetry in English by his hand. The fact that Malmqvist followed in the footsteps of Bernhard Karlgren becomes clear when his Sinological publications concerning phonetics and grammar are taken into account, as well as publications dealing with specific aspects of classical Chinese semantics and syntax. Malmqvist’s devotion to his former teacher became even more obvious in 1995, when he edited an academic biography of Bernhard Karlgren’s life in over five hundred pages.
Göran Malmqvist was married to Chen Ningzu 陳寧祖 from 1950 until her death in 1996, and married Chen Wenfen 陳文芬 in 2006. Of perhaps greater value than all the books on his CV was the fact that, according to Chen Wenfen, Göran Malmqvist had the fortune of dying at his home, having said farewell to all his grandchildren.
Lars Peter Laamann
SOAS, History Department