“Mr. Lo”: The First Chinese Student at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1933.Posted: October 4, 2020
In the late 1990s, a few years after I was appointed Archivist of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School), Robert (Bob) Bridges, the Secretary of the School, brought to the Archives a Chinese metallic vase to be saved because it was part of our institutional history. Bob said that the bearer of the gift was a former student of the School from the 1930s, who had visited Greece and the School in the 1980s. Underneath the vase, Bob had pasted the donor’s professional card to make sure that his identity was not lost. The print on the card read: Luo Niansheng, Professor [and] Research Fellow of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; and scribbled on it: Lo Maote student of the American School in the academic year of 1933-1934.
The School’s Directory in Louis E. Lord’s History of the American School of Classical Studies (1947) lists the following information for “Mr. Lo”:
LO, MAO TE 1933-1934 – Tern., Chinese Educational Mission, 1360 Madison Street, Washington, D. C, or 317 College Avenue, Ithaca, New York; Per., Yu-Tai-Huan Company, Lo-Chwan-Tsing, Ese-Chung-Hsien, Sze-Chuan, China. A.B., Ohio State University, 1931.
About the same time that Bob delivered Niansheng’s present to the Archives, I met Richard (Dick) Howland, a former Chair of the School’s Managing Committee (1965-1975) and a student of the School from 1933 to 1938. Howland was in his late eighties when he visited the Archives carrying another important gift: his photographic collection from the time he was a student at the School. As Howland reminisced and identified people in the photos, we stumbled upon a few showing a Chinese man either alone or with other School students: Howland identified him as “Mr. Lo.”
In addition to the photos, Howland also delivered a bundle of letters he had written to his family during his first year in Greece in 1933-1934. There I found a few brief references to the elusive “Mr. Lo.”
“Two more new men have come – a fellow named Martin Johnson, from Williams, who is very congenial, and with whom I am rooming on the trip, and Sidney Gould, from Yale. There is also a Chinese, who recently came, so in all there will be 4 men on the trip, and 9 girls, – besides the 2 profs” wrote Howland on October 5, 1933.
Several months later, on April 11, 1934, somewhat puzzled Howland mentioned Mr. Lo again: “… we had to go to tea at Mr. Lo’s, to meet his German wife, whom he had married last summer and only recently had come to Athens. She speaks no English or Chinese, and he little German.”
MAO-TE LO = LUO NIANSHENG
Many years passed before I again became interested in Mr. Lo. In 2016, the School received an EU grant to digitize several archival collections, including Richard Howland’s photographs. While creating metadata for the Howland photos, I stumbled again upon Mr. Lo. Curious about him, I ran several fruitless Google searches for the name “Mao-Te Lo.” Absorbed by the need to complete the EU project in time, I did not persist, and more importantly, I did not run any searches for the other name printed on the business card with the Chinese vase: Luo Niansheng. Had I done so, as my good friend John W. I. Lee, Professor of History at the University of California at Santa Barbara, did recently, I would have found that Luo Niansheng (1904-1990) had an illustrious career in China as a translator of ancient Greek authors.
On another webpage, “Greek-China Relations,” I read that the Premier of the People’s Republic of China Zhou Enlai (1954-1976) “gave Luo Niansheng the order to write the first ancient Greek-Chinese dictionary.” More recently, Alexander Beecroft in an essay titled “Comparisons of Greece and China” included Niansheng in the list of scholars who had translated ancient Greek authors into Chinese: “Another Chinese scholar with training in the Western classics, Luo Niansheng, published the major works of Greek drama gradually over a period from the 1930s through the 1960s; his prose translation of the Iliad was completed after his death in 1990 by Wilson Wong and published only in 1994.”
Two Chinese scholars, Rongnü Chen and Lingling Zhao, in another essay, titled “Translation and the Canon of Greek Tragedy in Chinese Literature,” elaborated further about Niansheng’s work: “After Yang’s first Chinese translation, Niansheng Luo finished in 1939 (published in 1947) the second Chinese translation of the play [Prometheus Bound] from the original Greek… Luo’s translation was extensive and included a prologue by himself as the translator… the main text of the play, and 141 annotations and four appendices. It can be said that Luo’s translation was a landmark event in the introduction of not only Greek tragedy, but Western literature to the Chinese canon of literature” (Comparative Literature and Culture 16:6, 2014).
In an article, titled ‘Classics in China,” about the establishment of the Institute for the History of Ancient Civilizations (IHAC) in Changchun, William Brashear made a special note of Niansheng’s major contribution toward the spread of classics in China: “Prof. Luo Niansheng, for example, who studied at Ohio, Columbia and Cornell universities in the 1930s, was recently cited by the Greek government for his translation of ancient Greek literature into Chinese. Many of his translations have been performed on China’s stages. Also, Prof. Luo has written scholarly articles on Greek drama and just completed a dictionary of classical Greek and Chinese” (The Classical Journal 86:1, 1990, pp. 73-78). Brashear must have referred to the visit of Greek Prime-Minister Andreas Papandreou to Beijing in April 1986, followed by the visit to Athens of Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang.
Thirty-three years later, in November 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping, while on an official visit to Greece, published an article in Kathimerini, titled “Let Wisdom of Ancient Civilizations Shine through the Future.” After paying homage to Nikos Kazantzakis, who had written about his travels to China (1935 and 1957), President Jinping singled out Luo Niansheng of all Chinese scholars for his studies of ancient Greece. “A renowned Chinese scholar and translator, is remembered for his life-long dedication to the translation and research of Greek literature and for his important contribution to furthering our friendship, a legacy carried on by his son and granddaughter.”
BECOMING LUO NIANSHENG
Niansheng’s prominence in Chinese culture, especially his role in the advancement of comparative literature between Greece and China and his early association with the American School, made me think it was time to take a closer look at the School’s administrative records. A first search through Applications proved disappointing since Mao-Te Lo’s application to the School was missing; however, I was fortunate to discover a duplicate in the files of Edward D. Perry, Professor of Classics at Columbia and Secretary of the School’s Managing Committee.
The application provides much information about Lo’s family and educational background. Born in Szechuan, on May 29, 1905 (according to the Chinese calendar), the son of Chin-Chen Lo, he had studied at Tsing-Hua University (1927-1929) before coming to the U.S. in 1929. He was enrolled first at the Ohio State University (1929-1931) where he received his B.A., and then briefly at Columbia (1931), before going to Cornell University (1932-1933). According to the application, his studies in the U.S. were supported by a five-year scholarship (1929-1934) from his alma mater, the Tsing-Hua University (his spelling).
A web search to find more about Tsinghua University proved very rewarding because it answered my first question: What was a Chinese student doing in the U.S. at a time when international studies were not that common? I copy from Wikipedia’s entry about the Early History of Tsinghua University:
“Tsinghua University was established in Beijing [in 1911], during a tumultuous period of national upheaval and conflicts with foreign powers which culminated in the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising against foreign influence in China. After the suppression of the revolt by a foreign alliance including the United States, the ruling Qing dynasty was required to pay indemnities to alliance members. US Secretary of State John Hay suggested that the US$30 million Boxer indemnity allotted to the United States was excessive. After much negotiation with Qing ambassador Liang Cheng, US President Theodore Roosevelt obtained approval from the United States Congress in 1909 to reduce the indemnity payment by $10.8 million, on the condition that the funds would be used as scholarships for Chinese students to study in the United States. Using this fund, the Tsinghua College (清華學堂; Qīnghuá Xuétáng) was established in Beijing, on 29 April 1911 on the site of a former royal garden to serve as a preparatory school for students the government planned to send to the United States.”
“Mr. Lo” must have gone to the U.S. as part of the so-called Boxer Indemnity Scholarship program, which aimed at improving the relationship between the two countries. Of course, the ultimate goal behind that program was to create an influential group of American-educated-Chinese leaders who would support U.S. policies in China. From 1909 to 1929, the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program sent around 1,300 Chinese students to study in America, which also led to the creation of the China Institute in New York in 1926. The majority of the Chinese students looked for placements in universities that supported Science, Engineering, Agriculture, Medicine and Commerce, with MIT being a favorable destination. Mao-Te Lo’s pursuit of classics must have been exceptional.
On January 26, 1933, enrolled at Cornell University, “Mr. Lo” addressed a letter to Samuel E. Bassett, the School’s Chair of Admissions and Fellowships, asking whether he was eligible to “enter the American School at Athens or not, with only a first degree and about two years of graduate work” (ASCSA Archives, Samuel E. Bassett Papers, box 1, folder 2). Bassett must have forwarded Lo’s letter to Perry, whose reply to Lo is not preserved, but it must not have been very encouraging. At risk of not being accepted at the School, Lo addressed a passionate letter to Perry stating that:
“To enter that classical school is vitally important for me. I can never secure another opportunity going to Greece in my life, if I fail this time. And I will never close my eyes when I die, without seeing the golden Mycenae” (ASCSA AdmRec, box 311/6 folder 3, Lo to Perry, March 13, 1933).
In the same letter, he provided more information about how he came to study the classics: “under the influence of Milton and Shelly, I first turned my attention to Greek literature.” He already knew that his future life would “chiefly be spent in translating and imitating this great literature directly from the Greek; instead of from the modern language as we used to do in my country,” implying that the ancient Greek authors were known in China only through western translations.
Suspecting reluctance in the acceptance of his application by the American School and following Eugene Andrews’s advice -Andrews, professor of Classics at Cornell, was a student at the School in 1895-1896- “Mr. Lo” went to see Perry in New York in early April 1933. He carried with him his Chinese translation of Euripides’s Iphigeneia. A year later, Perry would fondly reminisce about Lo’s visit to Columbia: “I often have to laugh when I think of the time when he gravely handed [LaRue] van Hook and me copies of his Chinese translation of the Iphigenia in Tauris as an erudition specimen. Not a muscle in his indicated the keen enjoyment he must have had over our evident mystification” (AdmRec 311/4, folder 9, Perry to Capps, April 12, 1934).
Soon after Lo’s visit, Perry dispatched a letter to Edward Capps at Princeton. “You have not returned to me the correspondence with the young Chinaman, Mr. Mao-Te Lo, concerning his admission to the School, which I sent you several weeks ago… He appears to be a very intelligent young man, who might, I think, properly admitted to the School as an Associate Member. His command of English is fairly good, but not as good as I expected to find it…” Perry scrawled on April 3, 1933.
Eight weeks later, Lo’s acceptance to the School was still up in the air with his original application lost somewhere between New York, Princeton, and Athens (Perry had asked Capps to mail it to Richard Stillwell, the School’s Director), and Mr. Lo agonizing about his admission. However, a comment in Perry’s letter to Capps (May 22, 1933) suggests that it wasn’t only “Mr. Lo” pushing for his acceptance. “Frankly, I doubt if he gets as much profit from admission to the School as he seems to expect, but the Chinese Gov’t seems entirely willing to have him go, so that is his and their affair,” wrote a somewhat skeptical Perry. On June 3, Perry wrote again to Capps, implying that Stillwell had not received Lo’s application and was reluctant to admit him to the School. “From Stillwell’s letter I judge that possibly you had not sent him Mao-Te Lo’s original application. What am I to do about the matter now? Lo is sailing on the Europa, June 16.”
Lo’s problems were not only with the American School but also with the Greek Consulate in New York, which would grant him only a three-month visa to Greece. Perry armed Lo with a strong introduction letter that he could use “on the way to Greece as well as on his arrival at Athens.” Perry was afraid that Lo’s extreme politeness (“painfully polite”) might not open doors for him. Capps, more concerned about Lo’s limited visa, wrote to the Greek Consul-General “asking that this be modified by a communication to Athens, on the ground that it will not do for the Greek Government to limit the period of residence of any of our students” (AdmRec, box 311/4 folder 8, Capps to Perry, June 19, 1933). The Greek Consul-General reassured Capps that Lo would not have any problem extending his visa once in Greece (Capps to Perry, June 17, 1933).
After spending three months in Europe, where he must have met and married his German wife, Lo sailed from Brindisi to Piraeus at the end of September. There were eight first-year students altogether, five women and three men. Oscar Broneer, Assistant Professor of Archaeology at the School, led most of the trips. Thomas Means (1889-1961) of Bowdoin College was that year’s Annual professor.
Means’s report for the fall semester is our best source of information for “Mr. Lo’s” progress at the School. As with many non-native English speakers studying classics in American universities (myself included), “Mr. Lo [was] fighting on two fronts, English and Greek.” Means further added that “with his [Lo’s] permission, I am receiving and correcting, in advance of class conferences, his translations into English from the Greek especially assigned to him.” Notwithstanding the language issue, Means acknowledged Mr. Lo’s “good mind, probably one much better than we realize.” He found him pleasant, “more mature than that of the others… making very considerable progress… working indefatigably.” “He has my respect,” concluded Means (AdmRec 1001/1 folder 7, Means to Stillwell, January 25, 1934).
We owe the best description of “Mr. Lo” to Winifred L. Ruter (later Merckel), a graduate of Hunter College, who was the Fellow in Greek Language, Literature, and History in 1933-1934. In a letter she sent to Perry about the School trips, she described some of Lo’s difficulties during the trips, how his donkey once ran away with him, or was lost for over an hour another time at Lycosoura, or how he was startled by a huge tortoise. Not to mention that some of his fellow students, the younger ones, were occasionally “heartless to him.” But, despite his adventures, Lo was determined “to get all the advantages to be derived from his work here. He works on Greek literature like a little Trojan… studying the Oedipus Tyrannus” with the help of Means (AdmRec, box 311/4 folder 9, Feb. 8, 1934).
In writing to Capps on April 12, 1934, at the conclusion of the School’s academic year, Perry described a letter he had received from Lo (unfortunately, not preserved) “as a fine specimen of true courtesy.” Before leaving from Greece, Lo submitted his required School paper, titled “Oedipodeia: A chronological sketch of the original source material of Greek and Latin Tragedy, submitted as a “School Paper” at the American School of Classical Studies.”
Aside from the immaturity of his younger fellow students, Lo was lucky to have encountered before, and during his year in Greece, educators such as Edward Perry and Thomas Means, who, putting aside any western prejudices, did not deprive Mao-Te Lo from experiencing Greece at first hand.
In “Essays about Greece,” Lo wrote about his Greek experience. The essays are in Chinese, but I was able to read one thanks to the translation of Huizhong Zheng, a graduate student of John Lee at the University of California at Santa Barbara. In it, Lo writes about his School trips and encourages his fellow Chinese to visit Greece if they want to read some “living books,” referring to the works of the ancient Greek authors.
MAO-TE LO’s LONG-LASTING LEGACY
In 1986, while Luo Niansheng was still alive, the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing mounted the first public performance of Oedipus King, adapted and co-directed by Luo Jinlin, a classical scholar and the son of Niansheng. “In the summer of the same year, per invitation from the European Cultural Center of Delphi, the academy took the adaptation to both Delphi and Athens” (Shouhua Qi, Adapting Western Classics for the Chinese Stage, New York 2019). It must have been the same year that Mao-Te Lo or Luo Niansheng returned to Greece after half a century to watch his son staging the very same play he had translated at the American School in 1934. On April 24, 1986, he visited the American School and met with Secretary Robert A. Bridges.
Thirty-plus years later, in 2018, an older Luo Jinlin would stage an adaptation of Aristophanes’ Birds at the National Center for Performing Arts (NCPA) in Beijing. The play was the NCPA’s first in-house production of an ancient Greek comedy. The production of The Birds was based on Luo Niansheng’s translation of 1954. (For a video, see Aristophanes’ ‘The Birds’ in Beijing: Blending Greek drama with Chinese culture.)
Luo Tong, Luo Jinlin’s daughter and Luo Niansheng’s granddaughter, who was the co-director of the Birds, said in an interview: “It was my grandfather’s wish to promote ancient Greek plays among the Chinese audience. By understanding a different culture, we can take a broader view of the whole world” (China Daily, April 2, 2018).
Author’s Note: Without Mao-Te Lo’s and Richard H. Howland’s gifts to the School, I would not have been able to write about Luo Niansheng’s Greek experience at the American School in 1933-1934.
Postscript (added on June 18, 2022): Since I wrote this essay, there has been more research on Luo Niansheng by Yun Shi, whose essay “A Tale of Two Chinese: My Research on Luo Niansheng (1904-1990), the First Chinese Student at the ASCSA” was posted on the website of the Nederlands Institute at Athens.