Cyril Birch


Professor Cyril Birch, Professor Emeritus of Chinese Literature, died in Albany, California, on May 19, 2023. He was 98 years old. 

Professor Birch was born in Lancashire, England in 1925. He was 16 when Britain devised a program to recruit boys of extraordinary linguistic aptitude to learn Chinese, Japanese, Turkish and Persian in order to serve the war effort. Birch travelled to London to sit for the interview, intending to study Persian if he were chosen. After a thirty-minute conversation, his interviewer pronounced that he had just demonstrated such aptitude that he would not study Persian, but Chinese -- the most difficult language of all.  Professor Birch took an eighteenth-month crash course in Chinese devised by London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, and was then sent to Calcutta, where he worked for the remainder of the war years in Intelligence. When the war ended, he returned to London to study Chinese in the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He received his BA (Honours, First Class) in Modern Chinese in 1948, and his Ph.D. in Chinese Literature in 1954, studying under the eminent German linguist and bibliographer Sir Walter Simon. Professor Birch was asked to stay at the School of Oriental and African Studies to teach Chinese language and literature from 1948 to 1960. He spent a sabbatical in Hong Kong in the 1950s, and later astonished native speakers of Mandarin and Cantonese by his ability to translate from Mandarin to Cantonese and vice versa.

Professor Birch joined the Department of Oriental Languages at Berkeley in 1960, bringing with him his wife Dorothy Nuttall Birch and young children Catherine and David.

Throughout his career, Professor Birch devoted himself to the study of Chinese vernacular literature. His dissertation examined Feng Menglong’s early seventeenth century collection Stories Old and New (Gujin xiaoshuo), and was the first systematic attempt in the western world to use a formalist approach to the study of Chinese vernacular short fiction (话本huaben). In 1958, Professor Birch published his first translations of Ming fiction, Stories from a Ming Collection. His subsequent two-volume Anthology of Chinese Literature spanned the entirety of Chinese literature from the Book of Songs of the sixth century BCE to the spoken drama of the twentieth century, and was the standard teaching anthology for decades, making it possible for a generation of students to be introduced to Chinese literature in translation. In the late 1960s, Professor Birch began the translations of pre-modern Chinese drama that are now legendary. The translations of such plays as The Peach Blossom Fan (Taohua shan) and The Peony Pavilion (Mudan ting) were heroic acts of scholarship. Professor Birch continued to be active as a translator of Ming drama in his retirement, publishing Scenes for Mandarins: the Elite Theater of the Ming (1995), and Mistress and Maid: Jiaohongji (2000). 

Very unusually for a scholar who had made such tremendous contributions to the study of pre-modern Chinese literature, Professor Birch spent most of his career as a scholar of modern Chinese literature, and the bulk of his articles are in fact in that field. He wrote on the authors Zhao Shuli, Lao She, and Lu Xun as well as Xu Zhimo in venues as diverse as the Times Literary Supplement and Asia Major. When Professor Birch was informed that he had been awarded Berkeley’s Louis B. Agassiz Chair in Chinese, he said with characteristic modesty that it was not a recognition of himself but of his field -- that the university had finally decided to grant recognition to the study of Chinese vernacular literature.  

On his retirement in 1990, Professor Birch was awarded the Berkeley Citation by Chancellor Tien Chang-lin. The Berkeley Citation is the highest honor conferred by the University of California at Berkeley on its faculty, awarded in recognition of scholarly achievement in excess of the standards of excellence and extraordinary service to Berkeley. In recognition of his achievements, in 2017, the departments of East Asian Languages and Cultures and Comparative Literature established the Cyril Birch Award for graduate students in Chinese literature.