Yin C. Liu: Soas teacher of Chinese

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The Independent Online

Yin C. Liu taught Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) of London University from 1949 until 1981 and was an honorary member of the school. For more than three decades, she was the face of Chinese teaching at Soas, training entire generations of later China specialists in modern and classical Chinese, as well as modern and premodern vernacular literature.

Born Yin Cheng in 1914 in Tientsin, China, she was educated at various schools and colleges there, including St Joseph's College, where she studied English. In 1940 she married the scholar, poet and translator Liu Jung-en, who was at that time Professor of English at the famous Nankai University. Together with him she edited a wartime literary journal Wenyi zhoukan ("Literature Weekly") in which she published translations of English literature.

Already in those days she was active as a teacher of Chinese, including a course for English students which she taught in 1947-48. In late 1948 or early 1949, when her husband was already in Britain on a British Council scholarship, she made the acquaintance of Professor Walter Simon, Professor of Chinese at Soas, who spent the better part of 1948 and 1949 in China and Japan to purchase books for the Soas library. Simon offered her a position as his research assistant in what was then the Department of the Far East, and sent back several telegrams to London to urge the school to arrange for a job offer to be made and a work permit to be arranged.

Simon's meetings with Liu took place in Beijing around the time that the Communist army arrived in the city, and Simon's cables repeatedly refer to the "fast-changing situation". In what appears to have been a tumultuous and eventful episode, Liu and her young daughter left China for Hong Kong, leaving behind virtually everything they owned, just before Communist rule was established. It was from Hong Kong that she and her daughter sailed to London, arriving in September 1949. A salient detail is that Soas undertook to reimburse not only her travel from China to Britain, but also her return travel after the termination of her appointment. Her appointment, however, would continue for 32 years.

After four years as a research assistant in the department, Liu was appointed Special Temporary Lecturer in 1953. Her position was funded by the Royal Air Force and involved special classes in Chinese taught to RAF staff. RAF funding ceased after 1958, by which time Liu had given more than sufficient evidence of her abilities as a teacher (she had by then also been invited to teach one day a week at Oxford, where she taught Chinese conversation and calligraphy) and as a scholar (her book Fifty Chinese Stories was accepted for publication in 1959, and published in 1960, with a second edition appearing in 1967). At the enthusiastic recommendation of the department, she was appointed Lecturer in 1959.

As a Lecturer, Liu remained committed to improving the Chinese language and literature programme at Soas. During a period of sabbatical leave in 1964-65, she undertook a remarkable journey around the world to study Chinese teaching methods elsewhere, taking in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Leningrad, Moscow, Delhi, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Honolulu, San Francisco, Chicago and New York. That China remained closed at the time will have caused her great regret, although she did return to visit there later.

She also made ample contributions to the administration of the school, serving on Academic Board for a number of years, and taking up the new office of Adviser to Women Students for a period of three years in the early 1970s. In her report to Academic Board on her experiences as a student adviser, she refers to the specific difficulties experienced by "women students from eastern countries", mentioning in passing that, already in those days, 35 per cent of Soas students were from overseas.

In the same report, she provides the perfect rationale for having academic staff functioning as what we would now call personal tutors. She writes that the adviser "could be considered by the student as an outsider in whom it is easier to confide than in someone within the student's own department. At the same time he is not a total stranger who is unfamiliar with problems in the academic field."

Her excellence as a teacher was recognised by her receiving Soas teaching awards for two consecutive years in 1971 and 1972, and her overall contribution to the school and to the department is perhaps best summed up by a single sentence in a letter from her then Head of Department, Professor Charles Bawden, to the Soas Director in 1974: "She is quite invaluable."

She remained a frequent visitor to the school for many years after her retirement, attending lectures and functions and catching up with old friends.

Michel Hockx

Yin Cheng, Chinese scholar: born Tientsin, China 15 August 1914; Special Temporary Lecturer, Department of the Far East (later China and Inner Asia Department), Soas 1953-59, Lecturer 1959-81; married 1940 Liu Jung-en (died 2001; one daughter); died Oxford 31 March 2008.