The Honorary Graduates

136th Congregation (1989)

LAU Din Cheuk
Doctor of Letters honoris causa


It is very fitting this evening that the Vice-Chancellor's predecessor, Dr. Rayson Huang, is present at this 136th Congregation to witness the award of an honorary degree to Professor Lau Din Cheuk, for they graduated together from this University in 1941 when they received their so-called 'war degrees' in quite different fields. Lau Din Cheuk was awarded a first class honours degree in Chinese, and clearly acquitted himself very well despite the fact that the start of the examinations in Arts happened to coincide with the ominous news of the Japanese invasion of China.

After the war years Lau Din Cheuk received a Victory Scholarship to further his studies in the United Kingdom and he boarded a troop ship, the S .S. Britannic to take him on the long journey to Europe. The British Council made the arrangements for the recipients of the Victory Scholarships, and, rather by chance, Lau Din Cheuk found himself in a city very different from Hong Kong, the city of Glasgow. There, in the Scottish system, he was to complete a Master of Arts degree in Philosophy, once again with first class honours, in 1949. During his studies, he was the first overseas scholar to win the Logic Prize in the philosophy courses in Glasgow.

1949 therefore marked the start of Lau Din Cheuk's distinguished academic career which very much combines his two early fields of study - Chinese and Philosophy. Within a year of graduation from Glasgow he had travelled to London where he was to live and work for the next twenty-eight years as a teacher at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London. The publication of the Scarborough Report had resulted in a period of rapid expansion of SOAS. The Report had pointed to the growing importance of oriental studies and Lau Din Cheuk was one of the staff recruited to enable expansion in this area. There were four sections at the School; Africa, Southern Asia, the Middle East and the Far East, and Lau had particular responsibilities to teach ancient Chinese and Chinese Philosophy in the Far East Section. His effective teaching in these two fields, and his rapidly emerging scholarship resulted in his elevation to the Readership in Chinese Philosophy at SOAS in 1965. Lau can justifiably claim this to have been a unique appointment, for the readership became defunct when he rose to fill the Chair of Chinese, a position much more general in its academic scope, in 1971. He thereby became the first Chinese holder of such a Chair in the United Kingdom.

His pupils in his time at SOAS developed great respect for their teacher in Chinese Studies and Chinese Philosophy, responding to his evident love of his field of endeavour. One of his students from that time was to go on to spend part of her life in China and in Hong Kong, and together with her husband, showed a very special affection for this part of the word - Lady Pamela Youde.

The years at SOAS were productive ones for Professor Lau. His reputation in his teaching fields grew to such an extent that one day Professor Lau was very much hoisted with his own petard. In 1959 Dr. E.V. Liew, the Editor of the Penguin Classics series, sent him a manuscript to review the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu. lt had been translated from Burmese into English, and after careful analysis Lau Din Cheuk was far from happy with the text because of its lack of authenticity. On his advice it was rejected.

A year later a further translation of the same work by another author appeared on Professor Lau's desk from the same source. Lau was once again unhappy this time because the translator had slipped in to the text far too many of his own words, thus again compromising the authenticity of the translation. Not surprisingly, Dr. Liew concluded that the only translation which might match the high standards of scholarship demanded by Lau Din Cheuk would be one done by Lau Din Cheuk. That, Mr. Pro-Chancellor, was how the internationally acclaimed series of three of the monumental works of Chinese Philosophy came to be translated by Professor Lau, for Penguin Books. The Tao Te Ching was published in 1963, Mencius in 1970, and the Analects of Confucius in 1979. As those who have read these volumes will know, they are not just scholarly texts but they are shining examples of Professor Lau's ability to convey the density of the Chinese concepts in accurate and refreshingly readable English. The first translation that of the Tao Te Ching, was universally popular and sold over half a million copies. However, with a twinkle in his eye, Professor Lau dismisses this popularity as evidence of the recognition of the intrinsic worth of the scholarship in the translation. He suggests that the period of the 1960s, when Penguin published the Tao Te Ching, saw the rise of 'flower power'. The resultant turning away from materialism and the rise of a hippie culture moved people towards that search for inner peace and serenity, which is so much a part of the mysticism of the 'Eternal Way' of the Tao.

I suspect that explanation betrays more of Lau's unassuming nature than he would have me say. His abilities as a translator are apparent throughout his work, as can be seen in this short passage from his translation of the Tao Te Ching:

'He who knows others is clever; He who knows himself has discernment. He who overcomes others has force; He who overcomes himself is strong. He who knows contentment is rich; He who perseveres is a man of purpose; He who does not lose his station will endure, He who lives out his days has had a long life.'

With such skills one may well ask why Professor Lau has not yet translated all of the Four Great Books. Indeed there are many in the world of Chinese literature and philosophy who would wish that he could complete the painstaking and laborious task which he started with his first three volumes of translation. However, with just a slight touch of foreboding, Professor Lau has noted that his translation of the Tao Te Ching reached publication after some five years of effort; Mencius took seven years, while the Analects took him ten years. Even though it was the Logic prize he won at Glasgow and not the mathematics prize, one can understand a certain sense of reluctance on his part in commencing the next work. Maybe this is also the reason why he is a firm believer that publishing has to be started when one is young. Certainly he is happiest now in investigating the interface between language and philosophy when, through translation he has a way into the problems of semantics, etymology and lexicography.

Our sister institution in Hong Kong recognised the great contributions made by Professor Lau in his chosen field, when he received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree there in 1975. He was to be attracted back to that same institution and to his family roots when he accepted the Chair of Chinese Language and Literature there in 1978. A period as Dean of the Faculty of Arts from 1980 - 1983 convinced Professor Lau, as he puts it, that he 'was not fond of administration and wielding authority!', but he has not escaped more onerous administrative responsibilities however, as he was appointed a member of the University and Polytechnics Grants Committee in 1988.

The University of Hong Kong now wishes to acknowledge the many and distinguished contributions Professor Lau has made to the study of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy, and I am honoured to present Lau Din Cheuk for admission to the Degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

Citation written and delivered by Professor William Ian Rees Davies, the Public Orator.