Arthur Waley

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Arthur David Waley, CH, CBE (Chinese: 亞瑟偉利 or 亞瑟偉雷; pinyin: ya3se3 wei3li2; Japanese: アーサー・ウェイリー, 19 August 1889 – 27 June 1966) was an English orientalist and sinologist.

As one recent evaluation puts it, "Waley was the great transmitter of the high literary cultures of China and Japan to the English-reading general public; the ambassador from East to West in the first half of the 20th century. He was self-taught, but reached remarkable levels of fluency, even erudition, in both languages. It was a unique achievement, possible (as he himself later noted) only in that time, and unlikely to be repeated." [1]

His importance for raising awareness and scholarly attention to the English speaking world is considered immense, reaching a wider popular readership with later re-publications in classics series.


Waley was born in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England, as Arthur David Schloss, son of economist David Frederick Schloss. Of Jewish heritage, he changed his surname to his paternal grandmother's maiden name, Waley, in 1914, as one of many English men and women who changed German surnames to more English-sounding names during WWI. Educated at Rugby School, he entered King's College, at the University of Cambridge in 1907, where he studied Classics, and was awarded a bachelor's degree in 1910.

Waley was appointed Assistant Keeper of Oriental Prints and Manuscripts at the British Museum in 1913. During this time he taught himself Chinese and Japanese, partly to help catalogue the paintings in the Museum's collection. He quit in 1929 to devote himself fully to his literary and cultural interests, though he continued to lecture in the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Waley lived in Bloomsbury and had a number of friends among the Bloomsbury Group, many of whom he had met as an undergraduate. He was one of the earliest to recognize Ronald Firbank as an accomplished author, and together with Osbert Sitwell provided an introduction to Firbank's first collected edition.

Noted American poet Ezra Pound was instrumental in getting Waley's first translations into print in The Little Review. His view of Waley's early work was mixed, however. As he wrote to Margaret Anderson, the Review's editor, in a letter of 2 July 1917: "Have at last got hold of Waley's translations from Po chu I. Some of the poems are magnificent. Nearly all the translations marred by his bungling English and defective rhythm... I shall try to buy the best ones, and to get him to remove some of the botched places. (He is stubborn as a donkey, or a scholar.)" Yet Waley, in his Introduction in his translation of The Way and its Power, explains that he was careful to put meaning above style in translations where meaning would be reasonably considered of more importance to the modern Western reader.

He died in London and is buried in Highgate Cemetery.

Sacheverell Sitwell who considered him "the greatest scholar, and the person with most understanding of all human arts" that he had known in his lifetime, later recalled Waley's last days.

When he lay dying from a broken back and from cancer of the spine, and in very great pain, but refused to be given any drug or sedative. He had the courage to do so because he wanted to be conscious during the last hours of being alive, the gift which was ebbing and fading and could never be again. In this way during those few days he listened to string quartets by Haydn, and had his favourite poems read to him. And then he died.[2]


Waley was elected an honorary fellow of King's College, Cambridge in 1945, received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) honor in 1952, the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1953, and the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) in 1956.


Commemorative English Heritage blue plaque outside Arthur Waley's London borough home

Jonathan Spence wrote of Waley's translations that he

selected the jewels of Chinese and Japanese literature and pinned them quietly to his chest. No one ever did anything like it before, and no one will every do it again. There are many westerners whose knowledge of Chinese or Japanese is greater than his, and there are perhaps a few who can handle both languages as well. But they are not poets, and those who are better poets than Waley do not know Chinese or Japanese. Also the shock will never be repeated, for most of the works that Waley chose to translate were largely unknown in the West, and their impact was thus all the more extraordinary. [3]

His many translations include A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918), Japanese Poetry: The Uta (1919), The No Plays of Japan (1921), The Tale of Genji (published in 6 volumes from 1921-33), The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon (1928), The Kutune Shirka (1951), Monkey (1942, an abridged version of Journey to the West), The Poetry and Career of Li Po (1959) and The Secret History of the Mongols and Other Pieces (1964). Waley received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his translation of Monkey, and his translations of the classics, the Analects of Confucius and The Way and its Power (Tao Te Ching), are still regarded highly by his peers.

These translations are widely regarded as poems in their own right, and have been included in many anthologies such as the Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892-1935, Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse and Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse (1918-1960) under Waley's name. Many of his original translations and commentaries have been re-published as Penguin classics and Wordsworth Classics, reaching a wide audience.

Despite translating many Chinese and Japanese classical texts into English, including much poetry and several philosophical works, Waley never travelled to the Far East. In his preface to The Secret History of the Mongols, he writes that he was not a master of many languages, but claims to have known Chinese and Japanese fairly well, a good deal of Ainu and Mongolian, and some Hebrew and Syriac.

Selected works[edit]

Original translations[edit]

e-maki scroll painting of The Tale of Genji (ch. 5 — 若紫 "Young Murasaki") by Tosa Mitsuoki, (1617–91)
Li Bai In Stroll, by Liang K'ai (1140–1210)

Original works[edit]

  • Introduction to the Study of Chinese Painting, 1923
  • The Life and Times of Po Chü-I, 1949
  • The Poetry and Career of Li Po, 1950 (with some original translations)
  • The Real Tripitaka and Other Pieces, 1952 (with some original and previously published translations)
  • The Opium War through Chinese Eyes, 1958
  • The Secret History of the Mongols, 1963 (with original translations)


  1. ^ E. Bruce Brooks, "Arthur Waley" Warring States Project, University of Massachusetts.
  2. ^ Sacheverell Sitwell. For want of the Golden City (New York: John Day, 1973) p. 255
  3. ^ Jonathan Spence. "Arthur Waley," in Chinese Roundabout (New York: Norton, 1992 ISBN 0393033554) pp. 329-330


External links[edit]