Remembering Prof. Charles Wu

I just received a sad, but inevitable, email from Reed College President Audrey Bilger. Another professor at Reed College from my time (1989-2021) has passed away. This email told me that the latest passing was that of Emeritus Prof. Charles Wu [Chinese and Humanities, 1988 – 2002] (1935-2021).

In my mind’s eye, I can still see Prof. Wu walking across campus at the Eliot Circle or sitting somewhere in a chair near me in a faculty meeting. Otherwise, our paths never crossed until just a few years ago when I found myself in a bookstore, standing in front of the shelves for Eastern philosophy, with a copy of Wu’s Thus Spoke Laozi: Dao De Jing, A New Translation with Commentaries open in my hand. I hesitated at first. I already owned 4 or 5 translations. Did I need another?

However, the possibility of reading a translation generated by a Reed College professor and native Chinese speaker was too special to ignore. I made my purchase and eagerly began another swim through Laozi’s Way. As I read Wu’s introduction to the text, how he approached it, and how the reader might use it, I was struck by his scholarly, insightful, yet humble, presentation. I felt a deep pang of regret that he had retired and I would never have an opportunity to sit in his classroom and learn from him directly. And, yet, I was comforted by the book that lay in my hands, and his perspective and understanding on Laozi filling my heart and mind.

Holding a cup while filling it to the brim
Is not as good as stopping then and there.
Hammering the blade till it is sharp
Cannot keep it so for long.
Stuffing the hall with gold and jade
Does not guarantee it will stay secure.
Turning arrogant after gaining wealth and position
Brings disaster upon oneself.
Retire after achieving one’s goal —
That is the Dao of Heaven.

Chapter 9, “Thus Spoke Laozi”, translation by Charles Q. Wu (2013)

Thank you, Professor. Your spirit continues to teach.

To read more about Prof. Wu’s life: The Northwest China Council Newsletter has included a memorial tribute to Professor Wu (beginning on the second page), and an obituary has been published in the Oregonian here

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