Anthony Yu was born in Hong Kong on 6 October 1938, although the Second World War forced his family to flee to mainland China in 1941. To keep him distracted and entertained in air raid shelters and other dangerous environments, his grandfather would recount the fantastical stories of a wise monk and his companions Monkey and Pig, collected in the classic 16th-century Chinese novel The Journey to the West.
Coming to the US in 1956, Professor Yu studied history and English at Houghton College in New York and the philosophy of religion at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He then moved to the University of Chicago for a PhD in religion and literature.
It was on graduating in 1969 that Professor Yu rediscovered The Journey to the West, then available only in a single abridged English edition. He therefore embarked on a complete four-volume translation of this vast text, published to great acclaim in 1977-83, which combines readability with a scholarly commitment to tracking down all the literary allusions. The New York Times praised it for “do[ing] full justice to the adventure, lyricism and buffoonery” of the original while remaining “completely sensitive to the spiritual content of the text as well”. An abridged version, The Monkey and the Monk, was published in 2006 and a revised second edition in 2012.
Remaining at Chicago for the whole of his 46-year career, Professor Yu worked across five different departments and retired in 2005 as the Carl Darling Buck distinguished service professor emeritus in humanities. He was always committed to a comparative approach to literary studies and wrote influential articles that argue for the importance of studying religion and literature alongside each other. His other publications include Rereading the Stone: Desire and the Making of Fiction in Dream of the Red Chamber (1997) – an analysis of one of the greatest Chinese novels – State and Religion in China (2005) and Comparative Journeys: Essays on Literature and Religion East and West (2008).
Margaret M. Mitchell, dean of the Divinity School at Chicago, described Professor Yu as “an outstanding scholar, whose work was marked by uncommon erudition, range of reference and interpretive sophistication”. Yet he was also “a person of inimitable elegance, dignity, passion and the highest standards for everything he did”.
Professor Yu died after a short illness on 12 May and is survived by his wife Priscilla and son Christopher.