David Tod Roy, 83

David Tod Roy, a professor emeritus in East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, died on May 29, 2016 at home in Chicago from complications of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) with which he was diagnosed three years earlier. Professor Roy, who considered Sewickley, PA, his family home, is best known for his five volume translation of a famous Ming Dynasty Chinese novel, Jin Ping Mei, published by Princeton University Press.

David Roy was born in China in 1933 of American educational missionary parents. His father, Andrew Tod Roy, was a professor in the Philosophy Department of the University of Nanking (Jinling Daxue). The family spent the war years from 1938-45 in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, where they were subjected to frequent Japanese bombing raids. The family returned to China in 1948, just in time for the final stages of the communist revolution. David spent a year at the Shanghai American School until the school closed following the communist takeover. He and his younger brother then rejoined their parents in Nanjing, where they remained until the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, when the two children returned to the United States.

During his year in Nanjing, while university professors tutored him through his junior year in high school, David Roy developed an obsession with learning the written Chinese language. Within a year he could read the local newspapers. While completing his high school education in Philadelphia in 1951, he was able to enroll in a graduate level Chinese program at the University of Pennsylvania. He went on to study at Harvard, where his undergraduate education was interrupted by a two year stint in the U.S. Army that included service in Japan and Taiwan. On his discharge, he was readmitted to Harvard, where he went on to complete his PhD.

While teaching for four years at Princeton University, David married Barbara Chew in 1967. Later, the couple moved to the University of Chicago, where David remained for the rest of his academic career. In 1982, David began his translation of Jin Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase), which he completed thirty years later. The first volume was published in 1993, with the final one appearing in 2015. The novel is notorious for its pornographic passages, but his translation was praised for what one reviewer called its “masterly rendering of a richly encyclopedic novel of Ming dynasty manners.”

Professor Roy is survived by his beloved wife Barbara Chew Roy, who was by his side for nearly five decades, and by his younger brother, J. Stapleton Roy, who served as the U.S. ambassador to China from 1991-95.