Francis Woodman Cleaves

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Francis Woodman Cleaves (born in Boston in 1911 and died in New Hampshire on December 31, 1995) was a Sinologist, writer and historian who taught at Harvard University, where he was key in establishing Mongolian studies in America.[1] He is well known for his translation of The Secret History of the Mongols.


Francis Woodman Cleaves At Harvard

In 1935, on a fellowship from the Harvard-Yenching Institute, Cleaves went first to Paris, where he studied with Paul Pelliot, then to Beijing where he studied with the Mongolist Antoine Mostaert S.J. Always an avid book collector, he also roamed the stalls and shops in Liulichang, the street for books and antiques. There he accumulated an extensive collection not only in Chinese and Mongolian, his own interests, but also in Manchu, which he did not plan to use himself. The books in Manchu were particularly rare and form the core of Harvard's Manchu collection.[2]

In 1941, Cleaves returned to the United States but lost his books and the manuscript of his doctoral thesis, which were found after the war. He taught Chinese in the Department of Far Eastern Languages at Harvard and worked on the Harvard-Yenching Institute Chinese-English dictionary project. He joined the United States Navy and served in the Pacific. After the war ended, he helped to relocate Japanese citizens who had lived in China back to Japan and sorted through the books they left behind to find those suitable for shipping to the Harvard-Yenching Library.[3]

Cleaves had an especially close relation with William Hung, a preeminent scholar who had become his friend and mentor when they met in China in the 1930s. A mutual friend recalled that Cleaves was "an old-fashioned gentleman perhaps more at home with his cows, horses, and fellow farmers in New Hampshire than with the academic intrigues of Cambridge," while Hung was a "pragmatic Confucianist." The two would meet every weekday at three to sip tea and perhaps read from the Chinese classics or dynastic histories. Cleaves introduced Hung to the Mongol histories, and Hung published several articles in this field. Hung's article on the Secret History of the Mongols, however, drew conclusions which Cleaves did not feel were correct. Out of respect for his friend, Cleaves did not publish his own translation until 1985, after Hung's death.[4]

The translation of the Secret History of the Mongols was the first to translate the entire text. In order to give readers the flavor of the original, Cleaves restricted the vocabulary to words used in Elizabethan English, a decision which made the text hard for some readers to comprehend.[5] In 1984, Paul Kahn published a translation based on Cleaves but using contemporary English.[6]

Cleaves also began teaching Mongolian and passing along the traditions of European sinology of his mentors. Among his students, or perhaps most well-known disciples, was Joseph Fletcher, the distinguished Mongolist and historian, and Elizabeth Endicott-West, author of basic studies on the Yuan dynasty and Mongolian history.[1]

Cleaves retired in 1980, but he continued his scholarship on Mongolian history.[3]

Major publications[edit]

  • Cleaves, Francis Woodman (1982). The Secret History of the Mongols. Cambridge, Mass.: Published for the Harvard-Yenching Institute by Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674796705.  2 vols.
  • Antoine Mostaert and Francis Woodman Cleaves. Manual of Mongolian Astrology and Divination. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Scripta Mongolica, 1969).
  • Cleaves, Francis Woodman. 1954. “A Medical Practice of the Mongols in the Thirteenth Century”. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 17 (3/4). Harvard-Yenching Institute: 428–44. doi:10.2307/2718323.


  1. ^ a b Bettine Birge, "Yuan studies in North America: historical overview, contributions, and current trends," in Haihui Zhang. A Scholarly Review of Chinese Studies in North America (Ann Arbor, MI.: Association for Asian Studies, 2013). ISBN 9780924304729. pp. 55-56 Archived 2013-10-03 at the Wayback Machine..
  2. ^ Mark Elliott, "Highlights of the Manchu-Mongol Collection," in Patrick Hanan. ed., Treasures of the Yenching: Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Harvard-Yenching Library. (Cambridge, MA; Hong Kong: Harvard-Yenching Library, 2003), pp. 79-81.
  3. ^ a b "Memorial Minute," Harvard University Gazette (January 22, 1998)
  4. ^ Egan, Susan Chan and William Hung (1987). A Latterday Confucian: Reminiscences of William Hung, (1893-1980). Cambridge, Mass.: Council on East Asian Studies. ISBN 0674512979. , pp. 202-203. The copyright page of Cleaves' translation notes "the work was completed in 1956 and set in type in 1957," but "for personal reasons it was set aside and not published until the present."
  5. ^ Timothy May, Review Rachewiltz's translation of Secret History September 2004
  6. ^ Paul Kahn. The Secret History of the Mongols: The Origin of Chinghis Khan: An Adaptation of the Yuan Ch'ao Pi Shih, Based Primarily on the English Translation by Francis Woodman Cleaves. (San Francisco: North Point Press; reprinted Boston: Cheng & Tsui, 1998. ISBN 086547138X).

External links[edit]