Cleaves, Francis Woodman

Francis Woodman Cleaves (July 13th, 1911– December 3Ist, 1995)


  • 18th Meeting, 1975
  • 31st Meeting, 1988 PIAC Medal awarded


(July 13th) 1911–1995 (Dec. 3Ist)

Another giant is gone! Surely that is the only way to describe the Standing of Professor Cleaves, the dean of American-born Mongolists, a scholar of high standing in Sino-Mongolian studies. From the late 1940s up to the present year, his contributions to our field flowed.

He was by origin a New Englander, taking his B.A. at Dartmouth, and Master’s in 1934 at Harvard University, rising to be Professor of Far Eastern Languages there, and later retiring to his New Hampshire farm. Thus he saw much of early 20th century America, and almost reached the next millennium. Beginning in Classics, his Greek and Latin were of use to him later as well; he undertook Chinese (a requirement of the Indo-European program was to have a non-IE language), and in 1934-35 attended university in Paris for two years. There he came under the influence of the great Master Pelliot, whose standing and interest in Mongolian are known.
Around 1937 came his first travel in China, where he may have first met Father Mostaert, perhaps other figures as well, and collected Manchu and Chinese books, particularly gathering copies and rubbings of various Sino-Mongolian inscriptions, which he later utilized for publication. He stayed in China until about 1941. But lest we think this devoted scholar was some shy bookworm, after he received his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1942, he became a U.S. Naval Officer detached to the U.S. Marine Corps in China. His main assignment was to assist in the repatriation of Japanese officers, and at this time he rescued many libraries and documents from destruction, some sent to the Harvard Oriental collections.

After the war, he returned to Harvard and taught the entry-level course in College Chinese, sharing with other professors. He was always au courant with Sinological studies. His main field of publication was the Sino-Mongolian inscriptions, concentrating of course on transcription, analysis, translation and detailed commentary of the Mongolian texts. Beginning in the early 1950s, he wrote numerous detailed philological articles presenting studies of the Mongolian halves of bi-lingual inscriptions. Indeed, they are classics of scholarship in detail and knowledge.

Cleaves deserves to be called “a scholar’s scholar”, but this is not to say that everyone took as much interest in these subjects as he could and did. Nearly all his early scholarship appeared in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, sometimes filling the major part of an issue. Unmarried, Cleaves devoted his entire time to research, and during the years that Father Mostaert was in the USA, they were in constant touch by correspondence, and Mostaert shared his deep knowledge freely. He made two other major trips abroad, one to Teheran, and one to the Vatican, to work on the documents of Mongolian origin there. Though a New England Protestant, he was friendly with Catholic Cardinais in Rome during his stay.

During his Harvard teaching days he spent long hours with colleagues, especially William Hung, discussing academic problems, but his devotion to his students and his efforts on their behalf were also great, and there was always time for an undergraduate to discuss matters. I recall him once grumbling to me that he spent the equivalent of weeks in preparing letters of recommendation for the government foreign language scholarships. On their part, the students had a tradition of year-end commemorative T-Shirts to be worn by those who had survived First-Year Chinese under Cleaves. There are many stories told about his excessive attention to detail, resulting from his high standards of scholarship and accuracy. He also told some stories about himself with glee: e.g., on the Normandie en route to Paris, he consumed an entire artichoke, stem and all, having never been faced with this vegetable previously. He was aware of how he appeared to others; his manners were polished and courtly, despite the tales of objecting to minute errors.

He retired in 1984 and removed to his New Hampshire farm, rebuilding and restoring buildings, digging a well, keeping his books, of which there were so many that he virtually lived in the kitchen, sharing the house with 3 or 4 dogs too. Even at that age, he could read without glasses, and only in the last year or two did he install a telephone.

More pages could be written, but those hundreds he published will prove to be a greater memorial than any words given here.

He thus leaves behind a full body of Sino-Mongolian inscriptionary studies, but we have only touched on the work with which his name will always be linked, the famed Secret History of the Mongols, to which he devoted decades of study. To be sure, that was almost a full-time occupation, and even in the 1950s, it was a task to keep abreast.

Many discussions with Prof. Wm Hung led to Hung’s famous article on the transmission of the Secret History. Cleaves could not agree with all of Hung’s views, but his respect for Hung was so great, that this contributed greatly to the delay in publication of his Volume One of the Secret History. He disliked opposing Hung’s opinions, and as Volume Two may have required stating those views more strongly, further delay resulted. I understand that he felt hurt that there was little acceptance of his efforts to cast the Secret History into King James’ Biblical English (and I confess I was one of those critics), increasing his reluctance to create Volume Two.
He had largely finished his basic translation, furnished with notes and commentary. Everyone waited for years for it to appear, especially as it long lay in page-proof, and some researchers had even used and consulted portions of it. His volume One, giving the core translation, did appear in 1982, furnished with the most essential remarks needed, but it merely served to increase our wish for Volume Two. We have all wondered in vain both why volume One was so delayed (for “personal reasons”), and whether Volume Two can or ever will appear.

As a result of Cleaves’ intense approach to details, his standards were high, and in personal interaction he did not find others sharing this devotion. Hence there circulate many stories about demands, pedantry and impossible requests, which must have some reason for origin; yet everyone who personally met the Lion in his Den spoke of his courtesy, charm and affability.

The PIAC recognized Cleaves’ exceptional achievements by awarding him in 1988 the Indiana University Prize for Altaic Studies.

Mongolian Studies have suffered a great loss, but the oeuvre left behind will long endure.

Requiescat in pace!

John R. Krueger

(Source: Permanent International Altaistic Conference Newsletter No. 25, May 1997, pp. 2–3)