Yen Yuan-shu (顏元叔), a highly respected professor of English and one of the leading figures of institutional reform for foreign literature studies in the 1970s, has died, National Taiwan University confirmed on Wednesday.
The university said a public memorial service for Yen would be held on Jan. 27.
Yen was a long-time faculty member at the university’s department of foreign languages and literature, and was the dean of the department for five-and-a-half years.
Yen was born in Nanjing, China, in 1933, and his family relocated to Taiwan following the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949.
Yen graduated from the university’s department of foreign languages in 1956 and went to the US, where he obtained his doctorate in English and American Literature at the University of Wisconsin. He returned to National Taiwan University to take up a faculty position and started teaching in 1963.
Said to be the first academic with an overseas doctorate in English and American literature to return to teach in Taiwan, Yen brought home many new Western ideas and concepts in language studies and literary criticism.
When he was the dean of the department, starting in 1969, Yen initiated major institutional reforms and changed the approach to studies of English and American literature in Taiwan. He also established the country’s first doctoral course in comparative literature.
Leung Yan-wing (梁欣榮), the current dean of the department, said that Yen, whom he had studied under, was a highly respected professor whose reforms changed the teaching and course content of the nation’s foreign language studies.
“The reform consolidated the university’s position as the leader for English and American literature education in Taiwan. It also directly influenced studies of foreign languages in Tamkang University and other schools,” Leung said.
He said Yen was not only an educator, but also a prolific essayist and a renowned literary critic.
Yen was seen as the leading figure in literary criticism of English and American literature in Taiwan, founding two academic journals, Tamkang Review (淡江評論) in 1970 and Chung Wai Literary Quarterly (中外文學) in 1972, along with a magazine that guided students on reading English-language newspapers and magazines.
Yen was a familiar name even outside English and American literature studies circles.
Many students and readers of English texts in Taiwan have used dictionaries and books edited or written by Yen, including A Dictionary of Western Literature (西洋文學辭典), A Dictionary of English Usage (英文字彙用法字典) and Selected English Readings (英文閱讀精選), among others.
“When Yen was dean of the department, it was the custom for the dean leaving the post for promotion to become chairman of the faculty. However, Yen was the first exception,” Leung said.
Yen wrote an article criticizing the government at the time over its treatment of retired military personnel, and he also spoke up for some politically persecuted individuals, so Yen lost the faculty chairman position, Leung said.
“This showed his character,” Leung said. “He was not afraid to express views that were not in line with the political leaders, and he was not willing to compromise his principles to hold on to a high position.”
After retiring from National Taiwan University, Yen went to China and purchased land to build a house in his family’s ancestral homeland. From there, he divided his time between Taiwan and China.
Yen tripped and fell while in Shanghai in June. When he returned to Taiwan for a physical examination, it was found that he was already in the late stages of liver cancer. Yen died on Dec. 26 from respiratory failure and complications arising from the cancer.