Francis Cleaves

The founder of Sino-Mongolian studies in America, Francis Woodman Cleaves (1911-1995) was born and raised in Boston, and received his undergraduate degree in Classics from Dartmouth University. He then enrolled in the graduate program in Comparative Philology at Harvard, but transferred to the study of Far Eastern Languages under Serge Elisséeff in the mid-1930s, prior to the formal establishment of the department. 

Image of Francis Cleaves.

During the war, Cleaves enlisted in the Navy and served in the Pacific. He returned to Harvard in 1946 and proceeded to teach Chinese and Mongolian, without interruption, for the next thirty-five years. Cleaves is unique for being the only professor in the history of the department never to take a sabbatical. A deeply committed teacher, he retired, reluctantly, in 1980. He later returned to teach Mongolian, without remuneration, for several years following the untimely death of his successor Joseph Fletcher. Cleaves never married, but he maintained a large community of cattle, horses, and golden retrievers on his farm in New Hampshire. In contemporary argot, one would say that he “lived off the grid,” foreswearing even a telephone and accessible only by mail or personal visit. His obituary, written by colleagues from the department, suggests that he chose this pastoral life “in emulation of the Mongol herdsmen whose exploits he chronicled.”

Renowned for his painstakingly annotated translations of Chinese and Old Mongolian texts, Cleaves consistently emphasized literal philological accuracy over aesthetic beauty. Translation, for him, was more a science than an art. He published over seventy books, articles and reviews, many of which were on bilingual Sino-Mongolian stele inscriptions from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. His largest project was a complete annotated translation of the Secret History of the Mongols, of which only the first volume was ever published. Much of his work, including his notes on the remaining sections of the Secret History and manuscripts for dozens of additional articles, remained unpublished at the time of his death, on New Year’s Eve, 1995.

As was typical for Elisséeff’s early graduate students, Cleaves spent only a short time in residence before traveling overseas. He spent three years in Paris studying Mongolian and other Central Asian languages with Paul Pelliot, after which he proceeded to Peking, where he continued to study Chinese and Mongolian. While in Peking he revived the work of the Sino-Indian Institute at Yenching University, dormant since the death of Baron von Staël-Holstein, hiring staff and initiating a comprehensive cataloging project. In 1941 he returned to Harvard and began teaching Chinese in the Department of Far Eastern Languages. During the following year he received his Ph.D., with a dissertation entitled “A Sino-Mongolian Inscription on 1362,” and offered Harvard’s first course on the Mongolian language.