A father’s heartfelt and candid letter about his son’s mental health condition and his illustrious translation career has become one of China’s most-talked topics, giving a peek into the family’s highs and lows through the decades.
In a 6,000-word personal account, Jin Xingyong described his 50-year-old son Jin Xiaoyu as a “genius,” devoting his life translating over a dozen of foreign literary titles in Chinese, while struggling with bipolar disorder. He praised his son’s talent and his achievements and also shared details of the difficulties they have endured as a family.
“Translation doesn’t make much money, but each new book is a booster when my son’s life is on the line,” the 86-year-old father wrote in his letter published in Hangzhou Daily on Monday.
Xiaoyu became a voracious reader after dropping out of high school in the eastern city of Hangzhou, finishing all the English novels offered in the local library, his father said, indicating his budding romance with world literature. He translated his first work, American novelist Andrea Barrett’s award-winning short story collection “Ship Fever,” in 2010 and hasn’t stopped since.
Over the next decade, Xiaoyu released 17 books in Chinese from English, Japanese, and German — he self-studied the latter two languages — and is ready to publish his latest work, “The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin,” next month. He is also almost halfway through translating Benjamin’s “Arcades Project,” the German philosopher and essayist’s portrayal and critique of the 19th century’s bourgeois experience.
All this time, Xingyong said he’s always been by his son’s side — as his first reader, cheerleader, and also a fierce critic.
“Our child has no friends in his life,” he wrote. “As a father, I am extremely lucky to be my child’s best friend and assistant over these 10 years.”
Left: Jin Xingyong introduces his son Jin Xiaoyu’s translation works at his apartment in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, 2022; right: Some of Jin Xiaoyu’s translation works. From @杭州日报 on Weibo
But the father’s letter isn’t just a lengthy appraisal of his son’s achievements. He also opened up about the family’s personal struggles dealing with Xiaoyu’s extreme mood swings and episodes of depression, which are associated with the condition.
Bipolar disorder affects some 45 million people globally, including approximately 7 million Chinese. In China, conversations around mental health conditions are often shrouded in shame and secrecy, though attitudes are gradually shifting, with an increasing number of people opening up about their experiences using art and entertainment as mediums.
In his letter, Xingyong penned those experiences, recounting his son’s bouts of anger — the time when he overturned the refrigerator and the instance he smashed the television. The father also candidly spoke about his son’s suicidal tendencies and how the family coped with those situations.
“I bought several books about mental illness,” Xingyong wrote. “There are two things I learned that kept a father from breaking down.”
“First, after one or two suicide attempts, such patients are less likely to have such thoughts again — they will cherish life more than before,” he continued. “Second, such patients will be extraordinary in the spiritual field, even demonstrating genius creativity.”
Xiaoyu’s passion for his work, his father said, has always been his ultimate savior.
Since Xingyong published his son’s account, Xiaoyu has turned into a celebrity of some sort: Several domestic media outlets have reported the translator’s success story, and two of his books — “Ship Fever” and “Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir” — have sold out on various e-commerce platforms, including JD.com and Dangdang.com.
Meanwhile, the Zhejiang Translation Association on Tuesday invited Xiaoyu to join the association, according to media reports.
“I didn’t expect so much attention from people,” Xingyong told Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, speaking of the overwhelming response to his letter. “There are many children like my son. They need to be recognized and encouraged by society.”
In China, the Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center can be reached for free at 800-810-1117 or 010-82951332. In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached for free at 1-800-273-8255. A fuller list of prevention services by country can be found here.
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: Jin Xiaoyu (left) and his father Jin Xingyong. From @杭州日报 on Weibo)