Smiling gray-haired man in puffy vest
Cyril Birch. Credit: Sam Cheung

Cyril Birch, died peacefully at 98 surrounded by his family.

Birch was born in Lancashire, England, in 1925 and attended the Bolton School, one of the leading schools of northwest England. He was 16 years old when Britain recruited boys of extraordinary linguistic aptitude to learn Asian Languages in order to serve the war effort. Birch was selected and took an 18-month crash course in Chinese at Dulwich College, devised by London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Through “The Course” he became lifelong friends with other linguists. He was then sent to Calcutta where he worked for the remainder of the war years in Intelligence.

When the war ended, he returned to London to study Chinese under Sir Walter Simon at the University of London. He received his BA with Honors, First Class in Modern Chinese in 1948 and his Ph.D in Chinese Literature in 1954. Professor Birch was asked to stay at the School of Oriental and African Studies and taught Chinese language and literature from 1948 to 1960.

He joined the Department of Oriental Languages at UC Berkeley in 1960, bringing with him his wife, Dorothy, and young children Catherine and David. The family enjoyed many Big Games and their ensuing parties, especially after The Play! Birch wrote and performed in the annual Faculty Holiday Party for many years, choosing the Gilbert and Sullivan tradition for musicals which found professors dressed in exotic garb and singing nonsense and political satire on stage … much to the delight of otherwise serious scholars in the audience.

Professor Birch devoted himself to the study of Chinese vernacular literature, publishing a two-volume Anthology of Chinese Literature which was used as a standard teaching anthology for decades making it possible for generations of students to be introduced to Chinese literature in translation. A family favorite was his ever popular book Chinese Myths and Fantasies.

His translation of The Peony Pavilion led to widely acclaimed performances of the play at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus and at the Barbican Theater in London.  Further translations of Chinese drama themselves have now become the subject of scholarship in China. Professor Birch was awarded Berkeley’s Louis B. Agassiz Chair in Chinese and upon retirement in 1990, the Berkeley Citation which is the highest honor conferred by UC Berkeley on its faculty. In 2017 the Cyril Birch Award for graduate students in Chinese literature was established by the University of California at Berkeley Departments of East Asian Languages and Cultures and Comparative Literature. He remained in contact with a small, but significant, group of friends, students and colleagues.

In addition to his scholarship, Cyril enjoyed family camping throughout California and extended travel around the world. After retirement, he and his wife, Dorothy, spent many happy months driving their VW camper to remote campsites and exploring the area near their country home in Grass Valley. In recent years after Dorothy’s passing, he lived with his daughter Catherine and son-in-law David at their home in Berkeley. 

He continued to be a voracious reader of his favorite Shakespeare and Dickens, enjoyed walking around Berkeley and took great pleasure in the company of his grandchildren. A life well lived! 

He is survived by his children David Birch (Eileen), Catherine Epstein (David) and grandchildren Alison Epstein Trujillo (Ivan), Benjamin Epstein and Michael Birch (Lindsey). In lieu of flowers, any remembrances in his honor should be directed to The Cyril Birch Graduate Student Support Fund at UC Berkeley.