Thursday, January 22, 2009

John DeFrancis

John DeFrancis is dead. He was the author of the _ABC Chinese-English
Comprehensive Dictionary_ (my favorite single-volume Chinese
dictionary) and dozens of other books on the Chinese language. Here is
the Times obituary:

John DeFrancis, 97, author and Chinese-language scholar
By Edward Wong, New York Times | January 18, 2009
NEW YORK - John DeFrancis, one of the most influential scholars and
teachers of the Chinese language in the last century, died on Jan. 2
in Hawaii. He was 97.

Mr. DeFrancis died in a hospital after falling ill in late December,
according to an official website memorial dedicated to him.

Few scholars of Chinese wrote more probingly about the language,
considered one of the most difficult for Westerners to master, and
fewer still created teaching materials that had so widespread an
impact on generations of students of Chinese.

Mr. DeFrancis, who spent much of his career as a professor at the
University of Hawaii at Manoa, set out in various books to explain the
intricacies of the Chinese language. He tried to debunk commonly held
myths about the language - for example, that Chinese characters are
ideograms, which represent ideas. He maintained that they are
morphosyllabic in nature, meaning they constitute a large system of
syllables, albeit imprecise, while also conveying meaning.

Among longtime scholars of the language, Mr. DeFrancis stood out as an
iconoclast. Perhaps his most controversial argument was that the
writing system needed to undergo a major reformation, with characters
that had evolved over thousands of years to be replaced by a phonetic
Latin script.

"He was far and away the most important Chinese-language teacher of
the 20th century," said Victor H. Mair, a China scholar at the
University of Pennsylvania who worked closely with Mr. DeFrancis on
various projects. "Plus he was a very influential linguist writing
about Chinese, Vietnamese, and writing systems in general."

His experience with the language was deeply rooted in his living and
traveling in China at a time when poverty and violence were endemic
across the country. Mr. DeFrancis was born into a working-class family
in Bridgeport, Conn. Though his father was a laborer and his mother
illiterate, he graduated from Yale in 1933 with an economics degree.
He found it hard to get a job during the Great Depression, so he
boarded a ship for China at the suggestion of a dorm mate from a
missionary family.

Mr. DeFrancis enrolled in the College of Chinese Studies in Beijing.
He had intended to work as a businessman, but he soon became
disillusioned with the prevailing attitudes toward the Chinese among
expatriate businesspeople. In 1935, he was asked by H. Desmond Martin,
a military historian, to undertake a trip across China tracing the
path of Genghis Khan.

Together they traveled 1,000 miles across the Gobi Desert by camel and
1,200 miles down the Yellow River on a raft of inflated sheepskins.
Seeing the poverty of rural China up close made Mr. DeFrancis
profoundly disillusioned with the Kuomintang, the ruling party at the
time. Mr. DeFrancis recounted the journey in the book "In the
Footsteps of Genghis Khan," published in 1993 by the University of
Hawaii Press.

The year after the trip, back in Beijing, he met Katharine Wilson,
whom he would marry. They returned to the United States, and Mr.
DeFrancis became the first PhD student in a new graduate program in
Chinese studies at Yale. He later transferred to a Sinology program at

His first teaching job was as an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins
University, which was directed by Owen Lattimore, a prominent scholar
of Central Asia. Lattimore became a target of the Communist witch
hunts led by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, and Mr. DeFrancis was
blacklisted by universities after coming to Lattimore's defense.

That prompted Mr. DeFrancis to abandon the field of Chinese studies.
To support himself, he became a vacuum cleaner salesman for a time,
but his academic career was resurrected by John B. Tsu, the head of
Chinese studies at Seton Hall University. Tsu commissioned Mr.
DeFrancis to write a textbook for first-year students of Mandarin
Chinese. That eventually led Mr. DeFrancis to write a 12-volume series
of textbooks published by Yale University Press. The books, known as
the DeFrancis series, were widely used in classrooms in the 1970s and

Mr. DeFrancis moved to Hawaii with his wife in 1966 to direct the
Chinese program at the University of Hawaii. She died in 1970. Mr.
DeFrancis leaves their son, Chuck.

Mr. DeFrancis retired from teaching in 1976, but he continued writing
prolifically. One of his most popular books, "The Chinese Language:
Fact and Fantasy," was published in 1984. It was in this book that he
tried to tackle many of the myths about Chinese, asserting, for
example, that the speech forms in China commonly called dialects are
actually distinct languages quite different from Mandarin.

He also wrote on the history and the language of Vietnam, but the
Chinese language was at the center of his scholarly pursuits.

In researching the book "Oracle Bones," Peter Hessler, a reporter for
The New Yorker, quoted Mr. DeFrancis as saying he had been so
embittered by the fact that Communist leaders did not follow through
with a project to overhaul the writing system that he had not set foot
in China for more than 45 years.