It is with sadness that I report Professor John DeFrancis, whose lifelong study of China and Chinese influenced several generations of scholars, passed away in Hawaii on January 2. His remarkable life story and commitment to research and teaching are celebrated in a memorial website which is, of course, blocked in China. Taking some necessary liberties, I’ve appended an essay from that site below.
From the John DeFrancis memorial cited above:
John DeFrancis, professor emeritus of the University of Hawaii, fell ill
on Christmas day, was rushed to the hospital, and passed away just over a
week later, on Friday, January 2, 2009. His death is deeply mourned by
many who have loved, admired, and received inspiration from him.
He had been born nearly a century earlier and a continent away, on August
31, in 1911–the year of China’s republican revolution–in Bridgeport, CT.
His childhood was impoverished: his father was a laborer and his mother
illiterate, but, against all odds, John learned to love books. The first
in his family to attend college, he graduated from Yale University in the
spring of 1933 with a bachelor’s degree in Economics. In the depths of the
Great Depression, he looked for a job but found none. A dorm-mate from a
missionary family in China persuaded him to travel to Beijing to learn
Chinese and make himself more marketable. So in September that year, John
boarded a ship for the month-long journey to China.
In Beijing, John enrolled at the College of Chinese Studies directed by
the father of his dorm-mate, and supported himself by working as an
assistant librarian. Invited to lunch one day with exactly the type of
American businessman he hoped to become, John suffered a disillusionment
when he observed the attitude of the Americans toward the Chinese: one of
them ripped a Chinese bill in half and flung it on the floor to pay for
the meal. Disgusted, John came to despise the career he had been training
for. Instead, he immersed himself in books about China and the Chinese.
In 1935, he was visited by Desmond Martin, a military historian, who
proposed an adventure to retrace the route of the legendary Genghis Khan.
John, who suffered from continuous colds in Beijing’s harsh winter,
readily agreed. Thus, at age 23, John and his companion traveled a
thousand miles by camel across the Gobi Desert, and then twelve hundred
miles down the Yellow River on a raft of inflated sheepskins for the
return journey. This trek is recounted in his 1993 book In the Footsteps
of Genghis Khan (University of Hawaii Press). It was another turning point
in his life, allowing him to experience China at a grass-roots level, and
convincing him that China needed some sort of a democratic revolution, to
alleviate the suffering of its people.
Back in Beijing, in 1936, a Miss Katharine Wilson interrupted his reading
one day in the library, to ask his help in locating a book. He curtly
referred her to the card catalog. A Chinese colleague stepped in and found
her what she needed. Later, after John and Kay were married, Kay enjoyed
recounting the story of how much more gracious John’s colleague had been
Returning to the US with Kay, John, now a confirmed Sinophile, began
graduate studies as the first PhD student in the new program at Yale in
Chinese Studies, establshed by the linguist George Kennedy (whose wife
Jean was the new Kay DeFrancis’ cousin). The only other China specialist
at the time was a Prof. LaTourette in History, and John began to feel
constrained by the lack of additional China resources at Yale. So he
transferred to Columbia University抯 PhD program in Sinology. In China, he
had been inspired by the work of the brilliant Chinese literatus Lu Xun,
who advocated “modernizing” the Chinese language by switching from
characters to a Latin-based alphabet. Now John began investigating the
effects that national language policies might have on a largely illiterate
In 1947, he landed a job as an Assistant Professor in the Paige School of
International Relations at Johns Hopkins University, the director of which
was the unfortunate Owen Lattimore. The only other employee of the School
was a secretary. John completed the requirements for his doctorate in
1948, and settled down to a good life teaching language and history
alongside Owen, and conducting research on language policy issues.
With the “loss” of mainland China in 1949, Owen Lattimore became the
target of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who in the early 1950s charged that
Lattimore was America’s leading communist agitator. Subpoenaed, John, who
was as yet untenured, spoke out vehemently in defense of his boss, and in
1954 ended up losing his job.
Dozens of unsuccessful attempts to obtain a new China-related position
made John realize he had effectively been black-listed by American
universities. Embittered, he abandoned Sinology. Under pressure to support
his wife and young son Chuck, he tried making a living as a vacuum-cleaner
salesman, but failed in some misery. He eventually landed a job as a math
instructor at a private school in New Haven.
The China field found him again in 1961, after the “Red” panic had abated.
John B. Tsu, head of Chinese Studies at Seton Hall University, wrote him a
letter offering to meet with him about a possible job. John, still
pessimistic, pitched the letter into the nearest trash can, but was
convinced to reconsider by Kay and Chuck. He and Tsu met on New Year抯 Eve
in New York City, when Tsu offered him a six-month contract to write a
first-year textbook of Mandarin Chinese. John accepted and delivered his
manuscript right on schedule, and Tsu used that success to obtain
additional federal funding for a textbook at the next level up. Eventually
Tsu was able to parlay Seton Hall’s initial six-month commitment into
hundreds of thousands of dollars of federal support for a project that
produced the twelve-volume series Beginning, Intermediate and Advanced
Chinese published by Yale University Press. Generally called “the
DeFrancis series,” the books were well-known to a generation of China
scholars and loved by many. In the 1970s and 80s, these texts were the
most widely used resource in Chinese language classrooms. Beginning
Chinese is still in print and continues to be used at a handful of
institutions, although changing times have also introduced a wide range of
new texts to the field.
In 1966, John came to Honolulu to head the thriving Chinese language
program at UH built up under John Young (eventually of Seton Hall
University). John and Kay purchased a modest but architecturally
interesting home in Manoa Valley, and decorated it in an exquisite,
understated Japanese zen style, with a koi pond and manicured landscape
gardens outside. Their son Chuck remained on the East Coast, pursuing a
career in music in New York.
John’s beloved Kay died of pancreatic cancer in 1970. John lived on in
their Manoa home for another four decades, and never stopped missing her.
His career spanned seven decades and focused primarily on language policy,
classification of writing systems, pedagogic tools, and writing reform. He
retired in 1976, and published nine books after his retirement. In 2000,
his cardiologist noted on his medical record: “He’s written three books
since his last check-up!”
He was the author of dozens of articles and books on spoken and written
Chinese, including the highly influential Chinese Language: Fact and
Fantasy (1984) and Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems
(1989). His works on Asian sociolinguistics include Nationalism and
Language Reform in China (1951) and Colonialism and Language Policy in
Two projects, spanning the early and later years of his career, have had a
particular impact on the field. The first of these projects was the
twelve-volume textbook series that came to be known as the DeFrancis
texts. They provided an articulated path of study from beginning to
advanced Chinese with distinct pedagogical approaches for the presentation
of spoken and written material, and perhaps marks the earliest attempt in
the field to articulate secondary and post-secondary programs in Chinese.
The most recent and, arguably, the most significant of his projects is the
development of the ABC (Alphabetically Based Computerized) Chinese-English
Dictionary series, for which John served as editor-in-chief, in
collaboration with his long-time colleague Victor Mair (University of
Pennsylvania). The first ABC Dictionary, which included 80,000 entries,
was published by the University of Hawaii Press in 1996. A pocket edition
was published in 1999, a Comprehensive Edition with 196,000 items in 2003,
and the ABC Chinese-English/English-Chinese Dictionary has just reached
final manuscript stage through the work of long-time colleagues Victor
Mair and Tom Bishop, and will be published posthumously. Plans are under
discussion for an ABC Dictionary Online, to continue the work John has
begun well into the future. These publications have made invaluable
contributions to the field of Chinese studies and language pedagogy. They
set the standard for size and accessibility in the field, supporting
current and future technologically-based software products that rely on
the dictionary’s extensive database.
In completing the ABC Dictionary series as he envisioned it, John
fulfilled a life-long dream. The project cost him over a decade of
ten-hour days. In 2000, his cardiologist gave him the option of undergoing
a highly risky triple bypass surgery. John took the risk in order to buy
himself more time, because the ABC Dictionary: Comprehensive Edition was
With the completion of all the major items in the series, John allowed
himself to finally retire during the last two years of his life, when his
son Chuck uprooted himself from his home in Atlanta to move to Honolulu to
care for his aging father. A musician, Chuck stayed by John’s side for two
years, and introduced his increasingly deaf father to closed-captioning on
TV, which gave John entry to an amazing new universe of feature films and
documentaries. John and Chuck instituted a never-ending film festival in
their home, with screenings every evening after dinner.
His innate compassion drove him to constant and generally unheralded
philanthropy. The ABC Dictionary series had been funded with grants
totaling about a half million dollars from the US Department of Education.
From these funds, John took no payment for full-time work over nearly 10
years, in effect donating the equivalent of his salary and benefits for
every year he worked. All royalties from the series were donated to the
University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Chinese Studies, to support work
on successive editions. On top of that, in a period in which the
University of Hawaii’s Center for Chinese Studies was in fiscal distress,
he wrote out a check for $35,000 each year for five years–a total of
$175,000–to help out as best he could. His philanthropy extended beyond
educational institutions: he also supported a wide range of human rights
and activist organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union,
the People’s Fund, and various women’s and gay right’s groups.
When he died, John was working on a revision of his Beginning Chinese
Reader I & II, in collaboration with Yale Press editor John Montanaro.
This work will now be completed by Montanaro alone, and published
posthumously as part of a new, multi-million dollar cutting edge suite of
Chinese language learning materials, including narrative film, a package
of virtual reality exercises powered by artificial intelligence, and
standards-based textbooks–all currently under development through a
collaboration between Yale University Press and the China International
Publishing Group. Called Encounters: Chinese Language and Culture, the
series’ lead authors are John’s University of Hawaii colleague Cynthia
Ning and Yale University colleague John Montanaro.
Encounters will be dedicated, in gratitude, respect, honor, and sorrow, to
the memory of John DeFrancis, a gentle, loving, self-effacing man who
lived a full, good life, and gave so much to the world in so many ways.
Rest well, beloved John, until we meet again.
Posted by Friends of John