JOHN DEFRANCIS, RIP.

Dave Bonta was kind enough to send me a link to the memorial site for John DeFrancis, who died January 2. I, like uncountable others, used his Beginning Chinese when I was trying to learn the language (my lack of success was due to my own laziness, not the excellent textbook), but I had no idea what an interesting life he had had, and I was moved by the biography. Some excerpts:

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…

Returning to the US with Kay [his wife], 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… 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’s 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….

A life well and courageously lived. I wish I had known him.
Update. Victor Mair has written a memorial post at the Log that’s well worth reading; it starts: “My old friend and comrade-in-arms, John DeFrancis, died at the age of 97 on January 2, 2009. The cause of his death was a bizarre, tragic accident, yet one that is supremely ironic for someone who devoted his entire adult life to the study, teaching, and explication of Chinese language: John choked on a piece of Peking Duck at a Christmas dinner in a Honolulu restaurant.” There’s a lot of information about his career and books, as well as a great photo.

Comments

  1. Lattimore was a major influence on Central Asian studies whose books are still read. Lattimore’s “In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan” is also very interesting.
    Lattimore’s life story is interesting too. An academic career was blocked by his father’s death, so he worked commercially in China for some time. Later he became an academic without a PhD, IIRC, partly because he had been indispensable for the US war effort there. Some of his commercial work involved travel in remote areas of NW China, and this contributed to his Central Asian theorizing.
    One John Emmerson was also caught in the McCarthyite web, but to my knowledge he was not a relative. There are actually a fair number of orientalist John Emersons, especially if you count Hawaii as oriental.

  2. Lattimore was a major influence on Central Asian studies whose books are still read. Lattimore’s “In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan” is also very interesting.
    Lattimore’s life story is interesting too. An academic career was blocked by his father’s death, so he worked commercially in China for some time. Later he became an academic without a PhD, IIRC, partly because he had been indispensable for the US war effort there. Some of his commercial work involved travel in remote areas of NW China, and this contributed to his Central Asian theorizing.
    One John Emmerson was also caught in the McCarthyite web, but to my knowledge he was not a relative. There are actually a fair number of orientalist John Emersons, especially if you count Hawaii as oriental.

  3. Wow. I didn’t know that. I love his book debunking all the portentous flummery about Chinese characters. (Can’t remember its name, but the gist of it was that it’s a writing system, that’s all, an attractive but not particularly effective one.)
    I failed to learn Chinese too, but I liked his textbook a lot.

  4. John Emerson says:

    Emmerson was a Japanologist who worked in China during the war. Apparently he cooperated with the McCarthy committee but didn’t save himself, thus alienating both sides.

  5. John Emerson says:

    Emmerson was a Japanologist who worked in China during the war. Apparently he cooperated with the McCarthy committee but didn’t save himself, thus alienating both sides.

  6. I love his book debunking all the portentous flummery about Chinese characters.
    Yes Dale, that’s Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. I read it myself last year, and have referred to it often since. The only thing I didn’t like was the introductory chapter on the concocted “Singlish affair”. Irritating and long-winded. The rest is fine. A thorough study from a meticulous and energetic researcher.

  7. AJP Commonest Pub Name in Britain. says:

    They’re a rum lot, the Emersons, really; there’s — was it your great-aunt? — who was hanged, and now a McCarthy wannabe.

  8. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Noetica: Yes Dale, that’s Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. I read it myself last year, and have referred to it often since. The only thing I didn’t like was the introductory chapter on the concocted “Singlish affair”. Irritating and long-winded.
    Interesting that you disliked the Singlish business. So did I, but I felt it was a bit like criticizing the emperor’s clothes. Fortunately I’d read enthusiastic reviews of the whole book, as otherwise I might not have continued beyond the first chapter. The rest of the book is excellent, and a real eye-opener for those who maintain romantic notions of Chinese writing.
    I had no idea that DeFrancis had such an interesting life.

  9. Indeed, Athel. I was quite unaware of the heroic way he lived through those dark times in America.

  10. DeFrancis also survived some pretty damned harsh times in China. In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan was his book, not Lattimore’s.
    His books on Chinese characters and writing systems are about the best I’ve read on both topics. Made sense of what I had assumed to be the arbitrary whimsicality of kanji usage I absorbed in Japan.

  11. mollymooly says:

    Am I the only one who thinks his most impressive achievement was delivering a manuscript right on schedule?

  12. asilentgun says:

    I find it poor taste to use the occasion of the man’s obituary to criticize one of his pieces (mollymolly, Noetica, Athel…). It is especially distasteful to me considering that The Singlish Affair is the most brilliant, concise, and understandable description of both the cultural and linguistic differences dividing the East Asian countries, all in a original, fascinating historical context. The rest of the Chinese Language : Fact and Fantasy is written in a more scientific vein, though John DeFrancis was never a pompous scholar like those commenting on him seem to be. I happen to be able to read all the scripts described in this short fable, and can assure you that DeFrancis was spot on. Is creativity a crime for a scholar?
    Perhaps The Singlish Affair was simply over your heads, but in that case, shame on you for commenting on a passage which you are not qualified to evaluate. asilentgun

  13. mollymooly says:

    @asilentgun: I sense that you are upset by the death of a good and a great man. I apologize for adding to your grief. I can assure you my comment was meant as a lighthearted compliment to DeFrancis’ promptness, not an insult to his many other achievements. If you think it too soon for lightheartedness, I can only apologize again.

  14. asilentgun: I’m sorry you were upset by the comments, but I’m sure you realize that everyone here thoroughly respects DeFrancis. People can disagree on the merits of one essay without besmirching his legacy or good name. (I’m pretty sure I read it myself, but it’s been so long I no longer remember how I felt about it.)

  15. Actionē (Noetica) says:

    I too find it regrettable that you are upset, asilentgun; but I do not regret posting exactly as I did. I have read the full account of this great man’s life that LH linked to, and I am even more impressed than I had been. The “Singlish affair” chapter has long been controversial (see the bottom footnote here; and the top of this page); and the death of this fiercely independent scholar, who himself stood valiantly for the freedom to tell the truth as one sees it, cannot alter the fact.
    I pass over your more particular aspersions as not worth the small effort required to refute them.

  16. asilentgun: Mr Hat has already said it all, so I would only add that I agree. I doubt whether any of us had any intention to give offense; I certainly didn’t.
    Nonetheless, when you add
    Perhaps The Singlish Affair was simply over your heads, but in that case, shame on you for commenting on a passage which you are not qualified to evaluate.
    I think you go too far. The point of the Singlish Affair was perfectly clear, and it was worth making: that English could readily be written with Chinese characters, and that the examples of Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese give some indications of how it could be done. I think we all understood that; we just thought that he had chosen an over-long way of conveying the idea.
    I also cannot agree that an obituary is an inappropriate moment for mentioning the negative as well as the positive. This is probably the moment when interest in DeFrancis is at its height: if one says the same things in ten years time how likely is it that people will be interested? Of course, I hope that he will still be remembered in years to come, but one way to make that more likely is to discuss his work now.
    One last thing, directly relevant to the Singlish Affair. One of the tragedies of the history of language is that a writing system that is widely described as the closest to perfection ever devised, the Korean syllabary, has had to fight for survival against a vastly less efficient Chinese-based system, and has by no means won.
    athel

  17. As I’ve been told, phonetically elegant though it was to begin with, the Korean syllabary no longer fits the spoken language. The Mongol language also had a beautifully economical phonetic writing system about 1400 AD, but even though it is still used it is no longer phonetic.

  18. As I’ve been told, phonetically elegant though it was to begin with, the Korean syllabary no longer fits the spoken language. The Mongol language also had a beautifully economical phonetic writing system about 1400 AD, but even though it is still used it is no longer phonetic.

  19. There was also quite a nice system used to transcribe the Secret History into Chinese. It used Chinese characters strictly phonetically and used a carefully chosen set of diacriticals to indicate the Mongol sounds not found in Chinese.
    My guess is that Buddhist phoneticians relied on the old Hindu phoneticists. Phonemes one of the kinds of dharma, and the Buddhist monk pHags’pa (sp.) devised a “square writing” to represent all of the sounds of the major languages of Kublai Khan’s realm.

  20. There was also quite a nice system used to transcribe the Secret History into Chinese. It used Chinese characters strictly phonetically and used a carefully chosen set of diacriticals to indicate the Mongol sounds not found in Chinese.
    My guess is that Buddhist phoneticians relied on the old Hindu phoneticists. Phonemes one of the kinds of dharma, and the Buddhist monk pHags’pa (sp.) devised a “square writing” to represent all of the sounds of the major languages of Kublai Khan’s realm.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    As I’ve been told, phonetically elegant though it was to begin with, the Korean syllabary no longer fits the spoken language.

    It’s not a syllabary, it actually has letters or, wait, it’s a featural script: it writes place of articulation, stop vs fricative, and aspiration separately. AFAIK, as used today, it fits the modern standard language nicely, except that the spelling is strictly morphological and some strange things go on with the pronunciation of certain inflected forms, and that the vowel system no longer lines up with the yin/yang-based system that determined which vowel was written which way.

    The Mongol language also had a beautifully economical phonetic writing system about 1400 AD, but even though it is still used it is no longer phonetic.

    That’s true in spades. It always has problems, though, like some letters only differing by a dot that was left off whenever it wasn’t absolutely crucial, and quirks like initial /b/ being fused to the following vowel in ways that basically turn that part of the script into a syllabary.
    Tibetan has similar issues, only worse.

    My guess is that Buddhist phoneticians relied on the old Hindu phoneticists.

    Correct. And the shapes of the ‘Phags-pa letters that were considered the phonetically most basic ones were reinterpreted as being drawings of the oral cavity and used to found the Korean script.

  22. I note that Owen Lattimore was older brother to the translator-poet Richmond Lattimore, whose long-lined Homer made a strong impression on me.

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