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.