John DeFrancis, 97, author and Chinese-language scholar

By Edward Wong
New York Times / January 18, 2009
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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 Columbia.

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 '80s.

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.

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