January 2, 2009

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 than he!

Returning to the US with Kay later that same year, John, now a confirmed Sinophile, began graduate studies as the first PhD student in the new program at Yale in Chinese Studies, established 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’s 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 population.

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. 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 join the thriving Chinese language program at UH built up under John Young (who eventually moved to 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 Vietnam (1977). The latter remains a key work that is still frequently cited in the field of Vietnamese Studies.

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 70,000 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, co-edited by Yanyin Zhang (University of Canberra), has just reached final manuscript stage with the help 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 in development.

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 and 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.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Download Chinese translation by Apollo Wu and Hu Baihua

Word File

PDF File


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.