John DeFrancis, August 31, 1911-January 2, 2009

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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.

John with some of the books he published in 1996

John with some of the books he published, in 1996 by John DeFrancis

In this tribute to John, I shall not dwell on the extremely interesting story of his life, inasmuch as that has been covered well in obituaries in the New York Times (January 19, 2009, p. A21), online and elsewhere, e.g., Yale Daily News (January 16, 2009). There is also a wonderful Website for John here with plentiful biographical details and lots of photographs. Suffice it to say here that John was a socially committed and politically active individual who also was unusually adventurous and gregarious.

What I wish to do in this necrology is give a brief accounting of John as a teacher and scholar of Chinese. Perhaps the easiest way to approach John's academic career is to divide it into four stages: student, teacher, researcher, and lexicographer.

As an undergraduate at Yale, John majored in economics, and his interest in the measurable, quantifiable aspects of politics and society continued to have an influence upon his scholarship throughout his life.

John began his graduate studies at Yale under the legendary George A. Kennedy (1901-1960), for whom there is now an excellent, insightful biography by Bruce Brooks.

Kennedy's intimate feel for the spoken languages of China vis-à-vis the written tradition surely must have had a lasting effect upon John. Subsequently, however, John moved to Columbia for his Ph.D., since the program in Sinology there was larger. At Columbia, John's concern with the here and now, with the quality of human existence, together with his focus on Chinese language issues, were perfectly married in his dissertation, which later became his first book, Nationalism and Language Reform in China (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950, with several reprints). This is a masterpiece of critical inquiry that combines research in history, political science, and sociolinguistics. It is still regularly consulted by researchers today, nearly six decades after it was first published, and it set the tone for all of John's later books and articles on Chinese. In this volume we can see clearly how he was inspired by the passionate views of the great Chinese writer, Lu Xun (1881-1936), and how he was motivated by his own deep empathy for illiterate Chinese peasants and workers.

Although John had held a number of teaching positions in various subjects at more than half-a-dozen institutions between 1938 and 1961, his mission as a major force in the field of Chinese language instruction did not really crystallize until 1962, when he was appointed as Research Professor of Chinese at Seton Hall University. It was here that John wrote his famous series of 12 volumes of beginning, intermediate, and advanced textbooks for the study of Mandarin. Significantly, John was one of the first Western pedagogues to use pinyin as the Romanization for Mandarin in his textbooks.

The DeFrancis textbook series had a tremendous impact on the Chinese language teaching field in America and abroad throughout the 1970s and 1980s. When John passed away, he was still working on the revisions of his Beginning Chinese Reader, and they will soon be completed by John Montanaro of Yale University Press and Tom Bishop of Wenlin.

From 1966-1976, John was Professor of Chinese at the University of Hawai'i. Upon retirement, he wasted no time in diving back into pure research. His Colonialism and Language Policy in Viet Nam (The Hague: Mouton, 1977) dissected the intricacies of the successful implementation of an alphabetical script for an Asian language that had once been a part of the sinographic sphere.

John had studied and traveled in China from 1933 to 1936, but — because of his intense disappointment at the Communist government's failure to implement greater usage of pinyin — did not go back again until 1982 when he returned with Y. C. Li to attend the 15th International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics that was held in Beijing that year. While in Beijing, he met with Zhou Youguang (b. 1906) and other luminaries in the Chinese language reform apparatus of the PRC. He also deepened his appreciation for the pellucid analyses of problems related to the Chinese writing system by such distinguished linguists as Lü Shuxiang (1904-1998), Li Jinxi (1890-1978), and Wang Li (1900-1986), and by writers of the stature of Mao Dun (1896-1981) who recognized the need for additional applications of pinyin.

Annoyed by what he considered to be the backtracking of Mao Zedong and the waffling of Zhou Enlai with regard to their earlier commitment to romanization, John poured his heart and soul into works such as The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1984), in which he destroyed many widespread myths about Chinese characters (ideographic, universality, emulatability, monosyllabic, indispensability, successfulness), and "Digraphia," Word, 35.1 (1984), 59-66, in which he strenuously advocated a two-track system for writing in China: characters and pinyin.

John's magnum opus, however, is Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1989), which has on its cover a stunning illustration consisting of the phonetic representation of the first six words of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address transcribed as follows: acoustic wave graph of the voice of William S.-Y. Wang, IPA, roman letters, Cyrillic, devanagari, hangul, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Arabic, katakana, Yi (Lolo, Nuosu, etc.), cuneiform, and sinograms (a fuller version of the cover illustration may be found on the frontispiece [facing the title page] and there is a generous explanation on pp. 248-251).

Visible Speech contains countless feats of outstanding linguistic inquiry (for a tour de force example, see John's revealing treatment of a Yukaghir love letter). In essence, Visible Speech demonstrated that in terms of the nature of writing systems globally – there is nothing particularly special or unique about Chinese characters, except perhaps how difficult and phonetically imprecise they are.

The last stage of John's career as a Chinese linguist began in the early 1990s, just after he had become an octogenarian, upon the occasion of which many of his friends contributed to a Schriftfestschrift. From that time until his death, John labored tirelessly and selflessly on the ABC (Alphabetically Based Computerized) Chinese dictionaries. These revolutionary dictionaries are a monumental achievement that make it easy to look up whole words by their sounds instead of by the shapes of the individual characters used to write the syllables of which they are composed. In the not-too-distant future, the massive ABC dictionary database will be made available online, a move that is sure to greatly enhance information technology for Chinese. Finally, the proofreading for the crowning achievement of the ABC series, the portable English-Chinese Chinese-English (ECCE) dictionary, was virtually concluded on the day John
took his last breath.


  1. JimG said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 9:24 pm

    An image of the cover of _Visible Speech_ :

    From ages 7 to 27, I had studied French, Spanish, German and a bit of Hebrew and Portuguese, when I first came to Mandarin. I recall thinking how marvelous the two companion volumes of DeFrancis' _Beginning Chinese_ were, especially in terms of content and the system of presentation. I never met him, but I am still feel gratitude and admiration for John DeFrancis.

  2. JimG said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 9:26 pm

    Oops! Here's the link to the image:

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 9:37 pm

    And here's the title page of the earliest of the three works with that title: Alexander Melville Bell's 1867 work, which introduced the concept of phonetic transcription:

    The second work of that title, by Potter, Kopp & Green, was originally published in 1947, and introduced the sound spectrograph to the world.

    John DeFrancis' book on the nature of writing systems is a worthy successor to the other two.

  4. Nigel Greenwood said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 6:34 am

    Victor's excellent tribute to JDeF mentions the influence on his scholarship of his earlier study of economics. I'm sure this influence extended to the pedagogical approach he adopted in his Chinese language series too. In his 1968 Advanced Chinese Reader, for example, he explains the almost military methodology he adopted to ensure that newly introduced characters & compounds were regularly reviewed:

    "As in the case of the preceding readers, great pains have been taken to assure repetition of characters and compounds. All compounds occur at least twice in the lesson in which they are introduced — once in the illustrative sentences, and once again in the subsequent narratives. Each character occurs at least four times in the lesson of first occurrence — once in the illustrative sentences, and three times in the subsequent text. In addition, each character occurs twice in the next lesson, once after a gap of one lesson, and thereafter once every fifth lesson …"

    Even more important, though, was his approach to "character-counting", as against real learning:

    "The teaching of Chinese reading has suffered from over−emphasis on
    acquisition of characters at the expense of learning many compounds and doing extensive reading. It is easy enough to look up characters in a
    dictionary, but it often happens that what they actually mean in a
    given text can be grasped only if the student has achieved a sort of
    intuitive feeling for combinations and contexts through extensive involvement in the total act of reading."

    He was a great scholar: may he rest in peace.

  5. language hat said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 10:28 am

    Thanks for this excellent description of his career and books (and the delightful photo); I added a link to it in my own memorial post.

  6. KYL said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

    I I found John's books to be excellent for the non-specialist, and his insights were very influential on my own work and filled in a great void in the understanding of the Chinese writing system by the Chinese and non-Chinese alike.

    Although I believe that his hostility to Chinese characters was unjustified, and the fact that he sympathized with early Communist attempts to romanize the writing system earned him a measure of ill will among some Chinese communities, I still see him as a great scholar who had done amazing work and contributed greatly to human knowledge.

    I don't have to agree with him on everything to appreciate him and respect him. He will be missed.

  7. Yu said,

    March 9, 2010 @ 9:20 pm

    Show my highest respects to those who are teachers functioning as bridges linking up the culture exchanges!(*^__^*)

  8. simon said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

    MR/MRS Victor Mair: I‘m a PHD student in Zhengzhou University Henan province of China with my English name simon. I'm studying about the development of the Viet Namese langguage. I'm interested in Mr John DeFrancis book with the title Colonialism and Language Policy in Viet Nam. would you please be kind enough to tell me that how can I get his book? Thank you very much!
    my mailbox is:
    Any info will be highly appreciated!

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