R.I.P. Daniel Kane (1948-2021)

« previous post | next post »

If you ever had a question about Jurchen (a long extinct Tungusic language, script, people, and dynasty [1115-1234; also called the Jin]) or Khitan (a long extinct Para-Mongolic language, script, people, and dynasty [916-1125; also called the Liao]), chances are that people would advise you, "Ask Danny Kane".

"World-renowned linguist an expert in ancient Chinese script", The Sydney Morning Herald (6/18/21)

At his primary school in 1950s Melbourne, Danny Kane would ask the kids from Italy, Poland, Hungary and elsewhere how to say things in their language. He became quite fluent in Italian and picked up Latin from the liturgy at church, pursuing it formally in high school along with French.

Home life was hard. His father had been a bank officer but was thrown out of work in the Great Depression and never regained a sound financial footing. Danny recalled living in houses in Richmond with holes in the floors and walls, and an army greatcoat for a winter blanket. With the help of Labor MP Jim Cairns, the family got public housing, but Danny was obliged to leave school at 16 to help with money.

He got a job as a teller in a bank on Lygon Street, Carlton, the heart of Melbourne’s Little Italy where he found himself speaking Italian all day with customers, and occasionally French, and was also on the way to fluency in Spanish.

As he recalled in 2019 in an interview with the Australian National University’s Annie Luman Ren, “someone from the university came in one day and we got chatting in Italian, and he said to me, ‘Why are you working at a bank?’ And I said, ‘Oh, it pays the bills.’ To which he said, ‘Why don’t you go to the university?’ For me, university was where people go to become doctors or lawyers. The person said, ‘Come to my office and we will talk about it.’ He turned out to be the dean of the arts faculty.”

Chris Nailer, a fellow student in Chinese, recalls being hospitalised in 1971 after a motorbike accident, and Danny, then a fourth-year student, would visit him. The patient in the opposite bed was an immigrant from Turkey who spoke almost no English.

Kane arrived and, hearing the story, bounded across the ward with his hand in the air, greeting the patient in his irrepressibly jovial manner: “Nazilsiniz? [How are you?].” The two remained in conversation for quite some time before Danny turned to Chris and said: “Well, we ran to the end of my Turkish rather quickly but found we could converse in a mixture of Bulgarian and Greek!”

He graduated with first-class honours and was offered a PhD scholarship by the ANU. For his thesis he wanted to write something about the history of the Chinese language, including its lost predecessors. He was steered into a study of the mysterious Jurchen and their language, showing they were forebears of the Manchu, who came to impose China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing, which is now the subject of a wave of exploration in Chinese popular culture.

On finishing his doctorate, which became the basis of a widely commended book on Jurchen, Kane was sought by the Department of Foreign Affairs for the embassy in Beijing. He arrived in 1976 as third secretary and was given the first six months to learn “political Chinese” and the meaning of slogans like “Destroy the Gang of Four”. He did a course in Chinese literature at Peking University and worked for a spell in a factory.

After this immersion, Kane was at ease interpreting for his ambassador, Garry Woodard, and visiting Australian ministers at meetings with Chinese leaders.

People with whom he regularly chatted included the English interpreter to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. He was famed for once eliciting loud guffaws from Mao Zedong’s notoriously stony-faced niece Wang Hairong (1938-2017) as he regaled her with Chinese jokes at a formal dinner for visiting prime minister Malcolm Fraser and foreign affairs minister Andrew Peacock. Kane had succeeded spectacularly where Mr Peacock had failed when he bet members of the Fraser party that he could extract a smile from Wang.

Kane’s heart was in scholarship and the company of fellow experts in the languages of the world. After his embassy posting ended in 1980, he returned to academia at Melbourne University, pursuing his hunch that the Jurchen were linked to an even older people, the Kitan, a nomadic people who lived across a vast area of what is now northern China, Mongolia and the Russian Far East from roughly the 4th to the 10th centuries AD.

Working from rubbings found in the late 19th century from a stone tablet at the tomb of Empress Wu Zetian (624-705 AD) which turned out to be parallel texts in Chinese and Kitan – a kind of Rosetta Stone – Danny Kane began to decipher the Kitan script.

His work mediated between Chinese linguists who had deciphered some Kitan inscriptions, European historians who had little knowledge of Chinese historical linguistics, and Chinese historians who had limited knowledge of the Ural-Altaic languages of China’s border regions; he integrated these perspectives with research published in Japanese, Russian, German and other European languages. Danny’s reputation resulted in invitations to lecture all over the world, including at Leuven in Belgium, Leiden in the Netherlands and many Chinese universities. A peer had commented on his 2009 book on the Kitan language and script that “Kane’s book brings an end to one era of Kitan studies and starts a new one”.

“When a language becomes dead or is going to die, it becomes simplified,” he said. “You see it in languages like Manchu. Let’s say, for example, that in classical Manchu there are a dozen or so words for ‘cup’, such as chalice, goblet, pannikin, et cetera. But, by the end of the Qing dynasty, people have forgotten the other terms; they just know the one word, ‘cup’.”

He saw this happening in our society. “Kids these days may say: ‘Yeah, but you don’t know the way we speak.’ But in 10 years from now, all the words that I have in my head will be gone.”

(Written by a collective of Daniel Kane’s friends)

Not your usual path to becoming a linguist!


Suggested reading

  • Daniel Kane, The Sino-Jurchen Vocabulary of the Bureau of Interpreters (Uralic and Altaic Series, Vol. 153). Indiana University, Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies. Bloomington, Indiana: 1989.
  • Juha Janhunen, "Para-Mongolic". In Juha Janhunen, ed., The Mongolic Languages.  (London:  Routledge. pp. 391–402.
  • "'Geda', part 3" (11/15/18) — with a good example of Daniel Kane answering a specialized question about Khitan texts and lexicon.
  • "Simplified vs. Complex / Traditional" (4/23/09) — first comment


[h.t. Chips Mackinolty]


  1. Pamela said,

    June 25, 2021 @ 9:13 am

    a legend. irreplaceable. will always be fundamental to what so many of us do.

  2. Bathrobe said,

    June 25, 2021 @ 7:41 pm

    Given that I'm now studying Mongolian, and that Daniel Kane was an Australian academic, I feel quite abashed that I had never heard of him until now. I wish that I had met him when it was possible. RIP.

  3. I.Alnuaimi said,

    July 3, 2021 @ 7:05 pm

    Rest in peace Daniel Kane

RSS feed for comments on this post