Frater studiorum: Tsu-Lin Mei (1933-2023)

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It is with deep sadness that I report the passing on October 14, 2023 of Tsu-Lin Mei, professor of Chinese historical linguistics at Cornell University.  Tsu-Lin was born on February 14, 1933 at the Peking Union Medical College Hospital in Beijing. He received his B.A. from Oberlin College in 1954, his M.A. (in Mathematics) from Harvard in 1955, and his Ph.D. (in Philosophy) from Yale in 1962. He joined Cornell in 1971 as Associate Professor of Chinese Literature and Philosophy, chaired the Department of Asian Studies, directed the China-Japan Program (the East Asia Program), and was the Hu Shih Professor from 1994 to his retirement in 2001.  After retiring from Cornell, he served as a visiting professor at Stanford University, Peking University, the Chinese Academy of Social Science in Beijing, National Taiwan University, and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, among others.

He was elected to Academia Sinica in Taiwan in 1994.

Tsu-lin’s father, Mei Yi-Pao (1900-1996), a Mozi (ca. 470-ca. 391 BC) specialist, had been president of Yenching University (today’s Peking University) during the war years.  His uncle, Mei Yi-chi (1889-1962), was president of Tsinghua 1931-1948 and a high government official in a succession of important posts.

Originally a student of mathematics and philosophy, Tsu-Lin's interest shifted to linguistics after taking courses with Bernard Bloch while a graduate student at Yale.  Tung T'ung-ho, a visiting scholar from Taiwan at Harvard, introduced Tsu-Lin to historical linguistics.  While on sabbatical at Princeton in 1967, Tsu-Lin met Jerry Norman from the University of Washington (Seattle), who steered him in the direction of research on Chinese dialects (especially Min) and historical phonology.

Upon learning of Tsu-Lin's demise, his Cornell colleague, John Whitman, wrote:

Tsu-Lin was one of the most important Chinese historical linguists of the 20th century. He bridged the gap between the innovative non-Chinese scholars such as Haudricourt and Jakhontov, who broke the logjam following on Karlgren’s work in the first half of the century, and more traditional Chinese philology.

Tsu-Lin had wonderfully productive relationships with North American Sinologists such as Jerry Norman at Washington and Victor Mair at Penn. When he and Nicholas Bodman were both active at Cornell in the 1980s, Cornell was perhaps the leading place for Chinese historical linguistics in the world. No accident that William Baxter was trained here during that time.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, when Tsu-Lin first began (after 40 years) to travel, lecture, and teach in China, his aggressively scientific approach to the history of his language triggered a strong reaction among nationalistically inclined scholars. I remember the gleam in Tsu-Lin’s eye when he returned after one of these visits telling me that his rivals had organized a competing conference aiming to shore up “Yǒu Zhōngguó tèsè de lìshǐ yǔyánxué 有中国特色的历史语言学“ ("Historical linguistics with Chinese characteristics").

There is much more to say about Tsu-Lin, including his love of tennis (he was legendary for playing well into the cold season on those little courts tucked in by Cascadilla Creek) and his and Theresa’s lovely dinners. I am one more of many who will miss him enormously.

I will close this brief memorial essay by recounting two poignant incidents centered on Tsu-Lin.  The first shows how Tsu-Lin was a commanding presence wherever he went.  I will never forget the time, about forty years ago, when we both attended a large international academic conference on Sinology at Academia Sinica in Taipei.  Most of the world's greatest Sinologists were gathered there.  At the opening reception in a large hall filled with hundreds of scholars busily conversing with each other, when Tsu-Lin entered the room the effect was electrifying.  It seemed as though a hush fell over the assembled and all eyes were on him, whereas his gaze swept across the entire crowd and surveyed everyone who was present.  As always, Tsu-Lin stood erect and alert, as if he were formulating a thousand interesting questions for all of the attendees during the coming conference.

The second incident happened just minutes ago, as I was putting the finishing touches on this tribute.  I ran to the downstairs section of my library to check something.  As I was hurrying back upstairs, a singular book with a beige, unostentatious cover protruded from all the other thousands of volumes on the shelves, as though it were calling for my attention.  It was:

Méi Zǔlín yǔyánxué lùnwénjí 梅祖麟语言学论文集 (Collected Papers of Mei Tsu-Lin on Linguistics).  Beijing:  Shangwu Yinshuguan, 2007.  550 pages.

Although Tsu-Lin has countless other publications to his credit, if you want to get a measure of the man's enormous contribution to the field, look through the seventeen papers in Chinese and four papers in English that are gathered in this book.  Among other pathbreaking topics that he touches upon are that the causative *s- prefix and the nominalizing *-s suffix are both present in Proto-Sino-Tibetan, the whole matter of tonogenesis in Sinitic, transformations in historical grammar, syntax, and morphology, and so forth.

Although the impact of Tsu-Lin's scholarship was felt in many areas of Chinese historical linguistics, I believe that its most profound effect was in stimulating the development of research on what is generally called Jìndài Hànyǔ 近代汉语 (Modern Chinese) in China but which I refer to as Middle Vernacular Sinitic (MVS).  Galvanizing the work of linguists such as Jiǎng Shàoyú 蒋绍愚 and Jiāng Lánshēng 江蓝生, Tsu-Lin conceived and helped to execute this whole, new, important field of middle period language studies (grammar, morphology, lexicography, annotated texts), based on the periodization of Lǚ Shūxiāng 吕叔湘 (1904-1998).

The adventuresome spirit of Tsu-Lin's scholarship can be seen in his inquiries into linguistic evidence for the Austroasiatics in South China (with Jerry Norman), linguistic criticism of Tang poetry (with Yu-kung Kao), and the Sanskrit origins of recent style prosody in Chinese (with VHM).  It was my honor to work with Tsu-Lin on the last named topic for a decade, a subject that I will describe elsewhere on a website that is being organized in memory of his life and achievements.

Tsu-Lin trained many outstanding students at Cornell, and they are active in Chinese language, literature, and linguistics at colleges and universities across the United States and Canada.

Because we both had the Chinese surname "Mei" (means "plum"), Tsu-Lin and I used to joke with each other about being Méi gēgē and Méi dìdì.

I'll be missing my gēgē.

Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā.


  1. Jerry Packard said,

    October 23, 2023 @ 6:45 am

    God bless Professor Mei, one of the greatest scholars I have ever known.

  2. Pamela said,

    October 23, 2023 @ 7:36 am

    Lovely tributes

  3. Lothar von Falkenhausen said,

    October 23, 2023 @ 10:35 am

    Thank you, dear Victor, for your moving obituary for Professor Mei. I am very sorry to learn that he passed away. I met him only once, when he was already retired—but I have enough of a memory of that meeting to be able to confirm what you write about his commanding (but not at all overbearing) personality, towering (but never show-offish) intellect, wry sense of humor, and great kindness. He was one of the last surviving friends of my teacher K. C. Chang. I join you in respectful commemoration.

  4. Christopher Lupke said,

    October 24, 2023 @ 2:01 am

    I thank you for this wonderful tribute and I am saddened to hear of Prof. Mei’s passing. I received an email from Sun Chaofen last week. I will write a longer more public tribute on Facebook very soon. For now, I’d just like to say that I valued Prof. Mei as a professor Chinese literature and classical language. In the mid-1980s, when I was a graduate student at Cornell, I studied with him. By that time, he had decided to devote 100% of his time to the study of linguistics, especially early vernacular Chinese (what above you refer to as MVS). But as a teacher of literature and philosophy, he was an enormous resource. Thus, when it came to formulating my PhD committee, I asked him to be on it (Edward Gunn was the Chair). Prof. Mei did everything he could to dissuade me from having him on his committee. He was quite relentless for a while. But I insisted and insisted and did not give up. I told him there was no way I was finishing my PhD without an expert on premodern Chinese literature on my committee. Eventually, he said, “Well, ok!” I have to say I actually was a bit shocked but I felt a sense of victory. I have never regretted that among those of us working on literary studies from the 1980s onward I believe I was the only one who had Prof. Mei on his committee. He was an indispensable resource and provided me with an enormous sense of confidence. I will always cherish that experience and those years at Cornell. I do remember, Victor, the several times you came to Cornell in the 1980s when you were collaborating with him on the articles you published together, especially on the shloka meter (I think I misspelled that!). I heard you speak several times in the conference room on the 3rd floor of Rockefeller Hall. Those were great times! – Christopher Lupke

  5. Frank Robinson said,

    October 24, 2023 @ 9:26 am

    It was a privilege for me to meet Tsu-Lin at Kendal and get to know him over the last few years. Over many dinners and long conversations by the Kendal pool, he gave me a private seminar, as it were, in the modern history of China. His deep knowledge of so many aspects of Chinese thought, poetry, and politics and his own long experience growing up in Shanghai and his extended stays in the PRC and in Taiwan made him a fascinating fount of general knowledge and personal anecdote. In addition, we spent many evenings playing hearts, along with our wives, and we all envied his brilliant game strategy, which usually put him way ahead of the rest of us. He was a good and generous friend, full of laughter and curiosity about our interests and lives. He and the wonderful Teresa were our special friends in this last phase in our long lives, and Margaret and I revere his memory and are deeply grateful.
    Frank Robinson

  6. Haun Saussy said,

    October 24, 2023 @ 9:29 pm

    An astonishing scholar and from what you tell, a happy man. It speaks well of him that some of his most influential contributions were collaborative works. "Mei and Kao" and "Mei and Mair" are daily bread in my classes.

  7. Timothy Billings said,

    November 13, 2023 @ 9:34 am

    I am coming to this sad news a month late, but it saddens me no less for my month of ignorance. I'm so sorry for the loss of your old friend, Victor. I don't think Prof. Mei knew how much of an impact he had on my life, but it was enormous. I was the odd kid from the English department who was crazy about Tang poetry and who was perhaps a bit too dramatic in reciting Du Fu (at his insistence, mind you, as he insisted we all do). But he welcomed me wholeheartedly into the fold, as so many other sinologists in the years to follow never did and probably never will.

    One memory stands out in my mind in particular, which I think about from time to time. It was in the mid-90's. Prof. Mei had just returned from a sabbatical leave, and he was full of energy. He taught a graduate seminar on Tang poetry which met in his office even though there were only four or five of us, which was typical. He was arch and demanding at times, but always brought such verve and excitement to the room, sometimes jumping up from his seat to write on the little blackboard on his wall, or snatching a volume of Morohashi down from the shelf to drive home a point (always badgering us that we needed better Japanese to be good classical Chinese scholars). Occasionally, he would make a little aside in reference to some debate he was having with other scholars, which none of us fully understood, but I had the sense that he was always making two arguments at the same time, a local one for us and a larger one for another audience elsewhere. One day, he was really on a roll and went over time by a good 10 or 15 minutes. Nobody dared say anything, but he honestly didn't know how late it was, and when he came to the end of his thought and saw the time, he jumped up with a start and threw open the door as if he had accidentally been holding us hostage and wanted us to know we were free to go as quickly and unceremoniously as we wished. He stood at the doorway holding the door with one hand and shooing us out with the other, apologizing profusely, but we all thanked him. And as we were filing out, he chuckled to himself with that impish grin and said: 誨人不倦!

    Indeed, he never did.

  8. David Gedalecia said,

    November 28, 2023 @ 12:18 pm

    Those of us who had the privilege of studying with Professor Mei, deeply appreciate Professor Mair's heartfelt tribute. When I was a graduate student at Harvard in Far Eastern Languages between 1965 and 1971, I had the privilege of taking Professor Mei's course in Chinese philosophy. It focussed on the Neo-Confucian thinkers of Song and Ming and was deeply analytical, with Professor Mei launching perspicuous excursions into the meanings and implications of the texts we read in Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi), Lu Xiangshan (Lu Hsiang-shan), and company.

    At the time, I was working on the Mongol period with Professor Francis Cleaves, who, when he found out about my interest in Chinese thought and Neo-Confucianism, suggested that I look into the Yuan scholars Xu Heng and Wu Cheng. The latter's syncretic thought especially appealed to me, but Professor Cleaves was not inclined to be my advisor on a thesis project in philosophy. He suggested that I approach Professor Mei. I found that although Professor Mei was not especially interested in the Yuan period or Yuan thought, he took me on as his advisee, but also insisted that Professor Yu Yingshi be the second reader on my thesis on the historical side. I came to realize what a clear and deep thinker he was as I pursued my research and in our weekly discussions about translation and interpretation. As the only one of his graduate students at Harvard to garner the PHD, I owe a special debt, and am forever grateful, to Professor Mei for his patience, insights and support for my academic career before and after graduation.

    On the informal side, I do suspect that my wife Pei-hsin's recipe for glazed spice walnuts, which he loved, was a prime reason why he put up with me. She was glad to make several batches for him. I found out later that her mother, Kitty Chia, when she was a student at Yenching University in the 1930s, knew Mei Tsu-lin when he was a toddler. Small world.

    Professor Mei Tsu-lin holds a special place in my heart, thoughts and memory. I am deeply saddened to learn of his passing.

  9. David Gedalecia said,

    November 28, 2023 @ 2:01 pm

    I very much appreciate Professor Mair’s heartfelt tribute to Professor Mei Tsu-lin, whose passing saddens so many and is such a great loss to the scholarly community. I was a student at Harvard in Far Eastern Languages between 1965 and 1971 and took his course in third-year Chinese and his course in Chinese Philosophy, which concentrated on the Neo-Confucian thinkers Chu Hsi (Zhu Xi), Lu Hsiang-shan (Lu Xiangshan), and company. The course was enriched by Professor Mei’s perspicuous analytical excursions into the meaning and interpretation of their writings, with endlessly original insights into the genesis and development of their ideas.

    At the time, I was working on the Mongol period with Professor Francis Cleaves, who, when he found out about my interest in Neo-Confucianism, suggested that I look into the works of the Yuan thinkers Xu Heng and Wu Cheng for my thesis research. Wu Cheng especially appealed to me because of his syncretic approach to what I had studied about Chu and Lu with Professor Mei. But since Professor Cleaves was not inclined to take on a project in philosophy, he suggested that I consult with Professor Mei about advising. While the latter was not inclined toward directing a thesis project on the Yuan era, he eventually did so and insisted that Professor Yu Ying-shih be the second reader for the thesis on the historical side.

    Professor Mei and I met weekly for discussions about ideas and to refine translations and interpretations. His insights were models of what scholarship should aspire to: namely, creative and “crystal clear” thinking and expression. As his only PhD graduate when he was at Harvard, I treasured his guidance as advisor and am deeply indebted to him for his support after graduation when I was pursuing an academic career. He was singularly influential in crystallizing my scholarly pursuits into Neo-Confucianism and in influencing the direction of my teaching.

    I suspect, however, that Professor Mei put up with me primarily because of my wife Pei-hsin’s batches of glazed spiced walnuts, which he loved, the “secret” recipe for which he diligently sought out. Coincidentally, my wife’s mother, Kitty Shun-hua Chia, was a student at Yenching University in the 1930s and knew Mei Tsu-lin when he was a toddler. Small world.

    On the serious side, I am profoundly saddened by Professor Mei’s passing. He was one of the most remarkable scholars and thinkers in Chinese studies, and I am honored to have been his student. My deepest condolences go out to his family.

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