John DeFrancis, 1911-2009: You Can't Do That Anymore

The Sinologist John DeFrancis died recently at the age of 97. You can read more about him elsewhere – in the NYTimes obituary or on the memorial site set up for him – but I thought I’d write something, as a student of Chinese, about what he meant to me.

I first heard of John DeFrancis almost ten years ago, through his book Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems, which was one of the required texts for a Linguistics course I was taking. This was during my first year studying Chinese, and what Visible Speech had to say about Chinese characters – and other writing systems – was formative in my approach to learning written Chinese.

Later that year, I wrote a paper on script reform efforts in China, and Visible Speech, Nationalism and Language Reform in China, and The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, all by DeFrancis, were invaluable sources of information. The latter book, again, played a major role in shaping my understanding of the Chinese language at a point in my studies where Chinese might otherwise have seemed impossibly daunting. It was also a cracking good read, exactly the sort of thing you might recommend to someone who had no background in Chinese but was interested in learning more about the language.

None of my Chinese classes ever used the Beginning Chinese textbook series that DeFrancis compiled, but his name was to come up again and again throughout my studies — while I was browsing, mostly uncomprehendingly, through the Sino-Platonic Papers, or while I was trying to read up on the subject of whether or not spoken Chinese really could be written without Chinese characters, or, most of all, when I got the invaluable Wenlin dictionary and found that it was based on the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary project spearheaded by John DeFrancis and Victor Mair.

Perhaps the best indicator of the position John DeFrancis held in his field is the August 1991 Schriftfestschrift: Essays in Honor of John DeFrancis on His Eightieth Birthday issue of the Sino-Platonic Papers, in which DeFrancis’ friends and colleagues – the Tabula Gratulatoria is a veritable Who’s Who of the sinological field – write, with admiration and genuine affection, a collection of essays that anyone would be proud to have dedicated to them.

In his introduction to that collection, Victor Mair writes:

John is a superb scholar with many excellent works to his credit. Yet there is another ingredient, or pair of ingredients, that sets John DeFrancis apart from all the other fine scholars whom I have encountered — that is his passion and his compassion. John cares. Whatever John does is because he wants to help improve things. His classic Nationalism and Language Reform in China was dedicated to ‘Old Wang.’ If we turn to p. 143 of the same book, we can find out who Old Wang was:

Known as Old Wang. Age thirty-five. Totally illiterate. Occupation: peasant. Lives in a tiny village four and a half miles northeast of Peking. Married to the daughter of a peasant from a near-by village. Has three children ranging in age from four to nine. Wife and children likewise illiterate.

People like Old Wang really matter to John. It is to all the Old Wangs of the world that John devoted his whole life, and that is why his achievements have such profound meaning.

It would be easy to think of DeFrancis’ continued focus on script reform efforts in China and Vietnam as nothing more than well-intentioned abstract concern, or an academic hobbyhorse – or, as is sometimes alleged of non-Chinese who advocate script reform, the whinings of a gringo who couldn’t handle the characters – if it weren’t for his memoirs. In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan describes some of DeFrancis’ early experiences of China and the Chinese language, his journey on foot and camel across northern and northwestern China, and his interactions with the desperately poor people he met along the way, whom he believed to be kept poor by the impossibility of their ever learning to read and write. It also provides a yardstick against which no language student or backpacker, no matter how dedicated or extreme, is likely to measure up:

We dodged warring armies by stealing twelve hundred miles down the bandit-infested Yellow River on an inflated sheepskin raft. You can’t do that anymore. You can’t repeat our thousand-mile camel trek across the Gobi Desert in the footsteps of Genghis Khan. You can’t sit at a camel-dung campfire in the very heart of that huge desert and listen to a Mongol narrate how the Great Khan was castrated by a captured Tangut beauty he tried to take to bed. Neither can you visit the oasis, then one of the most remote places in the world, where we met a Mongol princess descended from survivors of the most horrendous mass migration in human history. Nor can you barge into the preserve of a churlish Muslim warlord and become a prisoner in his fortress town.

That’s the beginning, and what follows more than lives up to its promise. I ordered a copy a few years back and read the whole thing in one or two sittings, and felt a little sick with admiration afterwards.

A co-worker of my father’s met DeFrancis years ago in Paris – he has a great story about a dinner there where DeFrancis, speaking neither French nor (at the time) Vietnamese, ordered food via the Chinese characters on the menu at an Indochinese restaurant and blew the waiter’s mind – and had kept in touch with him, on and off, ever since. I gave him my copy of In the Footsteps a while ago in the hopes that he might be able to get Professor DeFrancis to sign it for me the next time they met.

I guess it’ll never happen now. You can’t do that anymore, either.

Comments (16)

  1. Matt wrote::

    I like this piece. I think I’ll have to check out some of those books you mentioned. I always just sort of knew about DeFrancis from reputation, never really bothered to go through any of his work.

    Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 1:24 pm #
  2. richard wrote::

    Beautiful piece, too good for a blog – you can get this published.

    Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 1:59 pm #
  3. John wrote::

    Great post.

    The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy was something I read before I really got into Chinese, and it also had a profound effect on me.

    Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 2:40 pm #
  4. Jeremiah wrote::

    Nice piece, Brendan. I second John’s comment on The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. It was one of the first books to really get me thinking about Chinese as a language rather than a class.

    Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 6:18 pm #
  5. Prince Roy wrote::

    The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy had a profound effect on me as well. I remember reading it all night when I had barracks watch duty (called “CQ”) during my Army days.

    And for my money, his beginner and intermediate Chinese texts are unsurpassed.

    I’ll have to check out his travelogue–sounds like a good companion on my planned tubing trip down the Mekong.

    Monday, January 19, 2009 at 2:38 am #
  6. Prince Roy wrote::

    Let me also say I do acknowledge we all have a debt to him–he was truly a giant, but I always thought his insistence on doing away with Chinese characters to be a bit barmy and irrational–I had to part with him on that.

    Monday, January 19, 2009 at 2:44 am #
  7. chriswaugh_bj wrote::

    Given all the glowing obituaries floating around, I’m just sad I never heard about him till he died.

    Monday, January 19, 2009 at 6:06 pm #
  8. Todd Finlay wrote::

    Thanks Brendan for posting this and the links. He was worthy of our study, and as the saying goes, when we drink from the water, we should remember those who dug the well.
    Prince Roy, There is an interesting statement on the youtube video attached to the memorial site. I always thought he was saying do away with characters too, but on the video, he says he is an advocate for using pinyin and characters together.

    Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 1:33 pm #
  9. Nice to see you posting again. Will have to try and give those a read over my long break.

    Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 5:05 pm #
  10. Jim G. wrote::

    Nice one. Keep posting.

    Friday, January 23, 2009 at 8:43 pm #
  11. Prince Roy wrote::


    Thanks, I’ll check that out. Maybe he mellowed out a bit over the years–I seem to remember he advocated a much more hard-line stance in the Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy book.

    Saturday, January 24, 2009 at 7:12 am #
  12. Magnus wrote::

    Hi, Brendan and thanks for the post. I studied Chinese with the DeFrancis series in the late 70’s and early 80’s and taught Chinese using his book in the mid 80’s. Although the texts were dated I liked them very much. They describe an ideal Chinese world of books, writing brushes, nimble cup wine drinking whilst playing huaquan,etc etc. The American student Vincent White (Ch. name Bai Wenshan) courts the daughter of mr Gao and chats with professor Wannamaker at the Three Friends Bookstore. This world was constructed by DeFrancis at the same time as China was in the same state as north Korea is now.
    There where no pictures of the author in the books but I always imagined him as a tall man in a Hawaii shirt with a well-groomed moustache. And, sure enough, when I met him in 1995, this was exactly what he looked like!

    Sunday, January 25, 2009 at 10:02 pm #
  13. Dorrie wrote::

    Может это банально, но просто хотелось поблагодарить автора. Обычно комментаторы заваливают своими проблемами и вопросами, а спасибо нынче не в ходу, чтобы не посчитали комментарий за спам. Но поверьте, спасибо иногда говорить надо.

    Monday, January 26, 2009 at 7:01 am #
  14. lu wrote::

    I think I’ll order In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan from amazon right away. :)

    Monday, February 9, 2009 at 4:42 am #
  15. hsknotes wrote::

    Wasn’t the advocacy for script reform really kind of a ‘gringo who couldn’t handle the characters’ thing? I mean, I understood he cared deeply for people like ‘Old Wang’, but wasn’t Old Wang’s problem that he was poor and had no schooling, not that his orthographic system was maybe more complex than other parts of the world? Weren’t there illiterates the world over, even in places with full alphabetical systems? Doesn’t Taiwan and large parts of the mainland china have very very high literacy rates in many places, especially those places where there is schooling?

    Saturday, March 7, 2009 at 7:57 pm #
  16. Stephen wrote::

    “It is to all the Old Wangs of the world that John devoted his whole life…”

    Monday, October 5, 2009 at 10:56 am #

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