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.