John DeFrancis, 97, Chinese language scholar, is dead

Eminent Chinese language scholar and professor emeritus at University of Hawaii John DeFrancis ’33 died Jan. 2 in Hawaii. He was 97.

DeFrancis authored a widely-used series of Mandarin Chinese textbooks published by the Yale University Press. Known as the “DeFrancis Series,” the texts were standards for Chinese language instruction during the 1970s and ’80s, DeFrancis’s longtime colleague John Montanaro said. DeFrancis was also instrumental in the spread of pinyin, a Roman alphabet transliteration system of Chinese characters used extensively in Chinese language study, said colleague and University of Pennsylvania professor Victor H. Mair.

Montanaro, a Senior Lector in Chinese, East Asian Languages and Literatures, described DeFrancis, a native of Bridgeport, Conn., in a departmental e-mail as one of the most influential figures in the last century of Chinese language study.

Born to an illiterate mother and a laborer father in 1911, DeFrancis defied the odds by earning admission to Yale and graduating with a BA in economics in 1933. The depressed job market of Great Depression America forced DeFrancis to look overseas for work, eventually leading him to cross the Pacific in hopes of involving himself in international business, according to a DeFrancis biography posted to an online Web site created in his memory.

Upon arriving in China, DeFrancis found himself fascinated by the Chinese language and culture while simultaneously disgusted with the behavior of American businessmen toward the Chinese. He studied in China for several years, traveling with military historian Desmond Martin on a journey retracing the steps of Genghis Khan. The two crossed the Gobi Desert, traveling 1000 miles on camelback, and returned to Beijing by rafting 1200 miles down the Yellow River on inflated sheepskins.

DeFrancis met his future wife, Katharine Wilson, in a Beijing library in 1936. They returned to the States later that year, where DeFrancis became the first-ever doctoral student in Yale’s new Chinese studies program. But with only two professors on the program’s staff, DeFrancis found Yale as a graduate student limiting. He would soon leave to finish his degree at Columbia University.

In 1947, DeFrancis joined the Johns Hopkins University faculty as an assistant professor at the Paige School of International Relations. He would continue to teach at various universities for the next thirty years and would write prolifically throughout his life. His most famous book, “The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy,” was published in 1984, during his time at University of Hawaii.

DeFrancis spent his last years working as editor-in-chief of the ABC Chinese-English English-Chinese Dictionary. The dictionary uses pinyin to alphabetize thousands of Chinese words; it is the first of its scope ever written. At the time of his death, DeFrancis and Montanaro were in the process of reworking his Beginning Chinese textbook. Montanaro said he still hopes to resume and complete the project.

John DeFrancis is survived by his son, Charles.

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