January 15, 2009, New York Times

John DeFrancis, Chinese Language Scholar, Is Dead at 97

John DeFrancis, one of the most influential scholars and teachers of the Chinese language in the last century, died on Jan. 2 in Hawaii. He was 97.

Mr. DeFrancis died in a hospital after falling ill in late December, according to an official Web site memorial dedicated to him.

Few scholars of Chinese wrote more probingly about the language, considered one of the most difficult for Westerners to master, and fewer still created teaching materials that had so widespread an impact on generations of students of Chinese.

Mr. DeFrancis, who spent much of his career as a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, set out in various books to explain the intricacies of the Chinese language. He tried to debunk commonly held myths about the language — for example, that Chinese characters are ideograms, which represent ideas. He argued that they are morphosyllabic in nature, meaning they constitute a large system of syllables, albeit imprecise, while also conveying meaning.

Among longtime scholars of the language, Mr. DeFrancis stood out as an iconoclast. Perhaps his most controversial argument was that the writing system needed to undergo a major reformation, with characters that had evolved over thousands of years to be replaced by a phonetic Latin script.

“He was far and away the most important Chinese-language teacher of the 20th century,” said Victor H. Mair, a China scholar at the University of Pennsylvania who worked closely with Mr. DeFrancis on various projects. “Plus he was a very influential linguist writing about Chinese, Vietnamese and writing systems in general.”

His experience with the language was deeply rooted in his living and traveling in China at a time when poverty and violence were endemic across the country. Mr. DeFrancis was born into a working-class family on Aug. 31, 1911, in Bridgeport, Conn. Though his father was a laborer and his mother illiterate, he graduated from Yale in 1933 with a degree in economics. He found it hard to get a job during the Great Depression, and so he boarded a ship for China at the suggestion of a dorm mate from a missionary family.

Mr. DeFrancis enrolled in the College of Chinese Studies in Beijing. He had intended to work as a businessman, but he soon became disillusioned with the prevailing attitudes toward the Chinese among expatriate businesspeople. In 1935, he was asked by H. Desmond Martin, a military historian, to undertake a trip across China tracing the path of Genghis Khan.

Together they traveled 1,000 miles across the Gobi Desert by camel and 1,200 miles down the Yellow River on a raft of inflated sheepskins. Seeing the poverty of rural China up close made Mr. DeFrancis profoundly disillusioned with the Kuomintang, the ruling party at the time. Mr. DeFrancis recounted the journey in the book “In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan,” published in 1993 by the University of Hawaii Press.

The year after the trip, back in Beijing, he met Katharine Wilson, whom he would marry. They returned to the United States, and Mr. DeFrancis became the first Ph.D. student in a new graduate program in Chinese studies at Yale. He later transferred to a Sinology program at Columbia.

His first teaching job was as an assistant professor in the Paige School of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University, which was directed by Owen Lattimore, the prominent scholar of Central Asia. Mr. Lattimore became a target of the Communist witch hunts led by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, and Mr. DeFrancis was himself blacklisted by universities after coming to Mr. Lattimore’s defense.

That prompted Mr. DeFrancis to abandon the field of Chinese studies. To support himself, he became a vacuum cleaner salesman for a time, but his academic career was resurrected by John B. Tsu, the head of Chinese studies at Seton Hall University. Mr. Tsu commissioned Mr. DeFrancis to write a textbook for first-year students of Mandarin Chinese. That eventually led Mr. DeFrancis to write a 12-volume series of textbooks published by Yale University Press. The books, known as the DeFrancis series, were widely used in classrooms in the 1970s and ’80s.

Mr. DeFrancis moved to Hawaii with his wife in 1966 to direct the Chinese program at the University of Hawaii. She died in 1970. Mr. DeFrancis is survived by their son, Charles.

Mr. DeFrancis retired from teaching in 1976, but he continued writing prolifically. One of his most popular books, “The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy,” was published in 1984. It was in this book that he tried to tackle many of the myths about Chinese, asserting, for example, that the speech forms in China commonly called dialects are actually distinct languages quite different from Mandarin.

His knowledge was not limited to China; he also wrote on the history and the language of Vietnam. But the Chinese language was always at the center of his scholarly pursuits, and he spent the final years of his life editing an ambitious work, the ABC (Alphabetically Based Computerized) Chinese-English dictionary series. The first edition was published by the University of Hawaii in 1996, and two more editions followed. Many software programs have used the dictionary’s database.

In researching the book “Oracle Bones,” Peter Hessler, a reporter for The New Yorker, interviewed Mr. DeFrancis at his home on Oahu. Mr. Hessler quoted Mr. DeFrancis as saying he had been so embittered by the fact that Mao Zedong and other Chinese Communist leaders did not follow through with a project to overhaul the writing system that he had not set foot in China for more than 45 years.

Mr. DeFrancis argued that the Communist revolution had created an epochal opportunity to reinvent the Chinese language and make it much more accessible. So he felt that Chinese leaders had failed him. He did eventually return to China, on a visit in 1982, but he never lived there again.