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January 21, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright January 21, 2009 David Moser. Used by permission.


Legendary sinologist, linguist and educator John DeFrancis passed away on January 2, 2009 at the age of 97.

For any student of the Chinese language and writing system working in the latter part of the twentieth century, DeFrancis was simply a titan. Prior to his arrival on the scene, major China scholars researching the Chinese script, such as Bernard Karlgren, Arthur Waley and Herbert Giles, tended to communicate mainly with other experts, while the popular press, under the spell of figures such as Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa, reinforced notions of the Chinese script as exotic, ineffable, mystical or even – pardon the term – inscrutable. After a century of confusing myths and sheer nonsense promulgated about the Chinese characters (some of it occasionally produced by even the above-mentioned scholars), DeFrancis appeared and changed everything by producing a steady stream of invaluable books and articles that presented the facts about the Chinese writing system in a clear and coherent fashion for specialists and lay readers alike.

The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (1984—still in print) is an explanatory marvel that still holds up perfectly. If you are currently studying Chinese and have not read this book, go get it instantly. Amazingly lucid and informative, it is still without a doubt the best source for understanding all the various linguistic, historical, cultural and pedagogical aspects of the Chinese characters. After decades of researching and teaching the Chinese language and script, DeFrancis was well aware of how easy it is for even well-meaning scholars to make simplistic or misleading claims about the Chinese writing system. He knew that, confronted with the labyrinth of faulty assumptions and stereotypes, a true understanding of Chinese writing required the utmost clarity and focus of mind.