John DeFrancis

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My neighbor Jeremiah Jenne has a post on his Jottings from the Granite Studio blog today about the death of China scholar and linguist John DeFrancis. DeFrancis is well known for the popular Chinese language textbooks and dictionaries he compiled. When I hear his name I go back to Chinese 101, as in “Please turn to page 70 of your DeFrancis.”

His obituary describes a fascinating life, from a poor childhood to his first trip to China, where he lived during the Great Depression because there were no jobs to be found in the U.S. He retraced the footsteps of Genghis Khan, met his wife at a Beijing library, and then worked at Johns Hopkins under Owen Lattimore. When DeFrancis defended his boss, who was a target of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, he was blacklisted from academia and forced to work as a vacuum salesman.

In the ’60s he accepted an offer to write a Chinese language textbook, which led to a series that was popular up through the late ’90s. I still have a few duct-taped copies in storage and can recall poring over them when I was a college freshman. DeFrancis was working on a revision of the series when he fell ill on Christmas day and died last week.