A name China scholars will remember

John "Beginning Chinese" DeFrancis passes away. Who knew he once tangled with Senator Joe McCarthy?

By Andrew Leonard

Published January 8, 2009 9:12PM (EST)

I just retrieved a tattered green paperback book from a dusty corner of my bedroom, where it had lain untouched for at least a decade: "Beginning Chinese -- Second Revised Edition" by John DeFrancis.

A generation of China scholars are nodding their heads. My generation. During the 1970s and '80s, "the DeFrancis series," complete with its intimidating profusion of accompanying audio-tapes, was by far the most popular instructional text for teaching Chinese to English-speakers. Just one glance at its familiar cover was enough to send me spiraling back through the decades into the dreaded language lab.

I learned today that John DeFrancis died on January 2, at the ripe old age of 98. And as usual in these matters, I also learned that the professor had led an astonishing life of which I had hitherto known nothing about. Among the highlights: floating 1200 miles down the Yellow River in 1935 on a raft made of inflated sheepskins, and testifying vehemently in support of one of his colleagues, Owen Lattimore, when the longtime "China hand" was accused of being a "top Russian spy" by Senator Joe McCarthy.

I am tickled to find out that the man whose name opened the door to the Chinese language for me got so angry at Joe McCarthy that he lost his job. Beginning Chinese is dry stuff, but being a China scholar in the 1950s was anything but. Good for you, John!

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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