John DeFrancis

John DeFrancis

John DeFrancis (August 31, 1911 – January 2, 2009) was an American linguist, sinologist, author of Chinese language textbooks, lexicographer of Chinese dictionaries, and Professor Emeritus of Chinese Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.



John DeFrancis was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut in a family of modest Italian immigrant origins. His father, a laborer (who changed his name from DeFrancesco), died when DeFrancis was a young child. His mother was illiterate.[1]

After graduation from Yale University with a BA in Economics in 1933, he sailed to China with the intent of studying Chinese and working in business. In 1935, he accompanied H. Desmond Martin, a Canadian military historian,[2] on a several-thousand-mile trip retracing the route of Genghis Khan through Mongolia and northwestern China.[3] His book In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan (University of Hawai'i Press, 1993) describes this journey riding camels across the Gobi Desert, visiting the ruins of Khara-Khoto and rafting down the Yellow River. Along the way, he met the Chinese Muslim Ma Clique warlords Ma Buqing and Ma Bukang. DeFrancis returned to the United States and began graduate studies in Chinese, first at Yale with George A. Kennedy and then at Columbia University, where he received a MA in 1941 and PhD in 1948.

DeFrancis began his academic career teaching Chinese language at Johns Hopkins University during the period of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, but was blacklisted for defending his colleague Owen Lattimore from unsubstantiated allegations of being a "Russian spy." DeFrancis eventually returned to teaching, notably at Seton Hall University from 1947 to 1954, and the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa from 1966 to 1976. In the 1960s, he wrote a 12-volume series of Mandarin Chinese textbooks and readers published by Yale University Press (popularly known as the "DeFrancis series"), which were widely used in Chinese as a foreign language classes for decades; DeFrancis was one of the first educators outside China to use pinyin as an educational aid, and his textbooks are said to have had a "tremendous impact" on Chinese teaching in the West.[4] He served Associate Editor of the Journal of the American Oriental Society from 1950 to 1955 and the Journal of the Chinese Language Teachers Association from 1966 to 1978.

For three decades after retiring from teaching in 1976, DeFrancis remained an important figure and prolific author in Chinese language pedagogy, Asian sociolinguistics, and language policy. One of his most well-known books, The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (University of Hawai'i Press, 1984) debunks a number of "widespread myths" about the language—for instance, erroneously calling Chinese characters "ideograms" instead of "logograms."[4] Another influential work of his was Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1989), which addressed more myths about the Chinese writing system, and has been called his "magnum opus" by colleague Victor H. Mair.[4] DeFrancis spent his final years diligently working as Editor in Chief of the "ABC (Alphabetically Based Computerized) series" of Chinese dictionaries, which feature innovative collation by the pinyin romanization system.[4]

DeFrancis died on 2 January 2009, in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, at the age of 97.[3][5]


John DeFrancis was the author and editor of numerous publications. See Mair 1991 (pages vii-ix) for a partial list.

The "DeFrancis series"

Textbooks (Yale Language Series, Yale University Press):

Supplementary series

Accompanying Supplementary Readers for the Intermediate Chinese Reader, (Yale University Press, 1976):

Books and monographs

  • "The Prospects for Chinese Writing Reform", Sino-Platonic Papers No. 171, 2006 (PDF)
  • In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan (University of Hawaii Press, 1993) ISBN 0824814932, ISBN 9780824814939.
  • Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems (University of Hawaii Press, 1989) ISBN 0824812077.
  • The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (University of Hawaii Press, 1984) ISBN 0824810686.
  • Colonialism and Language Policy in Vietnam (Contributions to the Sociology of Language, Nr. 19, Mouton, 1977) ISBN 9027976430.
  • Things Japanese in Hawaii (University of Hawaii Press, 1973) ISBN 0824802330.
  • Chinese-English Glossary of the Mathematical Sciences (American Mathematical Society, 1964)
  • Chinese Social History, by E-tu Zen and John DeFrancis (American Council of Learned Societies, 1956)
  • Bibliography on Chinese Social History, by E-tu Zen and John DeFrancis (Yale University, Far Eastern Publications, 1952)
  • Talks on Chinese History (with Elizabeth Jen Young) (Far Eastern Publications, 1952)
  • Report of the Second Round Table Meeting on Linguistics, Language Teaching Monograph Series on Languages and Linguistics, No. 1 (Georgetown University Press, 1951)
  • Nationalism and Language Reform in China (Princeton University Press, 1950; reprinted Octagon Books, 1975) ISBN 0374920958.
  • Chinese Agent in Mongolia, translated from the Chinese of Ma Ho-t'ien (Johns Hopkins Press, 1949)


Editor of bilingual Chinese dictionaries (University of Hawai'i Press), which are used as databases for software such as Wenlin:

  • ABC Chinese-English Dictionary (1996, pocket edition 1999) ISBN 0700711902.
  • ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary (2003) ISBN 082482766X.
  • ABC Chinese-English/English-Chinese Dictionary (forthcoming)


  1. ^ In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan, p. 9
  2. ^ cf. Desmond, Henry Martin, The rise of Chingis Khan and his conquest of North China, introduction by Owen Lattimore, edited by Eleanor Lattimore (Johns Hopkins Press, 1950) ISBN 0374952876
  3. ^ a b Edward Wong: John DeFrancis, 97, author and Chinese-language scholar January 18, 2009. Also printed at Edward Wong (January 15, 2009). "John DeFrancis, Chinese Language Scholar, Is Dead at 97". The New York Times. 
  4. ^ a b c d Mair, Victor (26 January 2009). "John DeFrancis, August 31, 1911-January 2, 2009". Language Log. Retrieved 27 January 2009. 
  5. ^ Nora Caplan-Bricker: John DeFrancis, 97, Chinese language scholar, is dead. Yale Daily News, January 16, 2009.

Further reading

External links

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