John DeFrancis

I’ve been feeling guilty for a month for not saying something about John DeFrancis’s passing. I have have no words more eloquent or meaningful than these three, however:

– Victor Mair (on Language Log)
– David Moser (on The China Beat)
– Brendan O’Kane (on his site)

Not surprisingly, I especially liked (and identified with) Brendan’s. If you don’t know DeFrancis and you’re at all interested in Chinese, by all means, check out the man’s work.

I’m also a little embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until recent word of DeFrancis’s death that I realized when it was that I first read The China Language: Fact and Fantasy. While I was studying in Japan in 1997, I checked it out from the Kansai Gaidai library. It was perhaps that book, more than anything, that kindled the spark of interest I had in Chinese, impelling me to formally study it after I went back to the U.S., and ultimately to travel to China after graduation.

Thank you, John DeFrancis.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I will look for that book based on your recommendation. I just realized that those iconic (to me) reader beginning readers that I used when learning Chinese were also by John DeFrancis!

  2. I just started reading that particular book based on another blog’s recommendation! I wonder if you would recommend any of De Francis’s other books for intermediate learners of Chinese?

  3. Hmm, it was a popular time to be on Oahu in January 2009. Lance Armstrong was there preparing for his bicycling Tour De France comeback, John DeFrancis lived out his final days in the glorious weather there, President Obama was getting his final vacation and shave ice pre-inauguration, TK and Izzi were getting married! Two words: tanning sessions!

    I like the fact DeFrancis distinguished Chinese characters as “logograms” versus the popular “ideograms”. The concept that most floored me was Chinese looking at a newspaper page and getting the information much faster than a Western paper, even with the number of characters, seeing images/pictures in their mind as they read the characters. Another way of thinking, another of way of seeing things. Most of the time for the better.

    p.s. making a comment, saw a huge Chinesepod ad. What does a hottie Asian female with bright red, succulent lips have anything to do with learning Chinese 😉 I think I just answered my own question!

    • Wilson
  4. Hmmm I will be checking out that book for sure. By the way, I don’t think the SpanishPod logo girl is that attractive.

  5. I too was inspired by DeFrancis’ “Fact and Fantasy.” I wish my Chinese teachers had showed me how one can analyze many characters as radical/phonetic combinations. Too many teachers focus exclusively on the radicals (if they use any analysis at all), which alone aren’t very useful as memory aids once you get beyond basic characters.

    I learned to read thanks to DeFrancis’ “Chinese Reader” series. My favorite part is the scheduled repetition of new characters. There is no need to re-read each chapter many times like an ordinary textbook, because the new material will always show up again at intervals in following chapters. Just reading each volume once cover-to-cover is enough to learn and retain the characters. I used to read them while riding my exercise bike.

    I don’t know if DeFrancis was the first to come up with this scheduled repetition idea, but I am grateful for his and his team’s effort in compiling the readers.

  6. I’ll have to add his works to my future reading list. If Borders doesn’t have anything of his in stock, I’ll try ordering it through them. I only took a couple of basic Chinese classes and DeFrancis’ works sound very interesting.

  7. How sad! I didn’t even realize he had passed! “The Chinese Language: Fact & Fantasy” was very good, a must-read for the subject.

    Haven’t used at his Chinese readers, but being a big supporter of “scheduled repetition” or recycling vocabulary in lesson planning and textbooks, I’m thinking I should take a look at it — thanks to Dan Maas for specifying that feature!

  8. Colin Spencer Says: February 7, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    The message of his Chinese fact and fantasy book has never been rebutted as far as I know. A towering work.

  9. Colin Spencer Says: February 7, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    I should also add that his unique Chinese-English [pinyin] dictionary is beyond praise.

  10. I just finished DeFrancis’ second intermediate reader and was searching to see what others thought about the readers when I came across this post. I didn’t know he had passed away. (It seems I started the readers a few months before his passing.) With all the people studying Chinese these days, you would think someone would have come up with a set of readers using the same good methodology but with more modern content. I have yet to find something as good as what DeFrancis put togehter.

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