John DeFrancis, emeritus professor of Chinese at the University of Hawaii, began his career in Chinese immediately after graduating from Yale in 1933 by spending three years studying and traveling in China. Apart from academic study, his learning experience included grassroots contact with the language and people in the course of a 4,000-mile trip in Northwest China and Mongolia that involved trekking 1,000 miles across the Gobi Desert by camel and floating 1,200 miles down the Yellow River on an inflated sheepskin raft.
It was his books that were used in class when I learnt Chinese. I started in 1969, when they were fairly new, and went through the three sets of three volumes (basic text plus character text and reader) in evening classes, first at Holborn College in Red Lion Square. We eventually did the Cambridge O Level and A Level exams, which unlike the London exams were intended for non-native speakers, so instead of four novels at A Level we did something like four short stories or extracts from longer books. I think I still have the books somewhere in Upminster. We did a story by Lu Xun, can’t remember which, and something by Ba Jin.
Later I attended courses in my spare time at Cologne University (classical poetry) and Bonn University (where the diplomats studied). But I never made the leap to fast reading or real fluency, although I reached the point where it would not have been hard.
The DeFrancis books fascinated me with their setting in a world quite unlike Chairman Mao’s China, a world where a young American student could strike up a friendship with a young Chinese student in Beijing.
Our teacher was Derek Bryan, who had left the diplomatic service after his sympathetic view of Communism became known – I see he has made Wikipedia and didn’t realize he was a friend of Donald Maclean’s, nor that he helped resolve the Yangtze Incident (he was in China from 1933 to 1943). Derek wasn’t a Communist – he was a Quaker – and he was an ideal person to introduce China. One problem, however, was that he too often corrected DeFrancis, saying ‘you wouldn’t say it that way’ – I had the feeling that we should rely on the book slightly more and find out for ourselves later what was more natural. Another problem of learning Chinese was the big gap between the vocabulary of Mao and the People’s Daily, and everything published in China, and literature, because every unfamiliar character took such a long time to look up.
I see that Derek and DeFrancis were born in 1910 and 1911, but Derek died in 2003, so he only reached the age of 92 (perhaps I should brush up my Chinese again).
DeFrancis’s books were more approachable than the ones from China, which at that time were also heavily politicized. I see most of them have been revised – here is a list of his books.