In Memoriam - Li Fang-Kuei (1902-1987)

University of Washington

November 4, 1987

Professor David R. Knechtges

Members of the Li family, colleagues, and friends:

Today we come together to pay tribute to a great scholar, teacher, colleague, and friend, Professor Li Fang-Kuei, who passed away on August 21, in California.

Professor Li was a member of the faculty of the Department of Far Eastern and Slavic Languages and Literature from 1949 to 1969.  He was one of that great constellation of scholars in Far Eastern studies that came to this university in the 1949-1950 period.  He was as eminent in the field of Sino-Tibetan linguistics as the late K. C. Hsiao 蕭公權 was in the field of Chinese political thought, Nicholas Poppe was in Mongolian studies, and Hellmut Wilhelm was in the field of Sinology.

Professor Li was born in Canton on August 20, 1902.  He studied pre-medicine at Tsing Hua College in Peking.  In 1924, he received a fellowship to continue his studies in the United States.  He enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he majored in linguistics.  After receiving his B.A. degree in 1926, he undertook graduate work in linguistics at the University of Chicago, where he studied under Edward Sapir, Leonard Bloomfield, and Carl D. Buck.  Li specialized in the study of American Indian languages.  Within the period of two years, he completed both the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees!  His dissertation on Mattole is the only linguistic record of this Athabaskan language.  When he gathered material for his dissertation, Dr. Li went with Professor Sapir to California.  Sapir sent Dr. Li off on his own to look for the Mattole Indians.  It turned out there were only two Mattole Indians left, and it took Dr. Li considerable time to locate them.

In 1929, Professor Li returned to China, where he became a member of the Institute of History and Philology of the newly founded Academia Sinica, the foremost Chinese research institution.  Li began to undertake field research on Chinese dialects in the areas of Hainan Island, Guangdong, Guangxi, and Hunan.  He also began to do research on Chinese historical phonology.

In 1937, Professor Li went to Yale University, where he taught as a visiting professor until 1939.  From 1940 to 1945, he did field work on the non-Han languages of Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan. After serving as visiting professor of Chinese linguistics at Yenching University from 1944 to 1946, Professor Li went to Harvard University, where he served as a visiting professor.  In 1948, he was a visiting professor of Yale.
Professor Li joined the University of Washington faculty in 1949. While at Washington, he taught first-year Chinese and courses in Chinese linguistics. While promoting the development of the Chinese program, which became one of the best in the country under his leadership, he was instrumental in founding programs in Tibetan and Thai.  The expansion into these areas reflected the breadth of Professor Li’s own interests, for much of his research during his career at the University of Washington concerned Tibetan and Thai.  Li also began a major study of Archaic Chinese phonology.  In 1971, he published in the Tsing Hua Journal of Chinese Studies the outline of his new system for reconstructing Archaic Chinese, which included many improvements over the system developed by Bernhard Karlgren.

After his retirement from the University of Washington in 1969, Professor Li taught at the University of Hawaii until 1972.  He lived in Honolulu until 1985 when he moved to Oakland, California.  During his retirement years, Professor Li continued his scholarly activities.  He lectured in Taiwan and the People's Republic of China.  In 1977, the University Press of Hawaii published his monumental A Handbook of Comparative Tai.

Professor Li was a scholar who combined a profound knowledge of traditional Chinese learning with the modern science of linguistics.  He was an accomplished player of the Chinese flute and a singer of the Chinese operatic form Kunqu.  He was a demanding teacher, yet he always had time to help a student unravel the mysteries of a traditional rhyme table or understand an especially opaque passage in Karlgren’s Compendium.  Even after his retirement, Professor Li visited Seattle on numerous occasions, and he always came to the Department to visit old friends and colleagues.

I remember one occasion of his visit to my office at the Hall of Graduate Studies at Yale University, where I was a beginning Assistant Professor.  Professor Li immediately spied my collection of Middle English romances.  He then began to launch into a learned discussion of Middle English literature, and he displayed an astonishing knowledge of Chaucer, which he had studied as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan.  On another occasion, last year to be exact, he astonished me again, by providing me with a learned explanation of a Tibetan name that appeared in a Chinese short story of the Tang dynasty.

I most vividly remember him as my first teacher of Chinese.  The only first-year Chinese course in those days was a ten-credit-per quarter class, that met two hours every day, from eight to ten in the morning.  Professor Li was a very demanding teacher, who did not tolerate indolence or lack of preparation.  I don’t know when I worked so hard in a course!  Professor Li told me years later that of all of the courses he taught as a professor at the University of Washington, he most enjoyed teaching first-year Chinese.  At the time I took his course, I did not know what an eminent scholar he was.  It was only later that I discovered that he was the foremost scholar in the world in his field.  Yet, he always had time and patience to answer even the most inane questions about elementary Chinese grammar and pronunciation.

To pay tribute to Professor Li today, I have asked several of his former students and colleagues to say a few words.  We will hear from (1) Professor Jerry Norman, who succeeded Dr. Li after his retirement in 1969; (2) Professor Anne Yue, who was a student of Dr. Li’s, and who has continued to carry on the tradition of Sino-Tibetan linguistics that Dr. Li began; (3) Professor Edwin Pulleyblank, Professor of Chinese at the University of British Columbia, who has known Professor Li for many years, and who taught in the old Far Eastern department on several occasions as a leave replacement for Dr. Li.  Finally, I will read a tribute from Professor George Taylor, former Chairman of the Far Eastern and Slavic Department and Director of the Far Eastern and Russian Institute, who was responsible for bringing Dr. Li to the University of Washington.  Dr. Taylor regrets that he cannot be here today:  he is now in Japan where he will be giving a major speech this week.  The first speaker is Jerry Norman.

Professor Jerry Norman

In 1977 I had the good fortune to be in Taiwan when Professor Li Fang-Kuei was giving weekly lectures on comparative Tai at National Taiwan University.  When I went to the first lecture, I was amazed to see how many people had come.  In subsequent weeks large numbers of people continued to attend.  This was in some degree a tribute to Professor Li’s reputation as one of the founders of modern linguistics in China, but I think it also testified to an unusual talent he possessed:  the ability to explain even the most abstruse and exotic subjects in a lucid and interesting way.  His famous wit was very evident; no session passed without one or two interesting anecdotes or amusing stories about his experiences in the field, but these were never allowed to take center stage and overshadow the topic at hand, the comparative reconstruction of proto-Tai.

In his education in the United States, first at the University of Michigan and later at the University of Chicago, Professor Li Fang-Kuei had received a superb training in historical and comparative linguistics.  His teachers, Leonard Bloomfield, Edward Sapir and Carl Darling Buck were at the forefront of developments in these fields and enjoyed international reputations. Bloomfield and Sapir had pioneered in efforts to apply the comparative method, which had achieved brilliant results in the field of Indo-European and Finno-Ugric, to the study of the unwritten native languages of North America.  Their work in this area must surely have encouraged their brilliant young student to undertake similar work when he returned to China. There was no shortage of non-Chinese minority languages on which to work. Many of these, like the languages Bloomfield and Sapir had worked on, lacked a written form. This compelled Professor Li to go into the field, an arduous and even dangerous undertaking in those days, to collect linguistic data on the spot, at the places where the native languages were spoken.

In 1930s and 1940s, Professor Li Fang-Kuei collected data on a wide range of non-Han languages in South China.  Soon, however, his interest focused on the languages of the Tai group, a language family containing scores of languages and dialects, spreading from the Gulf of Siam in the south to the province of Guizhou in the north.  Most of these languages were unwritten, but a few, like Siamese and Ahom had written records dating back many centuries. Professor Li must have quickly seen the fascinating possibilities for reconstructing the primitive ancestral form of these languages, or as I once heard him put it, to reconstruct a Qieyun dictionary for the Tai languages.

Beginning in 1940 an uninterrupted stream of articles began to flow from his pen, among them the first seminal articles on comparative Tai, a field whose master he remained until his departure from this world in August of this year.  In addition to the first really serious, scientific work on comparative Tai, Professor Li Fang-Kuei published descriptions of many Tai languages and dialects, which up until his work were unknown to the scientific world.  These works are all renowned for their clarity and accuracy and have become models for much subsequent work of this type.  Of special note in this regard are his monographs on the Wuming and Longzhou vernaculars.  Although several languages of the Tai family were well known before Li Fang-Kuei’s work, next to nothing was known of another group of languages related collaterally to Tai:  the so-called Kam-Sui languages.  The first reliable accounts of these important cousins of Tai are due to the work of Professor Li Fang-Kuei.

Worthy of special mention is Li Fang-Kuei’s 1945 article “Some Old Chinese loan words in the Tai languages” (HJAS 8:333-342). In this work he showed the relevance of Tai to the study of early Chinese phonology.  His examination of the earth's branches (di-zhi) in several Tai languages revealed a number of very archaic features going back to a period predating the Qieyun.  This work is still admired and often quoted and his insights will undoubtedly continue to exert influence on both the study of Proto-Tai and early Chinese in the future.

The results of more than 35 years of work on the Tai languages were magnificently synthesized in Li’s 1977 monograph A Handbook of Comparative Tai.  This work provides us with a complete and detailed reconstruction of the language ancestral to all the known Tai language.  It is now and will remain for a long time to come the standard work on this subject.

Even as new data and insights necessitate revisions in his system, his work will continue to be the cornerstone for any work in comparative Tai, a field, I think it is fair to say, that was created by him.

Up until 1980, Li Fang-Kuei had published a total of 38 articles and books on the Tai languages.  There can be no doubt, I think, that his illustrious teachers would not be disappointed in their student.  Like them, he opened up new territories and has had an undeniable impact on linguistics, both in China and the West.

Professor Li Fang-Kuei’s impact on the field of minority language research has been especially great in China.  The leading figures in this field are mostly his students or his students’ students.  Modern linguistics in China has been very fortunate; its founders, Chao Yuen Ren, Luo Changpei, Wang Li and Li Fang-Kuei, (to mention only the most famous) were all men of brilliant mind, gentlemanly demeanor and devotion to scholarship.  With the passing of Professor Li Fang-Kuei, we have lost the last remaining member of this extraordinary group.  His clarity of mind, his good humor and his unfailing kindness will be greatly missed by all who knew him.

Professor Anne Yue

Best known for his pioneering work in comparative Tai linguistics and for his insightful research in Archaic Chinese phonology, Professor Li Fang-Kuei broke new ground in whatever direction he turned.  There are at least two more fields where he had made significant contribution.

One is in American Indian languages.  His adviser at the University of Chicago, the eminent linguist Edward Sapir, who himself had worked on scores of American Indian languages, brought the young scholar, then twenty-five years old, with him on a field trip to the Hupa Indian reservation in Northern California for two or three weeks, showing him first-hand the technique of linguistic field work.  After that, Professor Li was sent to work on the disappearing Mattole Indian language, among others.  He found the last two speakers of this tribe along the mouth of the Mattole river near the Pacific Ocean and worked with one of them for about a month. He finished a report on the language several months later; this became his Ph.D. dissertation. He would have received his Ph.D. degree at the age of twenty-five had he not forgotten to register as a Ph.D. candidate.

In the mean time, Sapir sent this brilliant young linguist again into the wilderness during the summer to Northwestern Canada, near Ford Chippewa in the Lake Athabaska area to work on another Athabaskan language, the Chipewyan language, on which Professor Li wrote several articles.  Two years later, after the young Li finished all the formalities for a Ph.D. degree and returning from Europe, he returned once more to Northwestern Canada for another summer of field work on the Athabaskan language around the Slave Lake with the Hare tribe, surviving solely on one fish per day, eating the head part for breakfast, the middle part for lunch and the tail part for dinner. Professor Li later joked about developing a phobia for fish for some time after this experience.

At that time, Edward Sapir had the idea that Sino-Tibetan and Athabaskan are related.  Small wonder that he kept sending his distinguished student to work on Athabaskan.  When asked about this possible genetic relationship between the two groups of languages years later, Professor Li gave a poetic answer:  “Distant like floating clouds!”  All his work on the various Athabaskan languages remain as the sole description of such languages.

Another field that Professor Li showed his talent is Chinese dialectology.  Few people knew that he was the first linguist to discover the existence of implosive sounds in Chinese.  When he returned to China to carry out field work in 1929 in Canton and Northern Guangdong province, he also went to the Hainan island and worked on Hainanese as well as the Li language.  It was in Hainan that he observed the implosive stops, which are uncommon among the world’s languages and unheard of in Chinese at that time.  He even devised an instrument himself to measure the implosion of air in the production of these sounds by using a cigarette box connected to some gadget with a rubber band.  The results of his research were published in an issue of the Yuankan of the Academia Sinica.

Professor Li was also the first linguist to formalize the phonological criteria for classifying the Chinese dialects into the eight major groups of Northern Mandarin, Eastern Mandarin, Southwestern Mandarin, Wu, Gan-Hakka, Min, Yue and Xiang, in an article contributed to the China Year Book in 1937.  And for the past fifty years, this criterion has been adopted in all dialectal studies of Chinese.

Apart from being a great scholar, Professor Li was truly a soft-spoken gentleman with a quiet sense of humor, and was loved by all who know him.  He equally enjoyed academic arguments with his colleagues as well as a game of monopoly with a child.  He could be equally absorbed in his scholarly work as well as in a volume of wuxia xiaoshuo.  Seemingly reserved, he actually very much enjoyed the company of young people.

With the passing away of Professor Li, we keenly feel that an age has passed.  The prominent triad--Chao Yuen Ren, Luo Changpei and Li Fang-Kuei--who made history in Chinese linguistics and Sino-Tibetan linguistics, have gone from us.  It is a great honor that the University of Washington had enjoyed the distinguished service of such an eminent scholar for twenty years.  Let us hope that the fine tradition established by Professor Li here will continue.

Professor Edwin G. Pulleyblank

For me, as for others here today, the death of Professor Li Fang-Kuei is both the loss of a well-loved friend and the passing of a much respected colleague.

I can’t remember for certain when I first met him.  It could have been on one of my early visits to the University of Washington in 1952 or 1958, but that was when I was beginning my career as a historian and not yet begun to publish in the field of linguistics and I don’t remember any meeting with him from those days.  What I do recall is receiving a batch of offprints from him sometime in the early sixties, probably in response to my sending him a copy of my first paper on Chinese historical linguistics.  It was a gesture that was typical of his generous spirit and one that I much appreciated at a time when I was very conscious of my temerity in trying to break into a new branch of Chinese studies.

The time when I first really got to know him was the summer of 1964, when we were both teaching at Indiana University, and again in 1965 when we were at CIC Summer School at Ohio State University.  For me and other temporary bachelors suffering the heat of the Midwestern summer away from our wives the family atmosphere of the Li house provided welcome relief on several social occasions.  One little vignette that comes back to me when I think of those days is watching Professor Li, relaxed and unhurried at one end of a ping pong table and his son, Peter, running about at the other.  According to my recollection, father was the winner.  I know that I had more sense than to take on either of them.  The first year he sat in on my course on Chinese historical phonology and it was stimulating and, of course, a challenge to have him in the audience.  I profited a good deal from his, always polite, comments.  If I remember correctly, he was giving a course on Tai dialects.  I attended one or two lectures but didn’t persist, so I missed that opportunity to extend my knowledge into a new area.  The next year he was teaching the phonology of Cantonese and that time I did attend more regularly and even made a little headway, long since lost, in training my ear to hear Cantonese tones.

Another vivid memory from those years is of one evening when Professor Li told us about his field trip to the Canadian Arctic, how as a young city boy from China he went up alone by river steamer to Great Slave Lake to study the language of the Athabaskan Indians of those parts and how, after finding his Indians he had to pursue them, with locally purchased camping gear, to an island in the river where they had set up their summer fishing camp.  The Indians helped him cut poles to set up his tent and, when his food supplies ran out, provided him with one large fish a day which he divided into three parts for his breakfast, lunch and dinner.  They were curious to know what tribe he came from.  He waved vaguely to the west.

In 1966 I moved from Cambridge to the University of British Columbia and we became for a time near neighbors.  He and Mrs. Li visited us in Vancouver and I was also glad to get down to Seattle from time to time.  Of course, he was not there in the period of my most frequent visits to Seattle in 1967-68, since that was when I was coming down once a week to provide replacement teaching for one of his courses while he was on sabbatical leave.  At least I was privileged to use his office.

Even after his retirement from the University of Washington I continued to see him at not more than yearly intervals, especially at the annual Sino-Tibetan Conferences.  It was a great pleasure to see him the summer before last at the meeting in Columbus, Ohio, and again last December at the Conference on Sinology sponsored by the Academia Sinica in Taipei.  On both occasions he was physically a little frail but mentally as alert as ever and still able to participate actively in the discussions.  We were fully expecting that he would also come to this year’s Sino-Tibetan Conference in Vancouver but, alas, it was not to be.

Li Fang-Kuei was a patient, generous, kindly man, with a quiet sense of humor.  It was a rare privilege to know him.  He was also a great scholar and I must now say something about that side of his as well.

It is conventional thing to say, when a great man dies, that it is the end of an era.  In the case of Professor Li Fang-Kuei, however, it is more than conventionally true.  Professor Li was the last and youngest of a group of brilliant scholars, including also Chao Yuen Ren, Luo Changpei and Wang Li, who were responsible for introducing modern linguistics to China.  The work that they started has expanded and developed mightily since their pioneering efforts in the twenties and thirties but the prosperous state in which it now finds itself rests on the solid foundations which they established.  Moreover, Li’s contribution did not cease or diminish after those early years but continued right up to the end of his life.

Professor Li obtained his training in linguistics first at the University of Michigan, and then at the University of Chicago, working with Edward Sapir, and it was natural that he should get involved with the study of American Indian languages and also that he should later apply the field methods which he had learned in this connection to the study of minority languages in South China.  Others will speak about those aspects of his work.  Another side to the linguistics that was taught in the United States in those days, of course, to the interests of Edward Sapir, was historical linguistics in the tradition of Indo-European Comparative Philology, as it had grown up during the 19th century.  It was also natural, therefore, that as a young scholar, Li became interested in the history of his own language.  Since the history of Chinese is also at the center of my own interest in linguistics, I shall speak mainly about his contributions in that area.

Professor Li began publishing scholarly articles in 1930 at the early age of 28, with papers on Sarcee and Athabaskan and on the Yao language of Guangxi.   His first work on the history of Chinese came out in the following year, an article on the Old Chinese origins of the vowel /a/ as reconstructed by Bernhard Karlgren for Middle Chinese.  This was followed by further articles on Old Chinese reconstruction in 1933 and 1935, all published in the Bulletin of the Institute of History and Philology of the Academia Sinica.  At the time Karlgren was publishing his own studies in the same area and it was perhaps Karlgren’s dominance, and small tolerance for views different from his own, that led Li to abandon this field for over thirty years. His thorough competence in the field of Chinese historical linguistics was, however, recognized by his inclusion, with Y. R. Chao and Luo Changpei, in the team of scholars who, with the author’s blessing, undertook the translation of Karlgren’s fundamental work, E@tudes sur la phonologie chinoise, into Chinese, first published in 1940.

Another early article, ‘Certain phonetic influences of the Tibetan prefixes upon the root initials,’ (BIHP 1933) reveals yet one more of Li’s lifelong interests.  His work on Classical Tibetan, undertaken, I assume, with a view to eventual application to the comparative study of Sino-Tibetan, later bore fruit in several directions, notably in his studies on Sino-Tibetan materials from the Tang period, which have contributed not only to linguistics but also to the history of Tang foreign relations.

An article from Li’s mid-career which has been of major importance for Chinese historical linguistics and which at the same time shows his versatility and the cross-fertilization which came from his pursuit of varied interests, is his study of the Tai forms of the Chinese calendrical cycle known as the Twelve Earthly Stems (dizhi).  As Li recognized, these terms must have been borrowed into Tai well before the Tang period and provide important evidence about Chinese phonology going back to Old Chinese.  He later made use of this evidence in his own reconstruction of Old Chinese and I myself have found it to be of crucial importance.

The part of Li's work on historical linguistics that is freshest in most people’s minds is, no doubt, the new reconstruction of Old Chinese, or as he preferred to call it, following Karlgren, Archaic Chinese, which he published in 1971, with additional improvements in articles published through the early seventies.  This has been rather widely hailed as a replacement for Karlgren’s Archaic Chinese and it is certainly a great improvement in terms of economy and linguistic naturalness on that system. From my own point of view, I must confess, it is a kind of half-way house. It ultimately fails because it continues to be based on Karlgren’s Middle Chinese reconstruction, which has some serious inner contradictions and has to be fundamentally revised before it can provide a sound basis for going back to the earlier stages of the language.  Nevertheless, it undoubtedly represents a major contribution to the ongoing endeavour.

Li did not write very much on linguistic theory but his short article, “The zero initial and the zero syllabic,” (Language 1966) is interesting to me, not only for the information it provides about the consonantal nature of the so-called ‘zero initial’ in Mandarin, first discussed by Y. R. Chao in 1948, but also because its conclusion, that it would be possible to eliminate completely the distinction between vowels and semivowels in Mandarin anticipates, in a way, my own ‘vowelless’ treatment of Chinese phonology.

The characteristics which I have always appreciated about Li Fang-Kuei’s work are its breadth, and the way in which it combines impeccable field work on contemporary languages with respect for historical sources and the ability to submit the latter to perceptive linguistic analysis.  Both in his scholarship and in his private life he was a real ‘junzi,’ a princely man, whom one is proud to have known and whom one will always remember with respect and affection.

Professor George Taylor

Dr. Li Fang-Kuei was a very special person and a very outstanding member of the faculty in the early days of the Far Eastern and Russian Institute.  The sadness that is part of the loss of a great human being and a great scholar is curiously enough matched by recalling with joy and satisfaction, the experience of knowing him. What a treasured block of time it was and what an inner glow we feel just to think of Fang-Kuei’s quiet and massive presence.  He was a citizen and a scholar of the world, a tower of strength for international scholarly cooperation, a man of music and a person of great human dignity.  He will live a long time among those who knew him.

Professor Nicholas C. Bodman

I was Professor Li’s student at the summer session at Ann Arbor of the LSA in 1948, and then for the academic year 1948-49 when he taught at Yale.  Since then we have corresponded frequently and have met at various conferences, chiefly the Sino-Tibetan meetings.  I learned a great deal as Professor Li’s student, and I have greatly appreciated his kindness and friendship as well as having benefited from his scholarship.
In looking through our correspondence, the following excerpt from his letter to me of January 24, 1979, may be of general interest:

I think more non-philological studies may reveal some answers to puzzling problems.  I believe also that there should be several levels of reconstruction, such as Sino-Tibetan, Proto-Chinese, Old Chinese (Archaic Chinese).  Different phonological processes may operate at different levels, but we may have enough data to distinguish all those.

We all owe Professor Li a great debt for not only his learning and scholarship, but also for his human quality of sympathy and kindness.  I shall always keep his memory in my heart.  He was my teacher and friend.

Professor George C. Buck

November 9, 1987
David R. Knechtges
Department of Asian Languages
and Literature

Dear David,

Thank you very much for the invitation to Li Fang-Kuei’s memorial service.  I knew both him and his wife over a period of many years and always found him to be a charming and modest person, in spite of his enormous talent and reputation.

Unfortunately I am serving on another search committee which met at that precise time.  If you are planning to establish any kind of living memorial, please let me know.  I would do my best to make a contribution.  Though many have gone on, there are still a number of us who knew him well.


George C. Buck
Rm. 236, Denny Hall

Professor Frank Hsu_eh

Many of us in Ohio remember Professor Li Fang-Kuei as a kind teacher and an artistic and witty friend.  His Chinese flute playing delighted us all and his water colors won our highest admiration.  His humor was infectious.  It made him so much more approachable despite his academic prominence.  We will miss him as a teacher, mentor, and a friend.

Professor HOU Jingyi

At this time of your Department’s mourning the passing of Professor Li Fang-Kuei, on behalf of Professor Lu_ Shuxiang, Honorary Director of the Institute of Linguistics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Consulting Member, Professor Li Rong, Liu Jian, Director of the Institute of Linguistics, and the journal Zhongguoyuwen, I sincerely convey our sadness at the unfortunate passing of Professor Li Fang-Kuei.  I also express our condolences to Mrs. Li. Professor Li Fang-Kuei was an internationally renowned scholar in the field of linguistics, whose works are of great learning and profundity, and are of extraordinary value to Chinese linguists.  We shall always remember Professor Li Fang-Kuei.

Professor Tsu-Lin Mei

During the war, Professor Li Fang-Kuei taught for a while at Yenching University at Ch’eng-tu, when my father Y.P. Mei was Acting President.  Professor Li and my father overlapped at Tsinghua College and were fellow graduate students at the University of Chicago. One day--it must have been in 1943--Li Fang-Kuei came to the President and asked:  “Y.P., how about getting me a bottle of American ink?  My field notes are rapidly fading.  Unless they can be preserved in some more permanent form, the data will be lost forever.”  My father, through some contact at the American Embassy, did get him the bottle of ink.  The data which desperately need recopying were Professor Li’s field notes on the Tai and Kam-Sui languages, which led to his classical paper “The Hypothesis of a Pre-glottalized Series of Consonants in Primitive Tai”.

The other story about Li Fang-Kuei I learned from my wife, who was in his class in 1971 at Hawaii.  At one of the regular Friday evening gatherings at his house, Professor Li casually mentioned that he had just gone through the two Tang histories and figured out the system of official titles.  Years later I realized that he must be trying to solve a minor puzzle connected with the Sino-Tibetan Treaty of 821-822, a topic which he treated in a classical paper in 1956 and continued to study till the end of his life.

Single-minded devotion to the search of truth under the most trying circumstances and attention to the smallest detail are two qualities I hope to learn from Professor Li Fang-Kuei, the teacher of my teacher Tung T’ung-ho.  These are stories I have been telling my students, and would like to share with other friends and colleagues of this great scholar.

Professor Howard Nostrand

We of the United States owe to him an important part of our self-knowledge.  When the University learned of a Northwest language whose last speakers were not much longer to be available, it was he who would pack his tape recorder and leave for the weekend to assure the preservation of the language.  Li Fang-Kuei was a colleague of such high culture as to transcend the intercultural differences that divide humanity.

Professor TING Pang-hsin

October 30, 1987

Professor David R. Knechtges
Department of Asian Languages
and Literature
University of Washington
Seattle, Washington 98195

Dear Professor Knechtges,

Thank you very much for your letter of October 15, 1987 informing me about Dr. Li’s memorial service.  Actually I went back to Taipei to attend his memorial service on October 6th, and made a report on Dr. Li’s scholarly contribution.  Afterwards I visited Mrs. Li in Oakland and brought her the last respects of their friends in Taipei.  But I still feel regretful for not being able to participate in the memorial service for Dr. Li held at the University of Washington, where I learned so much from him.  He was a scholar combined in himself both the profound tradition of Chinese phonologists and the finest scholarship of Western linguists.  When I move farther and farther into the field of Chinese linguistics, the better Dr. Li’s training looks in retrospect!  I can hardly put the right wording to say anything more.  I would just like to quote a paragraph of the statement publicly announced on the occasion when the University of Michigan conferred Dr. Li the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters.

After compiling a superior undergraduate record at Michigan, Professor Li attained an early distinction in American-Indian linguistics--an interest of his graduate teacher, the late great Edward Sapir.  He subsequently extended his ample purview to the historical phonology of Chinese, to Sino-Tibetan languages, and to comparative and historical studies of the Tai language family.  His exact and far-ranging field work, his firm and yet subtle analyses, and his lucid expression have established his absolute primacy in particular fields of language study and have served as model and example for linguists, generally.  Because his scholarly dedication has been selfless, finally, he has been singularly open and generous throughout his career, so both his peers and his junior associates love him as well as admire him.

Sincerely yours,

Ting Pang-hsin
Visiting Senior Research Fellow
Institute of Chinese Studies