Li Fang-Kuei
Li Fang-kuei.jpg
Born(1902-08-20)August 20, 1902
Died21 August 1987(1987-08-21) (aged 85)
NationalityRepublic of China
United States[citation needed]
Academic background
EducationTsinghua University
University of Michigan
University of Chicago
ThesisMattole: An Athabaskan Language (1928)
Doctoral advisorEdward Sapir
Academic work
InstitutionsYale University
Harvard University
Academia Sinica
University of Washington
University of Hawaii
Notable studentsW. South Coblin
David R. Knechtges
Chinese name

Li Fang-Kuei (Chinese: 李方桂; 20 August 1902 – 21 August 1987) was a Chinese linguist known for his studies of the varieties of Chinese, and for his reconstructions of Old Chinese and Proto-Tai.


Li Fang-Kuei was born on 20 August 1902 in Guangzhou during the final years of the Qing dynasty to a minor scholarly family from Xiyang, a small town in Shanxi roughly 50 kilometers (31 mi) south of Yangquan. Li's father Li Guangyu (Chinese: 李光宇) received his jinshi degree in 1880 and served in minor official posts in the late 19th to early 20th century.

Li was one of the first Chinese people to study linguistics outside China. Originally a student of medicine, he switched to linguistics when he went to the United States in 1924. He gained a B.A. in linguistics at the University of Michigan in 1926 after only two years of study. He then did graduate study under Edward Sapir at the University of Chicago, where he was Sapir's first graduate student. From Sapir he learned phonetics, field methods, and American Indian languages. Sapir also encouraged him to study East and Southeast Asian languages, leading to his work on Thai and Sino-Tibetan. Li was also a student of Leonard Bloomfield at this time, from whom Li learned Germanic linguistics and textual analysis. Li also studied Indo-European linguistics, especially Greek and Latin, from Carl Darling Buck at Chicago, and in 1928 Buck secured a 6-month fellowship at Harvard University for him, where he studied Sanskrit and Tibetan.[1]

Li conducted field studies of American Indian languages. His first exposure to fieldwork was his study of the Mattole language of northern California. He received an M.A. in 1927 and a Ph.D. in 1928. His dissertation Mattole: An Athabaskan Language was published in 1930. Following the completion of his Ph.D., in 1928-29 Li traveled to Europe with letters of recommendation from Franz Boas, and visited linguists there including Walter Simon. Li also spent 3 months in 1929 in the Northwest Territories of Canada, living on an island in the middle of the Mackenzie River conducting fieldwork on the Hare language.[1]

After his fieldwork on Hare, in 1929 he returned to China and, along with Y.R. Chao and Luo Changpei, became a researcher at the Institute of History and Philology (Chinese: 歷史語言研究所; pinyin: Lìshǐ yǔyán yánjiūsuǒ) of the Academia Sinica (then located at Beijing). From this point on, he performed field studies of several Tai languages (including the Zhuang people's Longzhou and Wuming dialects), while at the same time conducting deep investigations into Old Chinese and Tibetan. Li's revisions of Bernhard Karlgren's reconstructions of Middle Chinese and Old Chinese were widely used by students of ancient Chinese from their publication in the 1970s until the late 1990s.

Li taught Chinese language and linguistics at Yale University in 1938–39, and after World War II taught at Harvard University from 1946-48. During the same period he was working on a dictionary at the Harvard-Yenching Institute, followed by another year teaching at Yale from 1948-49, where his students included Nicholas Bodman.[2] In 1949, he became professor of Chinese at the University of Washington, where he taught from 1949 to 1969, after which he taught at the University of Hawaii until his retirement in 1974. In 1977 he published a comparative reconstruction of Tai languages, the result of more than forty years of research. He also worked at Academia Sinica, now in Taiwan, in 1973.

Li died in San Mateo County, California, survived by his wife Xu Ying (Chinese: 徐櫻) and their daughter Lindy Li Mark, a professor of anthropology who taught at California State University, Hayward and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, as well as their son Peter Li and daughter Annie Li.

Tsinghua University, his alma mater, began to publish his complete works in 2005.

Selected works

See also


Further reading