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Kun Chang
In Memoriam

Kun Chang

Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures

UC Berkeley
Ever since his childhood in China, Kun Chang was fascinated with sounds and words. Born on December 17, 1917, he grew up speaking his native tongue, Kaifeng, and also Mandarin, both dialects of northern China, but with distinct differences. Variations could be subtle but differences in how the same word would be uttered, the twists in tone, kept piquing his curiosity, a curiosity that eventually led to a lifetime quest regarding the working of human language. Chang majored in Chinese language and literature, first studying at Tsing Hua University in Beijing, where he was exposed to a structured study of classical and modern Chinese. Shortly after graduation, he was recruited by Professor Fang-kuei Li, a senior linguist at Academia Sinica, as an assistant, and worked on languages other than Chinese found in southwestern China, including Miao-Yao and Tibetan. In 1947, Chang followed Li to Yale University; he received a Ph.D. in linguistics with a dissertation on Sanskrit in 1955. He had already begun teaching at the University of Washington, Seattle, in 1951, and in 1963 he joined the University of California, Berkeley, faculty as professor of Chinese, in what was then the Department of Oriental Languages. He retired in 1987. Professor Chang was elected a Lifetime Academician of Academia Sinica in 1972.

Author of nine books and more than 80 articles in both English and Chinese, Kun Chang commanded expertise in a wide range of languages. He was one of the forerunners in the study of the Miao-Yao languages. In 1947 he published a ground-breaking paper outlining a well-defined tonal system in Miao, a system with four basic tones, which had further evolved through splits and reformations under different phonological conditions. The paper established for the first time a methodological and comparative framework that made subsequent studies, both descriptive and diachronic, possible.

With his characteristic intensity and caution, Chang launched an investigation into Tibetan, angling at projects ranging in subject matter from phonology to grammar, from lexicology to pedagogy. As early as 1957, he contributed to the Encyclopedia Britannica an entry on Tibet, a survey that covered a wide variety of historical, cultural, social, and religious issues. Together with his wife Dr. Betty Shefts, Chang produced a series of language manuals, including A Manual of Spoken Tibetan (Lhasa Dialect) and four volumes of Spoken Tibetan Texts. Beyond attempts to better understand the spoken language, he was increasingly concerned with a historical inquiry, tracing changes that Tibetan underwent over time and comparing it to its neighboring languages, including Chinese. His writings yielded findings that have remained critically relevant in Sino-Tibetan studies.

Chang was perhaps best known for his work on Chinese historical phonology and dialectology, an area where his interest in language first began. But it was not until he joined Berkeley that Chinese became his primary focus. Over the following decades, he devoted significant effort to collecting language data, both historical and contemporary, and subjecting it to critical examination. He highlighted how changes gave rise to modern dialectal variations across China, and argued that similar changes were just as likely in ancient eras. He reexamined the phonological system that had been reconstructed for Middle Chinese from the seventh century, and debunked the theory that such a system was based on and derived, uninterrupted, from an archaic form dating to 1,100-500 B.C. By meticulously comparing early sources from various periods and geographical regions, Chang argued that a seventh century dictionary, the primary source for all early attempts of reconstruction, had in fact been the product of a joint undertaking by a small group of scholars who constructed a standardized system incorporating sound characteristics from both China’s south and north. He claimed this dictionary represented a codified system used to make up for the inadequacies in individual dialects, a classical language that would come to be highly regarded and used for reading and versification. This revised assessment drastically changed the way scholars approached ancient Chinese and redirected their efforts to extending investigation beyond the confines of the canonical dictionary.

Chang spared no effort as he examined sound systems of individual dialects, including Mandarin, Min, Wu, and Yue. Major studies of this nature included his works on the tonal developments across all major regions in China and his investigation of the disappearance of nasal endings in close to 200 dialects. The impact of his remarkable work on subsequent research has been far-reaching.

Professor Chang often told students who enrolled in his seminar on Chinese linguistics that one should first cherish an intuitive appreciation of a language before subjecting it to close scrutiny. “Collect, observe, and study carefully. Get your data right and let the language speak for itself.” Such convictions kept him going for more than seven decades, both as a scholar and a teacher.  

In his teaching, Professor Chang would often go out of his way to help students. In 1967, a group of students and friends who wanted to acknowledge their appreciation for his generosity arranged a special celebration on his 60th birthday; the celebration became an annual event, a ritual that continued until his death, a few months shy of his 100th birthday. 

Professor Chang once said that, despite the great many findings and gratifying rewards that came from books, the life of a scholar could be a lonely one. His own situation, however, was different. His wife, Mrs. Betty Chang, nee Shefts, was a fellow linguist; she received her Ph.D. in linguistics from Yale in 1955, the same year he had. A Sanskrit scholar, Betty subsequently turned to Sino-Tibetan linguistics and joined Chang as coauthor on many papers on Tibetan phonology and grammar. They spent a great many hours combing through piles of notes and discussing their work over sherry by the fire.

Until he suffered a debilitating stroke in the late 1990s, Chang had always been in very good health. To many who met him for the first time, he was more like a PE instructor than a college professor. In 2012 when they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, Chang appeared exceptionally excited despite his failing health. Betty was at his side, as she had been throughout their many adventures, from Sanskrit to Tibetan, from Connecticut to California. On April 4, 2017, Chang passed away in peace at home. Six months later, Betty also died, at the age of 96. Their ashes have been interred next to each other in a cemetery in Los Angeles.1

H. Samuel Cheung

1 For a detailed account of Professor Chang’s life and academic achievements, please refer to “When the Voice Goes Out ...Kun Chang 張琨 (次瑤), 1917-2017" by H. Samuel Cheung, in the Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 46.2: 474-484, 2018.