Vignettes of My Father by Peter Li (Rutgers University)

It is proverbially difficult for a son to write about his father. The relationship is difficult to characterize because it combines love, respect, rivalry, competition, mentoring, envy and trepidation. Dad taught me how to play ping-pong at the tender age of five or six and it was my passion for many years even now. I remember we competed fiercely later after I became a more proficient player. He bought my sister and me our first tennis racquets when we were teenagers and ever since tennis has been my obsession even to this day. As I look back now, he did not play very well in those days, but he got us started. He took us to our first classical music concerts at the University of Washington in Seattle soon after we arrived there in 1949. Since then the enjoyment of good music has greatly enriched our lives. Later we were given music lessons: my sister Lindy studied the piano and I took violin lessons and this continued through our high school years. His attempt to guide me to read Dickens, however, was less successful. I just could not finish David Copperfield, which he told me to read, no matter how hard I tried. Instead, I found Somerset Maugham, Jules Verne and other science fiction stories much more interesting. Maybe one of these days, now that I am in retirement, I’ll complete reading David Copperfield. Yes, it’s true, he never talked to us much about his area of specialty, linguistics. Maybe that’s why none of his children followed in his footsteps.

 As I’m writing this reminiscence, I am reminded of the female character June in Amy Tan’s novel Joy Luck Club, when she was asked to tell her long separated sisters about her mother. She blurted out, “But I don’t know her!” Her mother’s friend was incredulous, “How can you not know your own mother! She’s in you bones!” But she’s right. There is a sense of bewilderment when you are asked to talk about someone close to you. 

On the other hand, how can you not know your own parents, your father and your mother? They are in your “bones”, in your blood. These days often when I look in the mirror, I am shocked to note the resemblance of between me and my Dad, now that I’m in my seventies. However, when I’m asked to write about him, it is with great trepidation that I pick up my pen; it’s difficult to know where to begin. I am overwhelmed. But let me begin with the year that I was born.

When I was born in 1935, Dad was thirty-three, already a distinguished scholar. Therefore, I never knew him as a young man. By the time that I came to know him he had already established himself as a world renowned scholar. Maybe not as renowned as he would became later, but he certainly was recognized as a rising star in the field of Chinese linguistics. I remember, probably in 1963, when he became president of the American Linguistics Society, I was in the audience as he gave the inaugural speech at Indiana University. It was quite an impressive occasion; there were probably a thousand people in the large auditorium where he spoke. Although I don’t remember much of what he said, I do remember Mother whispering to him to speak up when he gets on the lectern. As Mother knew ahead of time, he did not speak very loud, as was his habit, or he was not facing the microphone. In either case, I don’t remember hearing or understanding much of what he said.

My earliest memories of him were that he would be away from home for long periods of time. It was probably during the time that we lived in Longtoucun 龍頭村 in Yunnan or Lizhuang 李莊, Sichuan. He was away on his numerous field trips to record the languages of ethnic minorities in Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, etc. While he was away, my favorite pastime during those days was spending many hours playing in a large empty courtyard that had a rectangular concrete structure in middle. I think it was for holding water. But at the time there was no water in it, in fact it was cracked, and a large piece was dislodged. But I just liked to hang out there playing with broken pieces of bricks and roof tiles lying around. I later become skilled in grinding toy tanks and battleships out of those pieces of bricks and tiles. 

Dad’s method of raising us was very hands off. He was not particularly concerned about how we were doing in school. Education was more Mother’s concern. I suppose his philosophy was that you had to find out for yourself what you’re good at; no one can help you except yourself. Once you dedicate yourself to it, then your future will take care of itself. When Dad’s student would ask him, what can I do if I study Chinese; Dad’s answer would be if you’re good at it, you don’t have to worry. If you’re not good at it, then you’re in trouble no matter what field you’re in. Dad was a fujiang福將 himself; he had a very pampered childhood. From the day that he was born, his head never touched a pillow until the age of two or three. He was carried day and night by nursemaids and servants. Maybe this was the reason why he became such a good-natured person. He never complained nor competed with anyone; nor was he jealous of anyone. He just kept his nose to the grindstone and did what he was good at. As a consequence, slowly but surely his accomplishments accumulated.

Aside from his academic accomplishments, Dad was good at all sorts of intellectual games. He was a wiz at mahjong. Since the age of seven or eight he would stand in for his father at the mahjong table. These mahjong players were colleagues of his father, learned men and high officials, but he could hold his own with them. If you don’t know about his mahjong skills, then you might know about his skills at bridge. This I know personally when we were living in Chengdu. Bridge was one of the few pastimes that the intellectuals like Dad, professors, doctors and other professionals, took pleasure in. Dad was always a much sought after player in those days. The unusual thing is that these games seem to come to him naturally; he did not need much instruction or practice.

But I do remember him seriously learning weiqi 圍棋 (go in Japanese) when he took up the game. This was when we were living in Seattle, Washington where we settled in 1949. After he came home, following a full day at the office, he would relax and take out his weiqi manual and start placing the stones on the board. It was not his habit to talk to us much after he came back from the office. We would bring him his usual cup of tea after he got home and that was it. Then he would go into his study and set up his weiqi and play by himself. These games would go on for hours on end—the manual in one hand and a white or black stone in the other ready to be placed on the board. Mother would call out from the kitchen that supper was ready, but nothing happened. He did not budge; the game occupied his full attention. Finally, after several unsuccessful attempts at getting him to the dining room table, Mother would burst into the room, lift up the chess board, and scatter the stones on the floor. From this experience, I have learned never to cross the head of the household when supper time came around. Whenever, I would hear Mother, or now Marjorie, call from the kitchen that supper’s ready, I would drop everything and make a bee line of the kitchen. 

Perhaps because of his childhood and war experience, my father was always frugal man. He never had much money in his pocket. One reason may be that Mother managed all the finances. He did not have any expensive habits, nor desired any luxuries. His books and his work were sufficient to keep him happy and contented. But when it came to us children, he never begrudged us anything. During those days that we were in Seattle, I began to study the violin rather seriously. I was getting to be more proficient as I had a good teacher in Stanley Spector, a graduate student in Chinese history at the University of Washington at the time. He later became a specialist on Li Hongzhang. Stanley was originally trained as a musician, but because of a war time injury to his hand, gave up his career as a violinist and studied to become a Sinologist instead. Through someone’s kind introduction, he became my first serious teacher who taught me how to feel the music rather than just mechanically playing the notes. When he heard that I was looking for a good violin, he told Dad that his musician friend, Simon Goldberg, wanted to sell his violin. But the price was $300.00! In those days, three hundred dollars was no mean sum of money for us. Regular mail was going for 3 cents, a loaf of bread 16 cents, and a gallon of gasoline 33 cents! I remember Dad always, without fail, asked for $2.00’s worth of gasoline whenever he went to the gas station. And I remember going to summer camp, for a full eight weeks, for $250.00. To make a long story short, Dad bought the violin for me. It must have taken a big chunk out of his salary. That was in the early 1950s. There was never a word of complaint about the cost. I took violin lessons all through high school and played in the Youth Symphony Orchestra in Seattle. I still have the violin today. It’s a little worse for wear and tear but still eminently playable. That was 56 years ago.

Another expensive item that I asked for on impulse was a Leica camera. From the mid-fifties on, I left Seattle to study at the University of Chicago following in Dad’s footsteps some quarter of a century later. My academic career at Chicago, however, was not all smooth sailing. Dad received his degrees in quick succession, graduated from the University of Michigan in 1926, received his Master’s Degree in 1927 and Ph.D. in 1928 from the University of Chicago in two consecutive years. And he studied with stellar professors in the field, Leonard Bloomfield and Edward Sapir. My career at Chicago dragged out for over ten years with three year’s interruption when I joined the U.S. Army. I finally received my Ph.D. in 1972 after the department decided to kick me out. One summer in the fifties, when Dad at teaching at the University of Chicago, he told me that he was going to a conference in Germany. He asked me what I would like from Europe. I said without much hesitation “How about buying me a Leica camera?” I did not really believe that I would get it. Well, at the end of summer, Dad came home with a Leica in hand as a present for me. Again, a Leica was the most expensive camera in those days. I was surprised and overwhelmed. I used that camera for many years, until it got eclipsed by the new digital cameras.

In thinking about my understanding of my father, I remember reading Professor South Coblin’s remembrance of Dad several years back. South was truly Dad’s zhiji 知己, he knows and understands my father as much as anyone possibly can. And Dad does not open up easily to people, but I believe that South was one of those who got to know him. I was amazed by many of his insights. Dad was low-keyed, with subtle sense of humor and a man of few words, guayan寡言. But his prodigious memory never fails to amaze people. He may not always remember people’s names, but his knowledge of history, literature, music, philosophy, art is remarkable. But, at home and on most social occasions, he is quiet. He seems oblivious to what is going on around him. He is the epitome of the absent minded professor. My mother often made the observation that it a good thing Dad never became a doctor. (He was once a pre-med student.) If he did, who knows how many patients he would have harmed by his absentmindedness.

In our two families, the Y.R. Chao’s and the F.K. Li’s, there’s a favorite joke about the two famous linguists, Dad and Y.R. Chao. Both of these men have very articulate wives. When our two families get together, you would hear the two wives talking up a storm. Actually, most of the time it’s Mama Chao. The two linguists would sit quietly listening with satisfied smiles on their faces. The two women may not be linguists, but they were certainly masters of the spoken language. Once when our two families got together and Mrs. Chao began discoursing on this and that, she would suddenly remember that Fang-kuei and Yuan-ren were supposed to discuss some question about linguistics and both were there listening to her talk. She turned to Y.R., who was sitting beside her, “Aren’t you and Fang-kuei supposed to talk to each other about your linguistic problem? Why are you sitting here?” Y.R. would answer, “Yes, we’ve talked already. We’re done.” They were finished in couple of minutes.

Dad and mother are a study in contrast. Mother is very sociable and articulate, she is never tongue-tied. On occasions when she is asked to say something at banquets and parties, she always pleases the audience with her human interest stories and observations. Father, on the other hand, is rather reserved and does not have much to say. When called upon to say a few words, his remarks are short, like “I am Li Fang-kuei, a linguist, and I teach at the University of Washington” and that’s it. Well, maybe for him that’s all that’s necessary since everyone knows who he is any way. Mother, on the other hand, is a great storyteller and conversationalist. She has a good sense of humor and love telling a good story and a joke or two. When she tells her stories, she would make the whole room burst out in laughter. And father would smile with satisfaction. Whenever mother was in the mood to tell a joke, we would all encourage her. And often times, she would burst out laughing herself even before she told the story. Her favorite story was about a fastidious bald man who goes to a barber shop to get a haircut. But he has only three hairs left (like Sanmao三毛). She would be laughing so hard afterwards that she would wipe away her tears. Even though we had heard the story before, when she told it, we would all laugh as if we were hearing it for the first time. Her delivery was unique and a joy to hear. As the late Professor Fritz Mote once remarked, “I think Mrs. Li speaks the most beautiful Mandarin that I have ever heard.” And he always wanted to make a recording of my mother speaking, but unfortunately he never did.

Dad’s personality is always somewhat of a puzzle to me. He does not open up very often. Only on rather few occasions does he talk about himself. Most of the time he is lost in thought, absorbed in his linguistic puzzles. Only when you ask him something does he have anything to say and usually it’s a syllable or two. At times, even when there were guests at home, I have noticed him remaining silent rather than engaging in social chit chat as people usually do. I remember that he liked talking to Marjorie though. It was shortly after the birth of our second daughter, Caroline (nicknamed Yuanbao given to her by Yeh-yeh) in 1980 when we were living in Rochester, NY for the year. They would sit in the kitchen and talk for hours on end. I don’t remember what they were talking about since I was preoccupied with my work at the time.

I recall on some mornings, while we lived in Seattle, at the table before I left for school, Dad and I would sit in silence eating breakfast. He had classes at 8 o’clock in the morning. By the way, I think he was always a little late. Because I know he never left on time. We would sit at the table eating; Dad would be having his coffee and smoking a cigarette. He was a chain smoker until his by-pass operation in 1982. In any case, he would be muttering different sounds, like dental sibilants, glottal stops, etc. to himself. I think it was either was for the language class that he was going to teach that morning, or for a paper that he was writing. I was never able to tell.

Some of you probably know that Dad was an accomplished painter of the flowers and insects in the literati style—not gongbi (palace style) painting. Again this is a talent that he does not often talk about nor does he show off. But when the right moment came with the right company, he would pick up a brush and paint. I still have a hua-ce (畫冊) that he painted when he was a young man in his thirties or forties. The hua-ce is constructed in the accordion fold style, or a zhezi (摺子) (all the pages are folded together) so that there are no loose pages. In case you paint something poorly, you cannot tear it out. All the paintings therefore have to be well executed. If you did make a mistake, then the huace is ruined. Therefore, you must have a high degree of proficiency before you would attempt one of these. Dad did one of these and I have the huace. I don’t know exactly when he did these painting. But I think in was during the 1930s or 40s when he was in China. Later he had his good friends inscribe poems or essays (tizi題字) on the opposing page to the painting. There were altogether 15 paintings, and most of them have the calligraphy of his friends and acquaintances.

The source of Dad’s artistic talent was his mother, nee He, who was a painter in the court of the Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后). We do not know whether he was formally taught to paint, or he just learned through watching his mother paint. It is one more of the mysteries concerning my father.

As you have probably gathered by now, Dad has been a kind of puzzle to me. He is not the most easy person to understand or get to know. It is much easier when it comes to his accomplishments in linguistics. But when it comes to understanding him as a person, it is more complex. He is like a jewel that has many surfaces. It scintillates when you look at it from the proper angle. If you don’t look at it from the right angle, then it does not shine. If you ask him the right questions at the right time, he will open up. But if you don’t ask the right question or at the wrong time, he does not respond. I think I have come to a clearer understanding of him through writing this vignette of Dad. Being the son of a famous father, the most difficult thing was to live up to his expectations. It was not that he demanded great things from you, but it was that you simply did not want to disappoint him. And that was not always easy. He probably would not approve of the essay that I have written here! 


Peter Li
May 10, 2006
Oakland, CA.