In Memoriam of Gong Hwang-cherng
To appear in Journal of Chinese Linguistics, January 2011
University of Iowa - W. South Coblin
It is with profound sorrow and regret that we announce the passing of Professor Gong Hwarng-cherng, esteemed colleague and world-renowned Sinological linguist, Sino-Tibetanist, and Tangutologist, in Taipei on September 11, 2010, at the age of seventy-five.
Professor Gong was born in 1934 in Bĕigăng, Yúnlín County, Taiwan. After completion of his secondary schooling, by which time he knew three languages, i.e., Taiwanese, standard Mandarin, and Japanese, he matriculated at National Taiwan Normal University, where he took his BA in a fourth language, English, in 1958. He then served for nine years as an English instructor at Dàtóng High School in Taipei. During this period he received for the 1961-62 academic year a Fulbright Fellowship, which he used for advanced study of English in California. In 1966 he was awarded a Goethe Institute Fellowship, whereupon he proceeded to Munich for a one-year course in language instruction. Having become fluent in German, he remained in Munich and matriculated in 1967 at the Ludwig-Maxmilians-Universität, taking his Ph. D. in 1974. During this period he also served as a lecturer in the Institute of East Asian Culture at the University. Professor Gong s fascination with linguistic matters began during his youth, when, as indicated above, he had already learned three different languages. At Munich he pursued these interests, first undertaking a full course of study in Indo-European comparative philology and then moving to the East Asian sphere, where he focused on Chinese historical phonology. His dissertation dealt with the reconstruction of Old Chinese phonology from the standpoint of word families and etymology.
In 1976 Professor Gong returned to Taiwan where he became an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica. He remained in the Academy for the rest of his life, serving first in the Institute of History and Philology and later in the newly established Institute of Linguistics and moving through the ranks, first to full research fellow and ultimately to Academician (yuànshì) in 2002. He retired in 2004 but remained active in Academia Sinica and the Institute of Linguistics as an emeritus Academician until his death. During the course of his career he also served at times an adjunct professor of Chinese linguistics at Taiwan National University. Additionally, he held many prestigious visiting appointments outside Taiwan, notably at the Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa in Tokyo, the University of California, Berkeley, the 1997 Linguistics Institute at Cornell, Beijing University, the 2005 Linguistics Institute at MIT, and the Asian Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. Throughout his career he received numerous prizes, awards, and honors both in Taiwan and elsewhere. Particularly notable was an honorary membership in the Linguistic Society of America.
Upon his return to Taiwan in1976, Professor Gong continued what was to be a lifelong involvement with the phonology of Old Chinese. He took as the starting point for this work the reconstructed Old Chinese sound system of Professor Fang Kuei Li, which at that time was considered the most advanced and up to date reconstruction for early Chinese. By 1980, he had begun to publish comparative studies of Chinese, Old Tibetan, and Written Burmese, which were then held to be the oldest recorded Tibeto-Burman languages. But he soon realized that Tangut should also be included in the list of early written attestations of Tibeto-Burman. Tangutology was, and still is, a truly arcane and daunting field. Entry into it required mastery not only of its own immensely complex ancient textual corpus but also of a range of modern languages in which it had been studied by specialists in various parts of the world. Professor Gong already commanded a number of these, but at least one, Russian, was new to him. With characteristic application and aplomb he quickly mastered this difficult language, so that in his work he had full control of all requisite publications on Tangut produced everywhere in the world. And as soon as he had absorbed all of these he began to work on the reconstruction of the pronunciation of this language, assessing earlier achievements and adding improvements wherever he felt they were warranted. Then, as his Sino-Tibetan comparative work advanced, he factored Tangut into the equation, something that no one else had so far done or even been competent to do.
During this period a new type Old Chinese reconstruction began to gain ascendancy over that developed by F. K. Li. This was an approach pioneered by the Russian Sinologist, S. I. Yakhontov and his students and protégés and further developed in North America by N. C. Bodman and his student, W. H. Baxter. Professor Gong fully familiarized himself with this newer reconstruction and adopted from it various elements which, he became convinced, were superior to aspects of the system he had hitherto been using. But where he felt the earlier ideas of Li were still to be preferred, he adhered to them. The result of this was an Old Chinese system that was unique. Though in many ways an outgrowth of F. K. Li s ideas, it underwent constant revision that took account of and digested new work which other scholars were continually producing.
The ultimate results of Professor Gong s various research avenues were: 1) a new and soundly established reconstruction of Tangut phonology, 2) a new system for Old Chinese, and 3) a full-fledged Sino-Tibetan reconstruction which systematically accounted for the phonological details of his Old Chinese system and the sound systems of Old Tibetan, Written Burmese, and Tangut as he had reconstructed it. As it turns out, his Sino-Tibetan system is identical in most of it details with his Old Chinese one. This then points to a tacit conclusion about the nature of Sino-Tibetan and early Chinese, i.e., that Common Sino-Tibetan was, phonologically at least, virtually the same language as Old Chinese. Professor Gong himself did not, so far as the present writer is aware, address the historical implications of this outcome of his research. Whether he would ultimately have done so we shall never know, for his untimely death has deprived us of his possible views on the question.
It is clearly premature to venture a full-blown assessment of Professor Gong s scholarly life and work, if we mean by that a statement of the ultimate influence of his published oeuvre on the development of the field. But some reflections in this area are perhaps not unwarranted here. We may begin with Tangutology, a field on which the present writer is unqualified to venture an opinion. Clearly, it is incumbent upon specialists in it to examine Professor Gong s contributions and convey their conclusions to the rest of us in forms we can all understand. For, to undertake the herculean task of mastering the details of this arcanum, as Professor Gong to his great credit in fact did, is probably beyond the capacity of many of us. As mentioned above, Professor Gong s work on the reconstruction of Old Chinese phonology is somewhat distanced from the mainstream of this discipline as it is widely practiced today, in Europe and North America at least. Whether what he did will ultimately have a significant impact on the field at large is difficult to predict. But it seems clear that his work must be examined and taken into account by specialists in Old Chinese phonology, something that has not so far been done. To cite a case in point, the majority of present-day historical linguists outside China now reject the existence of the earlier ubiquitous high front medial glide [j], conventionally called yod , as a segmental feature in pre-Han Chinese. F. K. Li posited this yod in his Old Chinese system, and Professor Gong retained it in his, as well as in Proto-Sino-Tibetan. At first sight, this might appear to be rank conservatism, i.e. a sort of atavistic appeal to the earlier traditions of Li and Bernhard Karlgren. But such a conclusion would be erroneous. For Professor Gong s yod is in fact buttressed by the presence of a comparable sound in his Tangut reconstruction. Hence, he concludes that methodological parsimony supports its retention in Old Chinese and, of course, in Sino-Tibetan. And anyone who rejects his yod must needs confront this conundrum. First of all, is Tangut yod correctly reconstructed by Professor Gong, or is it fallacious? And secondly, if it is correct, is it inherited from earlier stages of Tibeto-Burman, or on the contrary a Tangut innovation of some sort? To ignore the Tangut data is to leave a significant corpus of evidence out of the Sino-Tibetan/Old Chinese equation. And this question is but one of many raised by Professor Gong s work. Each of these must ultimately be addressed, and therein may lie his ultimate influence on the field
We have mentioned above the question of Professor Gong s Sino-Tibetan and the position of his Old Chinese within Sino-Tibetan. Here we may note that in his comparative word Professor Gong treated Sinitic, Tibetan, Burmese, and Tangut as collateral branches of Sino-Tibetan. This is at variance with the widely held view today that Sinitic, and Tibeto-Burman as a whole, constitute two primary collateral branches. But it needs to be weighed and assessed in the light of a challenge to the general theory, issued by the Dutch linguist and Tibeto-Burmanist Professor George van Driem, who, echoing and elaborating upon the earlier views of N. C. Bodman, suggests that the two-branch model is erroneous and that Sinitic and Bodic are more intimately connected, while Tibeto-Burman is not really a meaningful taxon at all, in that it is not characterized by shared innovations vis-à-vis the Sino-Tibetan proto-language. We may then wonder where Professor Gong s work would fit within an entirely different taxonomic model of the type suggested by van Driem. In such a different model, what sort of comparisons should one make between Tangut and Chinese? What is Tangut? Is it an independent branch of Sino-Tibetan, an aberrant member of the Qiangic group, or what? Professor Gong s work in all three of his major areas of concentration may ultimately throw light on such questions in future years.
Above we have considered at some length Professor Gong s scholarly life and work. In closing, we shall comment on what he was like as a man. Each individual s views on such matters will by nature be personal and idiosyncratic. The present writer found Professor Gong to be quiet, mild-mannered, and modest. In conversation and ordinary dealings with others he was unfailingly thoughtful and polite. In scholarly discussion and disputation he was calm and restrained, and always deferential to his collocutors. But, though he was never brash or assertive, when called upon to present his own views he evinced a quiet confidence, clearly informed by profound erudition and long-standing reflection. He was, in a word, a scholar s scholar and a gentleman s gentleman.
Now fate has ordained that we must part from this honored, respected, and affectionately cherished colleague, and the loss to our field is incalculable. But in bidding him our final farewell we may find comfort in the fact that he has left for us the legacy of his life s work, which will remain with us always, as will also our memories of him.
Requiescat in pace.