Peter Boodberg and the ideographic myth

I’ve been intrigued by Peter Boodberg since reading John DeFrancis’s account of the Creel-Boodberg debate. But only recently did I finally shell out the US$80 or so it currently costs to pick up a used copy of Boodberg’s selected works (compiled by Alvin P. Cohen).

But after receiving my book and doing some Web searches in preparation for this Pinyin News entry, I discovered that some of Boodberg’s works are available online (at least to some).

Jstor, an important online archive of scholarly journals, has all but the most recent editions of the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, in which Boodberg published (between 1936 and 1957) several of his all-too-few works. While many do not have access to Jstor’s files, most of the sort of people who would be interested in reading titles like “Some Proleptical Remarks on the Evolution of Archaic Chinese” probably do — or at least know someone who does. (Try asking people at universities.) If you’re not sure if you have Jstor access or not, try any of the links in the list below.

Some works by Peter A. Boodberg available online:

Some of Boodberg’s closely argued points don’t make for easy reading, but his style should not be mistaken for dry, because he can be suprisingly direct. For example, have a look at how he introduces his refutations of some of Creel’s more naive points:

[A]s a philologist and teacher of Chinese, I am naturally perturbed by — and cannot remain indifferent to — the rise of a methodology which produces, not in comparatively innocuous special articles, but in text-books through which a new generation of sinologists is expected to be trained, puerilities such as the following….

Yeah! Alas, such puerilities still abound today, 65 years after he made those remarks.

I had wanted to post a link to the In Memorium on Boodberg by Y.R. Chao and others, but, oddly, the original page seems to have disappeared. It would be a shame if this were lost, so I’m posting a copy of the Google cache of the above page before even that is gone.


Peter Alexis Boodberg, Oriental Languages: Berkeley
Agassiz Professor of Oriental Languages and Literature, Emeritus

Peter Boodberg spent his boyhood in Vladivostok, where his father was commanding general of the Czarist forces. He left Vladivostok around 1920, made his way to California via Harbin and Japan, and enrolled at Berkeley as an undergraduate. When he received the Ph.D. in Oriental languages in 1930, he was already a humanistic scholar of unusual promise, superbly equipped with a knowledge of the principal ancient and modern Indo-European, Semitic, Hamitic, Altaic, Sinitic, and Malayo-Polynesian languages, with a broad acquaintance of major world cultures, with a mind that was both strikingly original and rigorously disciplined, and with a poet’s sensitivity to the nuances of language, and for the philological studies that he thought of as “the ability to conduct significant conversations with the dead.” During his early years on the Berkeley faculty, which he joined in 1932, he attracted wide professional attention with a series of erudite articles reflecting the three major areas of interest that became his permanent concerns–Sino-Altaica, early Chinese cultural history, and the classical Chinese script. By 1940 he was chairman of the Oriental languages department, which, during the entire decade, he gradually elevated to national prominence, stamping it in the process with his own passionate concern for scholarly discipline and integrity.

In the classroom, Boodberg was stimulating and provocative. His Great Books course was known throughout the University, his courses on Chinese characters and the Asiatic languages stretched the horizons of generations of undergraduate majors, and his impact on graduate students was profound and lasting. His courses were not closely organized; rather, his effectiveness as a teacher sprang from the power of his intellect, the breadth of his learning, and his ability to kindle the imagination of students and inspire them with his own scholarly ideals.

Boodberg loved the give-and-take of intellectual debate. In the 1940s, he took the lead in organizing the Colloquium Orientologicum, a faculty group with interests spanning the Asiatic continent. In the 40s and 50s the Colloquium attracted a surprisingly wide range of participants, but its prime movers were always Boodberg and a few other eminent humanists, mostly of European origin, whose far-reaching interests and lively wit made it a forum that was perhaps unique in Berkeley’s history.

Boodberg was a delightful conversationalist. The swift play of his imagination invested the most casual encounter with an aura of unpredictability, and he could usually be counted on for an amusing anecdote (typically at his own expense), delivered with his characteristic accent and high-pitched laugh. The elegance of his diction reflected what one Russian-speaking friend called “the artistic strain in Pjotr Alekseevich.” In the spacious chambers of his mind, there was room not only for the concerns of the philologist, but also for music and poetry. He had a great admiration for Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose techniques he borrowed for his own brilliant interpretations of Tu Fu; and to those who recall the delicacy and grace of his memorial tribute to Shih-Hsiang Ch’en, it will come as no surprise to learn that he composed verses in English and Russian.

Boodberg was not what is called a productive scholar. He discussed the fruits of his research in frequent public lectures, such as his presidential addresses to the American Oriental Society and its western branch (which he helped to found), and he produced, for limited distribution, numerous short technical papers, notably his “Cedules from a Berkeley Workshop in Asiatic Philology,” which are now collectors’ items, but the ambitious scope of his research projects, coupled with a certain innate diffidence, prevented what he referred to as “premature publication.” One of his long-term interests was a bold attempt to establish a complex of Western graphic symbols to represent each of the 30,000 characters of the classical Chinese script; another was a monograph on the life of Confucius, whose disciple he sometimes jokingly proclaimed himself. Despite the warmth of his personality, he had, indeed, a Confucian dignity and sense of decorum. Few people called him Peter. He was like Confucius, also, in his conviction that the proper concern of the scholar is “the meditative treasuring up of knowledge, the unwearying pursuit of wisdom, and the timeless instruction of others,” and in the affectionate respect he inspired in students and colleagues. We who knew him will not forget him or learn to bear his loss with indifference.

He leaves his sister Valentina, his wife Elena, and his daughter Xenia, a concert pianist of whom he was touchingly proud.

Yuen Ren Chao
Yakov Malkiel
Helen McCullough

13 thoughts on “Peter Boodberg and the ideographic myth

  1. I was very moved to see this commentary online. I took a course from Professor Boodberg in Classical Chinese poetry in 1969 or thereabouts. At a time when Sproul Plaza was awash (as it were) in teargas, his lectures stood out, and remain for me a major influence. He would quote Tu Fu in Chinese, and then move on to say, ‘And of course you cannot help but be reminded of Homer’s famous words,” and quote them in Classical Greek. But he asked his students to jump straight into the world of Chinese poetry, remote both chronologically and linguistically from my own experience, and ask us to come out with meaning. He gave one the sense that a shared majesty of the human spirit that was our inheritance would carry us through. I wish I could pass a small part of that notion on to my own students.

  2. Professor Boodberg was our shining genius and we basked in his light and intellectual and spiritual energy. There truly was a twinkle in his eye. I believe he chose the time of his death. As students we wanted him to go on forever.

  3. I am related to Professor Boodberg as his sister’s, Valentina Boodberg, grand daughter. My family’s history is well documented through their father, General Boodberg. I am in possession of the family history as written by my grandmother dating back to 1003. Also have the family’s photo albums dating back to 1890 which show the General and his troops, the family as well as one picture of Czar Nicholas II having tea at the General’s home in Russia. Am trying to connect with his daughter, Xenia’s, family as well as possibly publish the family history with pictures. Please contact me at Thank you, Peggy Vernon Jansson

  4. Chao Yuen Ren’s tribute to Peter Boodberg–one giant mourning a world without the living company of another, but both, as Chao was too self-effacing to say, ultimately immortal.

    It is also to be noted how brilliantly compressed some of Chao’s own essays are, in which, as in some of the cedules, contemporary conventionalities come crashing down in the lightest and most considerate way–that Chomsky’s linguistic framework, for example, is but a subset of a much wider Chinese grammar, ancient and modern. Or, linguistically to mount a rare butterfly no one else has seen, that Chinese tends to be dialogical.

    Thanks much for posting this, and especially Chao’s tribute to Boodberg.

  5. Professor Boodberg was my husband’s grandfather. It is wonderful to read the memories of his students. Your thoughts are greatly appreciated. I never met the gentleman – my great loss.

    Allyn Lee

  6. I was an Oriental Languages major at U.C. Berkeley in 1948-50, and before that (1944?) took a course in Japanese (!) with Boodberg as professor (long story). He was my principal teacher and inspiration during the undergrad years, when I took courses and seminars with him; it was I (believe this or not) who introduced Gerard Manley Hopkins to him. During my years away from Berkeley I would never return there without visiting him for new inspiration, and he showed me, and let me read, things he was working on–a new series of translations of Du Fu, a “cultural history” of early China based on philological analyses of words. After my return to Berkeley as a professor in 1965 I saw as much of him as I could; I recall sitting with him trying to persuade him (as others did) that he should publish more of his writings, and he smiling at me (my eyes tear up when I remember) and saying: “When I am gone, friend Cahill, remember me like the Cheshire Cat, by my smile.” As his students know, one of us (unnamed but known) was charged by him with the job of burning all his papers–including those unfinished projects–after his death. I often wonder what I myself would have done–cheated, like Nabokov’s son? (they have a lot in common). That student didn’t cheat, and all those treasures are lost. But he remains, for me and for others who studied with him, the greatest man we ever knew.

  7. Pingback: Boodberg’s Wang Wei | Tom Mazanec

  8. I was a Sophomore at UC Berkeley, and enrolled in Prof. Boodberg’s class in 1972 when he passed away. My rather selfish concern at the time was whether or not we would get credit for the class which was not quite completed (we did).

    One of the things he was doing linguistically at the time was attempting to find word sounds that were found linguistically in unrelated languages. Such as the prefix “fl” in English words flow, flew, etc. which indicates movement; linguistically he mentioned he knew other unrelated languages where the prefix or sound “fl” also indicated words that meant some sort of movement.

    Difficult to believe that it has been more than 45 years since he passed away!! As a footnote, I did graduate in the Dept. of Oriental Languages, UC Berkeley, with a degree in Chinese language and literature on time in 1975!

  9. Very touching tributes full of insight.
    Love to hear/read/find out more.

    What was his “ground” for ensuring that those philological manuscripts/notes/notations were not preserved? What lay behind him/his feeling so strongly about this?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *