Li Fang-Kuei

Li Fang-Kuei bigraphy, stories - Linguists

Li Fang-Kuei : biography

20 August 1902 – 21 August 1987

Li Fang-Kuei ( 20 August 1902 – 21 August 1987), also known as F.K. Li, was a Chinese linguist, sinologist, and professor of Chinese at the University of Washington. Li was known for his reconstructions of Middle Chinese and Old Chinese and his work on the classification of the varieties of Chinese.


Li was born in Guangzhou in 1902 during the final years of the Qing dynasty to a minor scholarly family from Xiyang, a small town in Shanxi Province roughly south of Yangquan. Li’s father Li Guangyu () 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 BA in linguistics at the University of Michigan in 1926 after only two years of study. He then did graduate study under Edward Sapir and Leonard Bloomfield at the University of Chicago. 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 MA in 1927 and a PhD in 1928, and his dissertation Mattole: An Athabaskan Language was published in 1930.

In 1929 he returned to China and, along with Yuen Ren Chao and Luo Changpei, became a researcher at the Institute of Historical Linguistics () 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 briefly taught Chinese language and linguistics at Yale University in 1938-39, and after World War II was professor of Chinese at the University of Washington from 1949 to 1969, and then at the University of Hawaii until his retirement. In 1977 he published a comparison 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 (). Tsinghua University, his alma mater, began to publish his complete works in 2005.