In Memoriam: Hugh M. Stimson

Hugh McBirney Stimson, a long-time professor of Chinese linguistics and modern Chinese who also was a prominent authority on Tang dynasty poetry, died earlier this year (on Jan. 24) in Hamden, Connecticut, at the age of 79.

Stimson earned his B.A. in 1953, his M.A. in 1957 and his Ph.D. in 1959 - all from Yale. He began teaching Chinese at the University in 1958, eventually becoming a professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures and in the Department of Linguistics. His particular interests were in the grammar and phonology of the Chinese language, both modern Chinese and classical Chinese - the language of Chinese poetry, philosophy and histories up to the end of the imperial period in 1912. He helped to reconstruct the pronunciation and phonology of Tang poetry and also had a central role in developing the modern Chinese course at Yale. He led the course from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s.

During his Yale career, Stimson served at various times as chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures and as director of undergraduate studies. He retired from teaching in 2006. He was a past president of the American Oriental Society.

Stimson’s publications include “Introduction to Chinese Pronunciation and the pin-yin Romanization” (1975), “A T’ang Poetic Vocabulary” (1976), “Fifty-Five T’ang Poems: A Text in the Reading and Understanding of T’ang Poetry” (1976), which continues to be in print; and a textbook series he co-authored with Parker Po-fei Huang, the two-volume “Spoken Standard Chinese” (1976-1978) and the four-volume “Written Standard Chinese,” (written in the mid-1980s).

When teaching his own course on classical Chinese in the early 1980s, Stimson found that there were no good textbooks available that described the structure and syntax in a way suited to the Western mind. He wrote his own grammar for the class. At least one graduate student commuted from a university in another state to sit in on Stimson’s classes in the grammar. Former students and colleagues remember how he conveyed his interest in the intricacies and subtleties of the classical language, and how he would digress to write a string of phonetic versions of archaic pronunciations on the blackboard. Throughout his career, he translated Tang poems and shared his translations with close friends, generally without publishing them. He is also recalled by colleagues and former students as a kind, modest and quiet teacher and mentor.

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