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Hok-lam Chan: January 26, 1938–June 1, 2011

From: Journal of Song-Yuan Studies
Volume 41, 2011
pp. vii-xi | 10.1353/sys.2011.0022

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After struggling with a chronic heart condition for several years, Hok-lam Chan passed away suddenly on June 1, 2011—just five days prior to the long-scheduled elective surgery intended to extend his life. Generally regarded as having been among the most outstanding authorities on China during the complex age of its contestations with the conquest dynasties of its middle imperial history, Hok-lam Chan was nevertheless a consummately modest man. Always loath to flaunt his knowledge or tout his achievements, Chan was quick to appreciate and acknowledge the insights of others. He was a conscientious teacher and an inspirational advisor. Most of all, however, he was an exemplary scholar, as is attested by the fact that his works have inescapably influenced the research of nearly all those after him who have entered into the uniquely challenging sub-discipline of middle-period Chinese studies.

The middle period was the temporal locus of Hok-lam Chan’s interests from the time he entered the University of Hong Kong—the premiere local institution—in 1958, at age twenty. Somewhat surprisingly, the initial portal through which Chan came to the study of history was literature. As an undergraduate, Chan was especially attracted to the poetry of the late Jin-dynasty scholar Yuan Haowen (1190–1257), and it was in fact an abiding desire to explicate the historical background of this chiefly literary figure that first drew him to history. Fairly shortly thereafter, however, Hok-lam Chan committed himself intellectually to what became his career-long investigation of the non-Han polities that arose in and around the Chinese empire from the immediate post-Tang era through the early Ming dynasty. This initial historical impetus became expressed through Chan’s early essay “The Compilation and Sources of the Chin-shih,” which was written before he had graduated but which was nonetheless deemed an impressive enough treatment to achieve subsequent publication in the University of Hong Kong’s Journal of Oriental Studies in 1967.

Upon the completion of his University of Hong Kong bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history in 1961 and 1963, respectively, Hok-lam Chan elected [End Page vii] to continue his education by relocating to the United States and moving on specifically to Princeton University, to which he was attracted by the scholarship and presence of Frederick (Fritz) Mote (1922–2005). Once at Princeton, Chan’s proximity to New York City also permitted him to be a regular participant and occasional presenter in the renowned Columbia University Ming Studies Seminar, then under the direction of its founder Wm. Theodore de Bary. However, it was Hok-lam Chan’s contact with Fritz Mote as well as James T. C. Liu (1919–1993) that seems to have most stoked his intellectual fires and led him to produce what for a graduate student constituted a minor torrent of early scholarly output. In 1965, under the guidance of Mote and Liu, Chan commenced his history doctoral dissertation “Liu Chi (1311–75): The Dual Image of a Chinese Imperial Adviser.” Chan also wrote the pioneering article “Liu Ping-chung (1216–74): A Buddhist-Taoist Statesman at the Court of Khubilai Khan.” The latter work was published in T’oung Pao in 1967—the same year that he completed the former and thus satisfied all requirements for his doctoral degree in history.

After graduating from Princeton, Hok-lam Chan commenced his own teaching career with an appointment at the University of Auckland in New Zealand from 1967 to 1968, where he taught survey courses that included even contemporary Chinese history. However, what proved crucial from the first was Hok-lam Chan’s consistent ability—over the course of the succeeding decade—to balance and combine his instructional priorities with his scholarly ones. We can observe a salient example of such harmonization in the fact that during his brief time at Auckland, Chan entered into collaboration with Herbert Franke (1914–2011) in translating and annotating the Jinshi or official history of the Jurchen Jin dynasty and initiating the other related projects that would eventually coalesce—some three decades later—in the form of Studies on the Jurchens and the Chin Dynasty.

In 1968, Hok-lam Chan...

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