15 May 2020
T’ung Ping-cheng - a quiet great man.
By Hugh Baker
Ping-cheng was born in the mid-1930s in Beijing at a time when there was no formal registration of births. Later, the family moved to Lanzhou in Gansu province, and then in 1950 he was taken by his paternal uncle to Taiwan, travelling via Kunming, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. (It was not until 1979 that he was able to return to Lanzhou to see his natal family there, the first of a number of visits).
In Taiwan he lived with his uncle’s family throughout his education, first in secondary school and then at Taiwan Normal University, where he took a degree in History and Geography, graduating in 1959. While enrolled in this degree two important events occurred to change his life: he found himself in the same class as Huang Yih, who became his wife in 1963, and he was asked to undertake work as a Part-time Teaching Assistant at the Mandarin Chinese Training Center, where after graduation he became a full-time Instructor.
His expected career path changed dramatically in 1963. Mr George Weys, Lecturer in Classical Chinese at SOAS, was on research leave in Taiwan, when he met and was impressed by Ping-cheng, subsequently recommending him to the then Professor of Chinese and Head of Department of the Far East, Denis Twitchett, who lost no time in securing his appointment as a Lecturer. George assisted Ping-cheng and Huang Yih to settle in North London and he remained a mentor and good friend to them until his death two years ago.
At SOAS, Ping-cheng was generally known as Mr T’ung (even after he became Dr T’ung), or as Ping-cheng, or T’ung Lao, or just as T’ung (not, I may say, out of any disrespect). I called him Zheng Ge 正哥, Older Brother Zheng, since he was a few months older than I (and I certainly meant it with respect).
In 1985 he was promoted to Senior Lecturer, and he held this position until retirement in1998, after which he was still often called on for advice and help with programme development at SOAS and elsewhere.
When, in 1967, I was appointed as a Lecturer in the Chinese Section, I was asked to teach on the First-year language course which was run by Ping-cheng. For the next three decades he and I worked together on that course, as well as devising and delivering short courses offered to external students, and engaging in many other outreach activities. We even were asked to advise on the Chinese name to be adopted by Marks and Spencer when they were planning to break into the Chinese market. They had already come up with the name Ma Sha 馬莎, but felt that it was perhaps not sufficiently memorable. Ping-cheng was brilliant at such tasks, and throughout his career at SOAS it was always he who gave the students their Chinese names. But with M & S neither he nor we jointly could generate anything better, and the existing name was allowed to go forward. Alas, it did not seem to excite Chinese shoppers !
For my first few years or so, the textbooks used for the First-year course were those written by the American scholar John De Francis, They were clearly structured, carefully graduated, well supported with exercises and, I felt, more than a little boring! The real problem was that the books were designed for secondary school pupils, and we were teaching adults. I blush to think now of the ways I tried to make them interesting by deliberately making fun of what I considered the more anodyne content.
In the late 1970s, salvation came in the form of draft copies of a brand new textbook called Colloquial Chinese, written by T’ung Ping-cheng and David Pollard, and published eventually in 1982 after it had been thoroughly trialled in our classrooms.
Colloquial Chinese was lively, intelligent, thorough and humorous: a breath of fresh air. Such a relief - there were still laughs to be had, but they had been placed there intentionally by the authors. I (and year after year of students) loved Chapter 12 where sandwiches were derided as disgusting foreign substitutes for proper food. I had always assumed this was written from the heart by Ping-cheng, and it was only recently that Huang Yih told me he did not dislike sandwiches at all. Colloquial Chinese (affectionately known as ‘T’ung & Pollard’) has stood the test of time.
In 1993, Chinese in Three Months was published as a self-teaching course by Hugo’s. This time it was a collaboration between Ping-cheng and myself. Later, after a rather depressing series of take-overs by other publishing houses, it ended up in revised form as Speak Chinese with Millions, under the imprint of Commercial Press in Hong Kong.
Chinese in Three Months did not attempt to teach written Chinese. But both Colloquial Chinese and Speak Chinese with Millions fell foul of publishers which refused to include Chinese characters despite strong pleading from the authors. I was told that one of their representatives actually gave as a reason that their other language books, such as French, Russian etc., did not use Chinese characters, so Why should it be necessary to use them in the case of Chinese?!
The result was that in 1982 T’ung Ping-cheng sat down and wrote out by hand the entire text in full-form characters, neat, readable and user-friendly. Then he sat down again and did the same in simplified characters in 1983. A mammoth undertaking, beautifully realised, and still available. The quality of thought and effort which he put into all his writings was exemplary.
As a teacher, Ping-cheng was lively, entertaining, patient, and conscientious, and the same high quality of preparation was apparent in his classes as in his texts. He had a remarkable ability to understand what the nature of a student’s difficulty in understanding a point was, and so he could tailor his explanations accordingly. People and relationships mattered to him. I once remarked to Huang Yih that Ping-cheng was uniquely meticulous and accurate in his marking of examination scripts. Her reply was: “Ke bu shi ma 可不是嗎. Too right. Don’t you know he never goes through any script fewer than three times?” To him, anonymous candidates were none the less people, and deserving of a full measure of his care.
His students loved him, and he continued to hear from many of them long after they had graduated. He would always be the first and obvious person I would turn to if I wanted to know What is Zhang San or Li Si doing now? When he retired in 1998, he was presented with two large folders of letters and cards sent to him by literally hundreds of his former students.
And his colleagues loved him too. He did his share of administrative duties and of stepping in to cover for others who were sick or unable to take a class because of a clashing commitment. I never heard him complain when asked to take on an extra task - though to be fair his attitude in this respect was common to all members of the Chinese section. One hears tales of co-authors falling out over their work, their quantum of co-operation being exhausted by the strain. Professor David Pollard and I both co-authored books with Ping-cheng, but neither David nor I became anything but closer friends with him as a result.
In Britain and the English-speaking world few students of Chinese since 1982 will not have known the name of T’ung Ping-cheng and respected his work. From 1990 to 2005 his eminence was recognised by his election as Vice-President of the International Society for Chinese Language Teaching. And in 2014 SOAS awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Literature, as high an accolade of respect and admiration as a person could receive from his fellow academics.
On 2nd May 2020 scholars and students from many parts of the world came together on line to celebrate the life of the gifted man who was a friend to all and disliked by no-one. The event was conceived by colleagues at SOAS and organized by the British Chinese Language Teachers Society.
T’ung Ping-cheng truly cared for people. He was sociable but not brash, had humility but was never obsequious, had certainties in his views but never sought to force them on others. He was a lovely man, a pleasure to work with and a privilege to have known.
Dr. T’ung Ping-cheng 佟秉正
Died 19 March 2020, aged 83
Survived by his wife Huang Yih 黃易
and by their son RobinY. K. T’ung 佟永光