David Keightley, 1932–2017

February 24, 2017

Our colleague, Professor Emeritus in History David Keightley, passed away February 23, 2017. He died peacefully in his sleep.

David Keightley was born in London in 1932. He received his Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1969 with a dissertation entitled "Public Work in Ancient China: A Study of Forced Labor in the Shang and Early Chou.”

David was the chair of the Center for Chinese Studies from 1988–1990 and the first pre-modernist to be appointed to the position. As chair, he organized many important CCS talks, including one that was held as events were unfolding on Tian'anmen Square in the early summer of 1989, which filled Wheeler auditorium.

David was one of the leading Western scholars of Chinese oracle bones, which contain the earliest known examples of Chinese writing. In 1986 he won the MacArthur prize — the first Sinologist to be so recognized and honored. His primary research question was "How did 'China' become 'Chinese'?" His forte was the ability to reconstruct the landscape, the time, space, and life in pre-historic and early China, seeing through the fog of time to resurrect the life entombed in buried sites.

He led the faculty committee that succeeded in placing the building of a state-of-the-art East Asian Library on the central campus agenda, the final result of which is the C.V. Starr East Asian Library. He was a demanding teacher, but deeply caring at the same time. He built communities of scholarly and social conversation with his wit, intelligence, and humor.

In retirement he published the big book, The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in Late Shang China (ca. 1200-1045 B.C.), that his dissertation adviser Hans Bielenstein would not have approved of, according to David.

David Keightley was a valuable and beloved member of the Center for Chinese Studies community and his absence will be felt.

A memorial service will be held on March 25, 2017 at 11 am, 101 Colusa Ave, El Cerrito, CA 94530.