Oral History Center - UC Berkeley Library

David N. Keightley: Historian of Early China, UC Berkeley, 1969-1998

Keightley, David N.
Starn, Frances
David N. Keightley: Historian of Early China, UC Berkeley, 1969-1998
David Keightley did not travel the most direct path to become a distinguished scholar and teacher of early Chinese history. Born in London to an American father and Anglo-French mother, he was educated--variously, but often well--in wartime England and postwar America. He first embarked on what soon became a flourishing career in publishing and writing in New York, which he then abandoned, with due consideration, to focus on the study of China. His ensuing work, completed mainly during his twenty-nine years in the Berkeley history department, opened new perceptions of ancient Chinese culture around the world. David Keightley's research and reflection concentrate on the Late Shang era, 1200- 1045 B.C., blending history, archaeology, anthropology, philosophy, linguistics, and paleography. He was largely responsible for the creation of a society of scholars of early China, and their eponymous journal. At the same time, he played a central role in the professional and social life of the Berkeley history department, as well as in East Asian Studies. His colleagues have known him as a lively, congenial man with a gift for friendship and celebration as well as for hard work. His inventive lecture courses were heavily subscribed and recalled by his students with much enthusiasm and affection. When a MacArthur Fellowship recognized the originality and potential of his research on early China, he did not therefore withdraw from his community to pursue his own work. He became chair of the history department in 1992 during the painful early years of reduced funding of the university, when no hiring was taking place. During a strike by the graduate student employees in the early months of his chairmanship, he suffered a major heart attack, but continued with his duties for two more years. Since his retirement in 1998 he has been working to complete his major work on kingship and religion in Bronze-Age China, but he also lectures and participates in conferences and international scholarly projects. David's unusual distinction as a scholar and his service as a teacher and as department chair made him a natural subject for the Regional Oral History Office's Department of History at Berkeley series. However, he requested--for characteristic reasons of modesty and efficiency--a relatively compact oral history, and we agreed to meet in four closely-spaced sessions in July 2001. We talked in the breakfast nook in the Keightleys' Kensington home, with a view of San Francisco Bay on one side and on the opposite wall pictures of two buxom, cycling goddesses by a local artist, Mayumi Oda. The contrast of the cool Pacific panorama from the west window and the effervescent corporeality on the east wall was nicely balanced. David is a great raconteur as well as a serious historian, and our interviews were very enjoyable. At the end of August we met for a final session to incorporate some of my dangling questions and David's additions and reflections. His comments then, especially on the part wars had played throughout his life, took on a special depth and poignancy since they were made only two weeks before September 11, 2001.
Subject area(s):
Education, University of California
Interview date(s):
History Department, UC Berkeley
Oskicat record:
Keightley, David N. "David N. Keightley: Historian of Early China, UC Berkeley, 1969-1998." Interview by Frances Starn in 2001. Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2003.