David Shepherd Nivison

David S. Nivison

David S. Nivison[lower-alpha 1]
Born (1923-01-17)January 17, 1923
Farmingdale, Maine, United States
Died October 16, 2014(2014-10-16) (aged 91)
Los Altos, California, United States
Fields Chinese history, philosophy
Institutions Stanford University (1948-88)
Alma mater Harvard University (A.B., Ph.D.)
Academic advisors John King Fairbank
James Robert Hightower
William Hung
Yang Lien-sheng
Notable students Edward Shaughnessy
Known for Discovery of accurate Zhou dynasty founding date
Spouse Cornelia Green (m. 1944; d. 2008)
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 倪德衛
Simplified Chinese 倪德卫

David Shepherd Nivison (January 17, 1923 October 16, 2014) was an American sinologist and philosopher, known for his publications on late imperial and ancient Chinese history, philology, and philosophy and his 40 years as a professor at Stanford University.[1] Nivison is known for his use of archaeoastronomy to accurately determine the date of the founding of the Zhou dynasty as 1045 BC instead of the traditional date of 1122 BC.

Life and career

David Shepherd Nivison was born on January 17, 1923, outside of Farmingdale, Maine. His great-uncle, Edwin Arlington Robinson, was a notable 19th-century American poet and a three-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.[2]

Nivison entered Harvard University in 1940, but, like many American men of his generation, his studies were interrupted by World War II. Nivison served in the United States Army Signal Corps as a Japanese translator, where he worked in a group organized by Edwin O. Reischauer. He returned to Harvard after the war's conclusion in 1945, and graduated in 1946 with a Bachelor of Arts degree summa cum laude in Chinese. Nivison stayed at Harvard for graduate studies in Chinese, receiving his Ph.D. in 1953 with a dissertation on 18th-century Chinese philosopher Zhang Xuecheng. He worked with J.R. Hightower, Reischauer and John K. Fairbank, and his first Chinese teachers were Yang Lien-sheng and William Hung, who passed on their deep knowledge of traditional Chinese scholarship and interest in recent Western historiography.[3]

Nivison began teaching at Stanford University in 1948, and eventually held a joint appointment at Stanford in three departments: Philosophy, Religious Studies and Chinese and Japanese. Nivison devoted time and energy in the 1950s to train himself in the field of philosophy. He audited courses at Stanford and spent the academic year 1952-1953 at Harvard, where he audited Willard Van Orman Quine's course on Philosophy of Language. He was chair of the Stanford Philosophy Department 1969-1972, a time of student protests at Stanford, as elsewhere in the world, and spent a night in the department office to protect it from attack. In 1979, the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association elected him president.[4] From 1954 to 1955 Nivison was a Fulbright Fellow in Kyoto, Japan, and was a Guggenheim Fellow at Oxford University in 1973. Nivison retired from Stanford in 1988 and was designated professor emeritus.[1]

His doctoral dissertation on Zhang Xuecheng, the neglected Qing dynasty philosopher and historian, was published in 1966 as The Life and Thought of Chang Hsüeh-Ch'eng, 1738-1801, and won that year's Julien Prize. In the field of philosophy, his major contribution is the application of the techniques of analytic philosophy to the study of Chinese thought. In Sinology, one of his contributions has been the effort to precisely date the founding of the Zhou Dynasty, based on archaeoastronomy. The traditional date was 1122 BC, but Nivison initially argued that the likely date was 1045 BC, and then later suggested that it was 1040 BC.

Nivison died at his home in Los Altos, California, on October 16, 2014, at age 91.[1]

Major works


  1. Photo courtesy of George Zhijian Qiao


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