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USC Expert in Asian Languages Dies

Classical violinist and professor emeritus Laurence Thompson, who made a commitment to the study of Chinese religion, was the first director of the USC East Asian Studies Center.

August 2, 2005

This article was originally published on August 2, 2005 by USC News

Laurence “Larry” G. Thompson, a war veteran, sinologist, classical violinist and USC professor emeritus of East Asian languages and cultures, died July 10 in Ventura.

Born in 1920 in the Shandong province of China, Thompson lived there until age 14. As a young man, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps and worked as a Japanese-language interpreter. During World War II, he saw combat in the South Pacific.

In 1942, Thompson earned a bachelor’s degree from UCLA. In 1947, he earned a master’s degree from Claremont Graduate School. Seven years later, he earned a Ph.D. from Claremont.

From 1951 to 1959, Thompson served in the United States Foreign Service in Taipei, Tokyo, Manila and Hong Kong. In Seoul and Taipei, he was an Asian Foundation staff member.

As an accomplished classical violinist, Thompson taught music at Taiwan Normal University from 1959 to 1962. He was a Pomona College faculty member from 1962 to 1965 and a USC faculty member from 1965 to 1986. At USC, he was chairman of the department of East Asian languages and cultures from 1968 to 1970 and from 1972 to 1976. From 1972 to 1974, he became the USC East Asian Studies Center’s first director.

As a sinologist, his first major publication was a translation of Kang Youwei’s “Da Tong Shu.” His contributions to Taiwanese studies included several meticulous translations.

His main intellectual commitment was to the study of Chinese religion. He wrote “Chinese Religion: An Introduction” and “The Chinese Way in Religion,” both filled with astute analyses. He also translated several volumes of religious studies by Wu Yaoyu. His bibliography of Chinese religious studies in Western languages is a basic resource to the field, which he continued to update in retirement.

He authored the article on Chinese religion for Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition. Additionally, he was president of the society for the study of Chinese religions for nine years, and in 1992 was honored with a festschrift in the Journal of Chinese Religion.

Thompson regularly participated in regional and national scholarly meetings. He was a mentor to students at all levels and to junior colleagues. He is survived by his wife of 62 years, Grace, and five children, eight grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.