David N. Keightley, 1932-2017

David Keightley died peacefully in his sleep, age 84, in the early morning of Thursday, February 23, 2017: lucid, sociable, and engaged until the last. He was a scholar of towering erudition, one of the first western historians to master the oracle bone inscriptions and archaeological remains that are the primary sources for the history of Bronze Age China. More important, he was a scholar of great imagination and range who made his recalcitrant sources—largely short divinatory texts—speak to the great questions of his field and the human sciences more generally.

The titles of Keightley’s books and articles bear witness to his intellectual ambition: Shang theology and the making of Chinese political culture; burial customs and social organization; time, space and community.1 Crucially, Keightley was always as curious about every detail of the materiality of his sources as he was about their disclosures. While on leave at Cambridge University, he spent considerable time in a materials engineering lab trying to produce the sorts of cracks in the scapulas of animals that the diviners he studied would have used in their work.

In 1986, age 54, Keightley won a MacArthur “genius” award. He used some of the prize money to buy, for what was then an extravagant sum, a red, handcrafted, steel-frame, Italian road bike, which he rode until he was forced by declining health to give up his great passion for bicycling. As a young man in the late 1940s, he had ridden the grueling 600 km Paris-Brest event. As a more mature bicyclist, he began on June 14, 1985 to lead a group of Berkeley friends on weekly local rides, on annual 100-km and more regional rallies, and on a ten-day trip to France, which included the June 5, 1992 conquest of the summit of Mt. Ventoux (the last several kilometers of which were in a blinding snowstorm). It was an event Keightley commemorated every year. His personal biking log spans more than half a century; his record of the rides of the group he led notes mileages and conversations for more than twenty years. Keightley’s department Web page picture shows him wearing a blue and gold Berkeley jersey.

A memorial service for Keightley will be held March 25 at 11 a.m. at Sunset View Mortuary in El Cerrito, California.


1 Keightley’s masterpieces are Sources of Shang History (UC Press, 1978) and The Ancestral Landscape (UCB Institute of East Asia Studies, 2000). Also see the seminal essays on Keightley's department web page.