Chan taught at a number of American institutions, including Columbia, Dartmouth, the University of Hawaii and Chatham College. In 1992 he received the Distinguished Service Award from the Association for Asian Studies for a distinguished career in teaching and scholarship that spanned almost the entire century. The Association's citation cited Chan as "more than anyone else in the world, the mediator of the Chinese scholarly tradition in the West."
Chan was the author of A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, one of the most influential sources in the field of Asian studies, and of hundreds of books and articles in both English and Chinese on Chinese philosophy and religion. His publications spanned the entire history of Chinese philosophy, traditional and modern, and he was considered by colleagues to be the leading translator of Chinese philosophical texts into English in the 20th century. He was recognized both in the West and in his native China as a preeminent authority on Confucian and Neo-Confucian thought, especially on the 20th century Chinese philosopher, Chu Hai.
Born to a peasant family in rural China in 1901, Chan was among the first Chinese students to seek a modern Western education, graduating from Lingnan University, a Christian college near Canton. He received his doctorate from Harvard in 1929. He returned that year to China to become academic dean at Lingnan, later returning to the United States and embarking on a teaching career that lasted for more than 60 years. He was the recipient of numerous academic honors and was a member of the Academia Sinica, Chan's wife of 65 years, Wai-hing, died in 1993. He is survived by a daughter, Jean Thomas of Berkeley, Calf., two sons, Lo-Yi of New York and Gordon of Mobile, Ala., and five grandchildren.