Chinese without a teacher

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That's the title of a book by the formidable British Sinologue,  Herbert Allen Giles (1845-1935).

In the early 1890s, Herbert Giles perfected the system of romanization for Mandarin that had initially been devised by Thomas Wade around the middle of the 19th-century, which is why it is called Wade-Giles.  This was the standard romanization of Mandarin in the English-speaking world for nearly a century, until it was displaced by Hanyu Pinyin when the People's Republic of China secured its acceptance by the United Nations and the International Organization for Standardization.

Returning to the book with which this post began, the full title of which is Chinese without a teacher, being a collection of easy and useful sentences in the Mandarin dialect, with a vocabulary (Shanghai:  Kelly & Walsh, 1887), I am prompted to opine that one would be better off with a text like that by Giles than the notorious Chineasy series that I've written about before on Language Log:

"Chineasy? Not " (3/19/14)

"Chineasy2 " (8/14/14)

I would have left Chineasy well enough alone, were it not for the fact that today I received the new catalog (January-June 2016) of the distinguished British publishing house, Thames & Hudson.  Once again, Chineasy is prominently featured in the catalog, occupying the glossy, stiff stock inside front cover, which folds out into two additional pages, for a total of three consecutive pages!  For T & H to devote so much space, not just once, but in several editions of their catalog, to such a shabby pedagogical effort is simply beyond my ability to comprehend.  It would be one thing if this were merely a matter of design, since the artwork of the series is actually quite cute and pleasing.  But T & H doesn't stop there.  They actually want you to believe that using these materials will help you learn Chinese more quickly and pleasurably.  It will do no such thing.  Chineasy will only confuse and frustrate you.  Using these materials, you will not learn how to pronounce any Sinitic language, you will not learn how to form any Sinitic sentences, and you will not even learn how to write Chinese characters and grasp their meanings in linguistic context.  As I wrote in the first post on this subject, Chineasy should actually be called Chinhard.

All right, enough of Chineasy / Chinhard; I hope that I never have to think about it again.  (N.B.:  I am particularly sensitive and embarrassed about T & H lavishing so much attention on Chineasy / Chinhard because I have been involved with several books published by them.)

What about Giles' Chinese without a teacher?  I think that is much superior to Chineasy / Chinhard, even after a hundred and thirty years.  Take a look for yourself in this beautiful facsimile (you can expand the pages and turn them one by one).

It is also available here in another electronic format.

The Wikisource version starts here (note color coded status at page top).  You can go forward and backward through the book by clicking on the arrows at the top left of the page.

It's astonishing how many greedheads are trying to sell copies of books that are freely available in a variety of electronic formats.

Let's look at a few of the topics that are covered in Chinese without a teacher.  You can go left and right to other pages by clicking on the subjects in the green bar at the top of the page.  Here's the section on "The Sportsman".

Some of the entries are funny:

A good pony is very dear now.

A fox! a fox!  Let got the dogs!  (either "let out" or "let go"?)

Which brings us back to Mr. Burns.

There's also a section on "Buying Curios", which still rings true today, e.g., “I don't think it is genuine”.

Aside from Chinese without a teacher, Giles was also the author of a A Chinese Biographical Dictionary (London:  Quaritch; Shanghai:  Kelly & Walsh, 1898).  The edition I own consists of two thread-bound volumes with pliable blue cloth covers inside a hard, folding case with tiny ivory clasps that was published by Literature House (Taipei) in 1962.  In 1,022 pages, it includes 2,579 biographies of Chinese individuals throughout the ages.  Although Giles' dictionary of Chinese biographies is not up to modern Sinological standards, it is an amazing achievement for one man, and I still turn to it from time to time.  A Chinese Biographical Dictionary is surprisingly comprehensive and gives you a quick read on a wide variety of personages from the last three millennia.

Giles' biographical dictionary seems to be available on Kindle for only $2.99.

Giles was also the author of the first large scale, widely circulated Chinese-English dictionary.  To put his dictionary in its proper historical context, I here quote from the Modern Chinese lexicography section of the Chinese dictionary article in Wikpedia:

Two Bible translators edited early Chinese dictionaries. The Scottish missionary Robert Morrison wrote Chinese–English and English–Chinese lexicons (1815–1823). The British missionary Walter Henry Medhurst wrote Hokkien (Min Nan) dialect (1832) and Chinese-English (1842) dictionaries. Both were flawed in their representation of pronunciations, such as aspirated stops. The American philologist and diplomat Samuel Wells Williams applied the method of dialect comparison in his dictionary (1874), and refined distinctions in articulation.

The British consular officer and linguist Herbert Giles criticized Williams as "the lexicographer not for the future but of the past" (Wilkinson 2013: 85), and took nearly twenty years to compile his own lexicon (1892, 1912), one that Norman (1988:173) calls "the first truly adequate Chinese–English dictionary". It contained 13,848 characters and numerous compound expressions, with pronunciation based upon Beijing Mandarin, which it compared with nine southern dialects such as Hakka, Cantonese, and Min. It has been called "still interesting as a repository of late Qing documentary Chinese, although there is little or no indication of the citations, mainly from the Kangxi zidian." (Wilkinson 2013: 85.) Giles modified the Chinese romanization system of Thomas Francis Wade to create the Wade-Giles system, which was standard in English speaking countries until 1979 when pinyin was adopted. The Giles dictionary was replaced by the 1931 dictionary of the Australian missionary Robert Henry Mathews. His Chinese–English Dictionary, which was popular for decades, was based on Giles and partially updated by Y.R. Chao in 1943 and reprinted in 1960. (Wilkinson, 2013: 85)

It boggles the mind to think that Giles compiled both the biographical dictionary and the Chinese-English dictionary by himself.  Yet here is a list that includes his many other books that are available online.

I'm sorry to say that Giles' translation of the Zhuang Zi is not very good, since he misses the spirit (and often the sense as well) of this inimitable text altogether.

Herbert Giles' fourth son, Lionel Giles, was also a Sinologist, whom I admire mainly for his pioneering work in Dunhuang Studies (see the eighth paragraph of "Lionel Giles: Sinology, Old and New" by John Minford).

There were many giants in early British Sinology.  A predecessor of Herbert Giles still highly regarded to this day was the Victorian Scottish missionary, James Legge (1815-1897), who translated (very well) all of the Chinese classics, and much else besides.  And then there were the French, among whom my personal god is Paul Pelliot (1878-1945).

All we can do is look back at them and admire with wonderment and gratitude.  In our own day, though, we have Endymion Wilkinson (b. 1941), cited several times above, who has single-handedly chronicled world Sinology in his monumental Chinese History: A New Manual, in 4 successive editions, no less.

No Chinese teacher?  There are plenty of great ones.  All you have to do is look around for them a bit, and you will have an abundance of good material to keep you occupied for a lifetime.

[Thanks to Michael Carr]


  1. JB said,

    February 6, 2016 @ 11:18 am

    Ah. A classic work with timeless phrases on opium, tiger hunting, and thrashing "boys".

  2. liuyao said,

    February 6, 2016 @ 1:02 pm

    It's valuable also as a document for what spoken Mandarin was like before the 20th century, untainted by Western literature (via translation) and neologisms from Japanese. Earlier dictionaries (French and even Latin) also serve to reflect the change in many characters' pronunciations.

    One is also quick to notice that many vernacular morphemes were written by different characters, some quite esoteric, from the convention today.

    The title, Chinese without a teacher, clearly refers a teacher that speaks to and responds to the students. After all these years, even with all the online videos, can we say that one (of average language abilities, not Pelliot) can really learn languages without a teacher?

  3. JS said,

    February 6, 2016 @ 10:25 pm

    Wow, thank you. As liuyao says, this is full of treasures…

  4. Tony Bybell said,

    February 7, 2016 @ 10:44 pm

    The comment by Giles at the top of p.46 is hilarious: "[Those who wish to make real progress should now consult a teacher. Chinese cannot be self-taught.]"

  5. Terry Hunt said,

    February 8, 2016 @ 12:11 pm

    I'm reminded of the time in 1963 my parents (with 6-year-old me) moved from England to Hong Kong for 3 years (curtailed to 2 when my father was posted on to Singapore), and before leaving quite sensibly bought a copy of Teach Yourself Chinese from the venerable Hodder series.

    Of course, this turned out to be Mandarin Chinese, of virtually no use at all in the Cantonese milieu of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. I vaguely recall the somewhat dated nature of some of the phrases offered.
    I'm sure we still have that volume around somewhere.

  6. Terry Hunt said,

    February 8, 2016 @ 12:19 pm

    Minor correction to my previous. The Teach Yourself . . . books were then published by English Universities Press, not Hodder as was the case later during my adult Bookselling days!

  7. Keith said,

    February 9, 2016 @ 5:06 am

    If you look at the source for page 38 (link below), you can read that 狐狸狐狸放狗放狗 is given in English as "A fox ! a fox ! Let got the dogs !".


  8. Keith said,

    February 9, 2016 @ 9:34 am


    That comment should have read

    If you look at the source for page 38 (link below), you can read that 狐狸狐狸放狗放狗 is given in English as "A fox ! a fox ! Let go the dogs !".


  9. Thorin said,

    February 9, 2016 @ 12:11 pm

    Happened to be on Facebook about 10 minutes ago when a friend of mine shared a Chineasy video from a page called "Bright Side". It can be found toward the bottom of this page

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