Classical Chinese Dictionary

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A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese

All of the people associated with this dictionary are excellent scholars, so I'm sure that it will be reliable and of the highest quality.  Naturally, I am pleased that it is arranged alphabetically by Pinyin and has a radical plus stroke order index.

This is like a dream come true for me, since I myself — starting over a quarter of a century ago — tried to organize the compilation of such a dictionary, and even arranged for the late Gilbert L. Mattos to prepare several hundred entries, and I also enlisted the help of Paul Kroll.  I am so happy that Professor Kroll has gone forward with this project and created this wonderful tool.  Certainly every student and scholar with a serious interest in premodern China will want to own a copy for him/herself.

This is a major event in the history of Western Sinology.  I have not yet seen the dictionary with my own eyes, but from the description on the Brill website and from my familiarity with the work of the contributors over the past fifty years, I am sure that this dictionary will immediately become an essential tool for all Sinologists.

[Hat tip Petya Andreeva]


  1. S Frankel said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 3:17 pm

    from the publisher's blurb:

    "… classical and medieval Chinese differ[s] more from modern standard Chinese than the language of Beowulf or even that of Chaucer differs from modern English."

    Which makes no sense unless they swap "Beowulf" and "Chaucer."

  2. cameron said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 3:38 pm

    I think they got the relative positions of Beowulf and Chaucer right.

  3. Zhiqiang Li (Andy Lee) said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 3:48 pm

    from the introduction of this dictionary:
    "…Primarily a dictionary of individual characters (zidian 字典) and the words they represent, in addition to single-graph entries it includes an abundance of alliterative and echoic binomes (lianmianci 連綿詞) as well as accurate identification of hundreds of plants, animals, and assorted technical terms in various fields. …"
    It seems this is also a new contribution of "the Study of Erh-ya"(Yaxue雅学)“ in English, following the pattern of "Approaching Elegance "(Erh-ya)《尔雅》.

  4. S Frankel said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 4:17 pm

    @cameron: no. But I guess this is an easy mistake to make.

    The continuum runs: Beowulf-Chaucer-Modern English, so the "or even" makes no sense the way it stands.

    If we number these points 1-2-3, we get:

    The difference between classical and modern Chinese is bigger than the difference between 1 and 3, or even between 2 and 3.

  5. John Hill said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 6:31 pm

    This exciting new addition to our tools for studying ancient Chinese texts is listed as a "forthcoming title" on Brill's website (at: which contains many details about the work including the fact that it is expected to sell for $49 or 49 euros – a very reasonable price for such a work. Let's hope it is available soon. I can't wait to get my hands on it! Thank you Victor for bringing it to our attention.

  6. leoboiko said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 8:07 pm

    Arranged by pīnyīn… I wonder if they include reconstructed OC/MC readings, and/or other readings systems for literary Chinese (Cantonese, Japanese, Korean etc.)? Of course one can always check out Schuessler or wherever, but…

  7. Bill W said,

    August 2, 2014 @ 8:04 am

    "it is expected to sell for $49 or 49 euros– a very reasonable price for such a work."

    A reasonable price? And it's published by Brill? I haven't looked myself, but I just can't believe it.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 2, 2014 @ 9:08 am

    Yeah, my vague impression is that there is less than 100% consensus on the reconstructed phonology of these earlier versions of Chinese or at least (and perhaps more relevantly) less than 100% consensus on a standard Latin-alphabet representation of the ancient/medieval pronunciations. So what are the "pinyin" spellings that are being put in alphabetical order? If they're the standard hanyu pinyin spellings of the MSM descendants of the old words, that I suppose could make it more user-friendly to a subset of the potential audience, but with offsetting difficulties. But treating MSM as the normative/default descendant of the earlier forms of Chinese and privileging it over its sister languages is a notion that carries rather a lot of baggage.

  9. Neil Dolinger said,

    August 2, 2014 @ 11:08 am

    @leoboiko, I saw what you did there with the ellipses!

  10. hanmeng said,

    August 2, 2014 @ 6:42 pm

    That's a really nice price in dollars.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    August 2, 2014 @ 10:29 pm

    @hanmeng @John Hill

    It is a very good price indeed, extremely rare for Brill — virtually unheard of — to publish such an affordable book. Brill will do a paperback edition (a first for them) at a reasonable price (another first for them, $49), in addition to an astronomically priced hardback for libraries.

  12. DMT said,

    August 3, 2014 @ 7:43 am

    Straying slightly away from the original topic here, but I notice that Brill have also started a scheme where they supply reasonably priced print-on-demand copies to users whose libraries have access to the ebook versions:

    I haven't yet used this service and can't comment on how well it works, but I expect to use it at some point because I find ebooks so impractical for scholarly use. It is good to see Brill, whose pricing has traditionally been notorious, experimenting with new economic models, especially when many formerly mid-priced university presses are raising their prices into the range that used to be Brill's territory.

  13. Remnant said,

    October 7, 2014 @ 2:53 am

    There are some sample entries posted on the site that advertises the eventual online edition of the dictionary.

    There are "MC" (presumably "middle Chinese") pronunciations provided with each entry.

    Not to sound too sour of a note — and perhaps the actual published version will be different — but there are few citations to the locus classicus (and no indication of which text an example comes from) or indications of which sense predominated in which period. Definitions do however seem to follow a chronological sequence. I'm sure some or all of this will be clarified in the introduction and conventions section of the book. But lack of locus classicus and even OC (old Chinese) pronunciation, rime group, etc, will mean that it will not supplant such exceptionally useful dictionaries as the 王力古汉语字典 or even the 辞源 or, as someone noted above, Axel Schuessler's dictionary.

  14. leoboiko said,

    October 7, 2014 @ 7:19 am

    The problems that Remnant raises are real; but I feel that it's still a very useful addition to our dictionary stack. I can't help but perceive it as Mandarin-centric – there's still hope that they found the space for more romanized indexes, but each sample entry has just the putonghua reading and MC, and furthermore when they cite other characters mid-entry, they only give the putonghua, not even the MC:

    lóng MC luwng 1. mythological animal of divine provenance […] Chief among scaly creatures; one of the “four numinous animals” (siling 四靈); associated with the east, the color qing 青 […]

    I know that there are like a hundred databases where we can query the readings of sinographs in any language that has ever used them, and I understand very well the need to save space in print, but still I find it would be enlightening to include the OC, and other Sinitic and Sino-Xenic readings. Not only would it be useful as a reference, but it would also allow one to get a feel for the phonological evolutions and so on. Also, the transcription is… well… the MC for 寵 chŏng is given as trhjowngX. Is it one of those transcriptions where Roman letters are used as digraphs for various sounds, or merely abstract symbols for the various known relationships? While I sympathize with the linguistically sound reasons to do that, I can't help but fear that it will confuse nonlinguists (like the Baxter/Sagart reconstruction, available online, which a lot of random people on the net seem to have mistaken as literally phonetic – and I can't blame them, honestly). Of course, we should be technical and precise and conservative in proposing hypothetical reconstructions; but hey, we live in a typographically rich era; do we really need to represent tones and such as Roman capitals? (Compare Kroll's MC for zhuǎn, trjwenX, with Schuessler's, tjwänᴮ.)

    But if I re-read the previous paragraph, I feel like the dictionary I'm looking for is just Schuessler. Since we already have Schuessler (albeit for a limited lexicon), Kroll et al's should work great as a complement. We're focusing on what's missing, but if we look instead to what's present, the sample entries are rich and bountiful in semantics, interpretations, nuances, and specialized meanings (medical, biological, Buddhist etc.). Dated locus classicus and other philological data will be missed, but I know I've wanted something just like Kroll's since forever – especially as a Japanese scholar with no knowledge of modern Chinese languages.

    And I don't want to pretend I'm not gigglingly happy with this tidbit:

    Online service following soon after print publication.

    Even if it's a paid service, I'd still rather pay for a search box than for dead trees. My sincere thanks to the authors for joining us in the 20th century (unlike so many huge, unwieldy dictionaries that I regularly need)!

  15. leoboiko said,

    October 7, 2014 @ 7:25 am

    Oh wait, a quick look on Google Books shows that trhjowngX is Baxter notation. That explains a lot.

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