Spelling with Chinese character(istic)s, pt. 4

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The last installment of this series, "Spelling with Chinese character(istic)s, pt. 3" (6/30/16), contains links to many other Language Log posts relevant to this subject.

It is often difficult to fathom which English word is intended when it is transcribed in Chinese characters.  John Kieschnick called my attention to an especially challenging one:  ěrlílìjǐng 爾釐利景.  Before going on to the next page and before googling it, try to figure out what it is meant to "spell".  Scout's honor!  No peeking!

This transcription was invented by an official of the Qing (Manchu) government named Péng Guāngyù 彭光譽 (b. 1844) resident in America who represented China at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Peng told the delegates to the meeting about the "doctrine of Master Kong" (Kǒngzǐ zhī jiào 孔子之教), i.e., Confucianism.  When he returned to China, he reported to the Qing court about the other doctrines that were presented at the meeting, referring to them as "ěrlílìjǐng 爾釐利景".  Before that moment, China did not have a specific word for "religion", referring to Confucianism, Christianity, Manicheism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc. as jiào 教 ("doctrines; teachings").

Peng's account of Confucianism was published as a book in 1896; he called it simply Shuōjiào 說教 ("An explanation of doctrine / teaching").  Since Peng himself did not bother to elucidate the meaning of "ěrlílìjǐng 爾釐利景", I doubt that he himself intended to introduce it as a lexical item in Chinese, preferring instead to rely on the old standby, jiào 教 ("doctrines; teachings").

The adoption in Chinese of a term with the specific meaning of "religion" was the result of a borrowing from Japanese shūkyō 宗 教, which was calqued upon (more exactly "redefined from") Chinese zōngjiào 宗教 ("doctrine / teaching of a sect; ancestral  doctrine / teaching") to match the Western term "religion".  Since shūkyō 宗教 was soon transmitted back to China as zōngjiào 宗教 with the new Western, imported meaning, I refer to this as a "round-trip word", of which there are many in the modern Chinese lexicon.  See "'And the greatest Japanese export to China is…'" (8/21/12), especially the penultimate paragraph, where there is a reference to a paper I wrote on this topic.

And what about "ěrlílìjǐng 爾釐利景"?  I suppose that the ěrlí 爾釐 together is an attempt to approximate the "re-" of "religion".  Since ěrlílìjǐng 爾釐利景 doesn't really sound much like "religion" and since Peng did not set much store by the concept anyway, there was little chance that it would ever catch on in China.  This set the stage for the starring role that would be played by zōngjiào 宗教 in modern Chinese discourse on religion(s).


  1. WSM said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 7:40 am

    In his recent book 二重奏 Huang Yinong makes similar points about the challenges posed to search engine-based research in Qing history posed by inconsistencies in the Chinese characters used to "spell" Manchurian terms / names, and by how even original Chinese names can get mangled when reconstructed from source material written in Manchurian. Huang seems to have dealt with the issue by searching for a few likely-seeming alternate characters for a given sound, but it would be interesting to contemplate Pinyin-based searching through the relevant Chinese language corpuses in an effort to aid discovery of source material that isn't so dependent on guessing the character chosen for transcription.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 8:49 am

    From Robert Eno:

    Particularly interesting that Mr. Peng had so clearly grasped the elusiveness of English ‘r’.

  3. Josh Fogel said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 12:10 pm

    Interested readers night want to read an essay I translated by Suzuki Shūji 鈴木修次:“‘Shūkyō’ to ‘jiyū’” 「宗教」と「自由」, in Nihon Kango to Chūgoku: Kanji bunkaken no kindaika 日本漢語と中国:漢字文化圏の近代 (Japanese terms in Chinese and China: The modernization of the cultural arena of Chinese characters) (Tokyo: Chūkō shinsho, 1981), pp. 124-67. It appears in a collection of essays I :translated: The Emergence of the Modern Sino-Japanese Lexicon: Seven Studies (Brill, 2015).

  4. Michael Watts said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 2:34 pm

    This question can't really be answered, but given that "before that moment, China did not have a specific word for "religion", referring to Confucianism, Christianity, Manicheism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc. as jiào 教", the idea that Confucianism, Christianity, Manichaeism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc. all belonged to the same category can't have been a foreign concept. Why the need for a foreign word for that category?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 4:04 pm

    "Why the need for a foreign word for that category?"

    That's a good question. I'm confident that specialists in religious studies will have good answers for it.

  6. Thomas Wilson said,

    July 5, 2016 @ 1:59 am

    Fascinating note. What strikes me as particularly suggestive is that Peng Guangyu evidently regarded 教 as basically incommensurate with the term "religion" as it was used at the Columbian Exposition.

  7. John Swindle said,

    July 5, 2016 @ 4:37 am

    It was immediately obvious to me that ěrlílìjǐng 爾釐利景 was "Early Reading."

  8. Peter C Perdue said,

    July 5, 2016 @ 7:50 am

    It's a little more complicated than just saying that Chinese already had the word "jiao". Usually "jiao" meant the Three Teachings of rujiao, fojiao, daojiao [why did everybody leave out Daoism in comments above?]. Did classical Chinese call Islam Huijiao or Judaism a jiao very often? Isn't Moni jiao for Manichaeanism a modern term? And all the popular cults of local deities, from Guanyin to Guandi, weren't included as jiao.
    "Religion" in the Western sense of "world religion" with sacred texts is a product of the late 19th century project of Max Muller and James Legge: they published Sacred Books of the East beginning in the 1880s. see Anna Su's book on this subject. Probably Peng picked up this meaning of religion and tried to encompass it with a new word, since it had a different referent from "jiao".

  9. JK said,

    July 5, 2016 @ 8:55 am

    One interesting one I came across recently is 慕课 for MOOC (massive open online course)

  10. Michael Watts said,

    July 5, 2016 @ 5:19 pm

    Did classical Chinese call Islam Huijiao or Judaism a jiao very often?

    Wikipedia suggests they did:

    A traditional Chinese term for Islam is 回教 (pinyin: Huíjiào, literally "the religion of the Hui"). However, since the early days of the PRC, thanks to the arguments of such Marxist Hui scholars as Bai Shouyi, the standard term for "Islam" within the PRC has become the transliteration 伊斯蘭教 (pinyin: Yīsīlán jiào, literally "Islam religion").[30][31] The more traditional term Huijiao remains in use in Singapore, Taiwan and other overseas Chinese communities.

    If it was appropriate for Islam, it must have been appropriate for Judaism as well, sincein popular conception Muslims and Jews seem to have both been 回.

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