A Chinese primer for English (1860)

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During the last few days, there has been a flurry of excitement over the circulation of photographs and information concerning an old Chinese textbook for learning English.  Here are a couple of pages from the book (click to embiggen):

Articles about the textbook with photographs of pages from it appeared in the South China Morning Post and in People's Daily.  The book is titled Yīnghuà zhùjiě 英话註解 ("Notes on English" or "Annotations / Explanations of English").

The original edition pictured above dates to 1860 and was published in Shanghai.  It's interesting that the owner of this textbook is a collector far inland in Chengdu, Sichuan.

A reprinted version, dating probably to the 1880s, may be seen in this album on Kongfz.cn.  It is particularly convenient to be able to zoom in and out on each of the photographs here.

As you can see for yourself, the English is a variety of pidgin.  What's fascinating is that the Chinese translations of the English in big characters at the top of each section are mostly nonstandard Mandarin and in some cases barely intelligible.  When I first started to read them, I didn't realize that they go from right to left.  Below I transcribe each of the twenty-four sentences, provide Pinyin annotations, comment on the quality of the Chinese translations, and give a rough English translation based on my understanding of the pidgin and the Chinese.  I use a slash to indicate a line break.

First page

Nǐ huò huòzhě yào huàn huò yì kě 你貨或者要/換貨亦可 —— This is not standard Mandarin.  "You can exchange the goods if you want to."

Nǐ yào jiàn xiàng biérén qù mǎi 你要賤向别/人去買 —— Not standard.  I think it means “If you want something cheaper, go buy it from someone else.”

Biérén yǐjīng huán guò jià 别人已經還/過價 —— This is more or less what people would still say today.  "Someone else has already made an offer."

Wǒ yǔ péngyǒu qù zuò 我與朋友/去做 —— This is not standard Mandarin.  "I'll go do it with my friend."

Nǐ kěn jiādiǎn hángqíng 你肯加點/行情 —— This is not standard Mandarin.  "Could you add a few more market quotations?"

Biérén yào mǎi wǒ bùkěn 别人要買我/不肯 —— I think this is what people would still say today.  "If somebody else wants to buy it, then I don't want to."

Wǒ míngrì gěi nǐ huíyīn 我明日給/你回音 —— This is roughly what people still say today.  "I'll give you an answer tomorrow."

Nǐ huánjià shízài tài shǎo 你還價實在/太少 —— This is roughly what people would still say today.  "The price you are offering is really too low."

Rú péngyǒu cǐ huò kěn mǎi 如朋友此貨/肯買 —— Awkward and incomplete.  "If a friend is willing to buy these goods…."

Wǒ zhèyàng sī zuìduō 我這樣絲/最多 —— This is a little weird.  It would be better to say “ Wǒ zhèyàng de sī zuìduō 我這樣的絲最多” ("The silk that I have is mostly this kind").

Jiǎn yībàn Jiù shìle 减一半就/是了 —— This is not standard Mandarin.  "If you reduce [the price] by half, all right."

Tǎngruò péngyǒu bù kěn mài 倘若朋友不/肯賣——This is not standard Mandarin.  "If my friend is unwilling to sell."

Second page

Wèihé nǐ suànzhàng yào cuò 為何你算帳/要错 —— Not standard.  "Why did you make a mistake in your reckoning?"

Tā zìjǐ méiyǒu de 他自己没/有的 —— People would still say this today.  "He himself doesn't have any."

Wǒ wèi […] yībiān yǔ […] 我未 […] 一邊與 […] —— Damaged.

Qiàn wǒ zhǎot óu nǐ jīnrì kě fù 欠我找頭你/今日可付 —— This is a bit odd.  Zhǎotóu 找頭 means "change"; people also say z hǎolíng 找零.  "Today you can pay me what you owe me."

Wèishéme bù fācái  為什麽不/發財 —— People would still say this today.  "Why haven't you / I / we made money?"

Bùkě suíkǒu dāyìng rén 不可随口答/應人 —— This is normal.  "Don't answer casually."

Xiànglái méiyǒu zhè guījǔ  向來没有這/規矩 —— This is normal.  "We never used to have this rule."

Yīn mìng bù hǎo zhī gù 因命不好/之故 —— Sounds archaic and stilted (more literary than vernacular).  "Because [I] am unlucky."

Zhè shìqíng yǒu cuò fǒu 這事情有/错否 —— This is also a mixture of vernacular and literary.  "Has there been a mistake in this matter?"  N.B.:  The introduction to the book is in Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese).

Bù kě bàndùérfèi 不可半度/而廢 —— “Bàntúérfèi 半途而废” ("give up halfway") is a set phrase dating back two millennia that is still in use.  It is misquoted here as "bàndùérfèi 半度而廢" ("give up halfway across").  "[You / I] can't give up halfway across."

Zhège rén bùshì hǎorén  這個人不是/好人 —— This is normal.  "He is not a good person."

Háng nèi yǒu jǐ/gè huǒjì 行内有幾/個夥計 —— This is normal.  "How many salesmen / salesclerks / partners do you have in your firm?"  The English here sounds positively elegant:  "How many assistants have you?"

Judging from this selection of sentences and from other sections of the book that I have scanned, it seems to me that one could learn an awful lot about the economy, society, culture, and language of a treaty port in mid-nineteenth century China if one would read carefully through the whole of it.

I will transcribe one example of the phonetic annotations to show how they work:

This affair have mistake

Dísī āwùxié hāfū mǐsītuīkè 笛司,阿勿鞋,哈夫,米司推克

By sheer coincidence, Sī Jiā 司佳, who received her PhD from Penn in 2006 and who teaches at Fudan University in Shanghai, just had her monograph on Language Contact and Cultural Interaction between Chinese and English in Modern History (Jìndài Zhōng-Yīng yǔyán jiēchù yǔ wénhuà jiāoliú 近代中英语言接触与文化交流) published in Shanghai.  In it she explains the importance of Yīnghuà zhùjiě 英话註解 ("Notes on English" or "Annotations / Explanations of English") (see pp. 35ff. and especially Fig. 1-1) and observes that Columbia University's library holds a copy of the original 1860 edition.

We may compare the English textbook under discussion in this post with another from around 1902 which uses the Cantonese pronunciations of Chinese characters to annotate the sounds of the English words:

For the technique of transcribing the sounds of English with Chinese characters, see also:

From time to time, I come across glossaries and textbooks of English phonetically annotated with Chinese characters that are still being published in China.  Around the time of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and Expo 2010 in Shanghai, they were particularly popular with older people who never learned English in school.  Above all, see the following post, which documents how the city of Hangzhou was distributing “crash course” manuals for residents to converse with international visitors during the G20 Summit that was held in September of this year:

With the universal learning of English by schoolchildren in China that has been going on for decades now, the phonetic annotation of English words and sentences with Chinese characters will become increasingly rare, except for humorous purposes.

[h.t. Mark Metcalf, Geoff Wade, Donald Clarke, and Bryan Van Norden; thanks to Jing Wen, Wenkan Xu, Maiheng Dietrich, and Fangyi Cheng]


  1. SO said,

    November 5, 2016 @ 3:43 pm

    Thank you for this interesting post!

    Incidentally Waseda Univ. has digitized a copy of this work from its library holdings, dated 咸豐庚申年 = 1860 on the title page: http://www.wul.waseda.ac.jp/kotenseki/html/bunko08/bunko08_c0786/ (see p. 89v here for the sentences transcribed in your post)

    (The Bodleian likewise appears to have a copy of the same edition: http://serica.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/sample?id=20090921-12%3A49%3A37-dh&shelfmark=Sinica%20701)

    Which makes me wonder: Isn't the picture shown at the beginning of your post (as well as the ones in the two news articles linked to here) rather taken from the 1880s ed. (1886? cf. 光緒丙戌 at the end of the preface) as well? Would also make sense judging from its appearance — which is basically the same as the one shown on kongfz.cn, but quite different from the Waseda/Bodleian ed.

  2. liuyao said,

    November 5, 2016 @ 4:52 pm

    I haven't looked too closely, but if this was published in Shanghai, shouldn't the translations and transcriptions be read as Shanghainese?

  3. Chris Kern said,

    November 5, 2016 @ 6:10 pm

    How does āwùxié = affair? Has the pronunciation changed in the last 150 years?

  4. Endymion Wilkinson said,

    November 5, 2016 @ 8:25 pm

    I discuss this type of English language textbook in my Chinese History: A New Manual (sections 5.3 and 22.1.4).

    The earliest extant example is probably 紅毛通用番話 (Everyday barbarian language of the Redhairs), ca. 1835 (see Bolton, Kingsley. 2003. The archaeology of Chinese Englishes, 1637–1949. In Chinese Englishes: A sociolinguistic history. CUP, 122–96).

    Robert Thom's (1807-46) Chinese and English vocabulary, Part 1. Block print at the compiler’s expense, Canton, 1843 is another early one (Part 2 was never published) that can be found in various libraries today.

    I bought in China Town, New York in 1967 a HK reprint of a textbook of English dating from about 1900 entitled, 唐字音英语 (English with Chinese characters showing the sounds), undated. The entries all read as in the following example: Chinese word, e.g. "放手" under which is the English equivalent, "Let go," and under that the English pronunciation using Cantonese, "咧高."

  5. SO said,

    November 5, 2016 @ 9:36 pm

    @Chris Kern
    Probably based on a variety of Chinese in which (at least some instances of) earlier v- turned into f-, thus giving sth. along the lines of fu (or more generally fVC) for 勿 (cf. e.g. Hanyu fangyin zihui, p. 130 for such cases)? It's at least unlikely to be an error here, as there are various other entries in the same work that support the equation 勿 = fV, such as France = 勿藍司 (1r) or Friday = 勿來兑 (6r).

  6. ryan said,

    November 5, 2016 @ 10:04 pm

    I was at a memorial service for my (American) uncle at the Univ. of Chicago last weekend, and heard the story of his family fleeing to Chengdu during the Japanese occupation, along with many westerners attached to universities in China, but also presumably many Chinese, no doubt including many merchants with western-facing businesses. As a possible explanation for this book winding up in Chengdu, I wonder whether one of those fleeing to Chengdu had inherited from a grandfather a business that had been a going concern 70 years before, and a book that had been useful in trade at the time.
    (VM, I once mentioned this blog to my uncle, and he knew you.)

  7. Jason said,

    November 6, 2016 @ 3:39 am

    Ok, so it's bad as a textbook of English. How good is it as a textbook of Chinese Pidgin English? (Bearing in mind that most first generation speakers of a pidgin aren't aware of the fact that they're speaking a pidgin and usually think they're speaking the lexifier language.)

  8. Will said,

    November 6, 2016 @ 5:12 am

    Yes, the example sentence sounds right if you say it in Shanghainese. Something like "a-fe-aq" (where "q" is a glottal stop).

  9. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 6, 2016 @ 8:39 am

    The introduction to the edition linked by SO refers to 勾章乡音, which is apparently Ningbo, so Wu but not Shanghai as such. The work is explained there as addressing the problem presented by Guangzhou merchants' exclusive access to English.

  10. Jichang Lulu said,

    November 6, 2016 @ 10:06 am

    Shanghainese would have been the default hypothesis, as it was the lingua franca of the town, spoken by locals and non-locals (including foreigners, such as Concession police and obviously missionaries), but Ningbo makes sense as well. Ningbo was a main source of migration to Shanghai at the time, perhaps this phrasebook was associated to the Ningbo merchant guild.

    The Chinese text is written in Mandarin, and I can't spot any obvious Wuisms in the vocabulary. On the other hand, 半而废 for 半而废 makes perfect sense assuming Wu background (the two expressions would sound the same in e.g. Modern Shanghai).

    The transcription does have a few Wu giveaways, such as English b- transcribed with characters that have (voiced-ish) b- in Wu but p- (voiceless aspirate) in Mandarin. The syllabary on page 8 of the Waseda pdf linked in SO's comment gives 皮 (Shanghai bi, Mandarin pí) for the name of the letter 'b'. The first syllable of 'Bengal' is 朋 (Shanghai bã, Mandarin péng). The English name of Hong Kong ends with 江 (Shanghai kã, Mandarin jiāng). I think these are as consistent with Shanghai as they are with Ningbo, so I wouldn't have noticed the Ningbo origin if Jonathan Smith hadn't spotted it in the introduction.

    As for 'affair', as others have noted 勿 systematically transcribes f- in the phrasebook, but in Shanghai (and I'd guess Ningbo as well?) it starts with a v-. It's the last character 鞋 (pronounced ɦa, no glottal stop) that best matches the English pronunciation from a Shanghai perspective. Perhaps things were different in 19C Ningbonese.

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