Imperial miscommunication

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[This is a guest post by Krista Ryu]

I came across a fun anecdote from The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty,  which is the annual records of the Joseon Dynasty from 1413-1865, a national treasure of Korea. It is full of interesting, authentic records, since no one, including the kings themselves, could revise the records.  Consequently, even funny mistakes made by the Kings will be recorded in detail.

The story of failed communication between a Goryo Dynasty diplomat and the Hongwu Emperor (1368-1398; r. 1328-1398) of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

The story is as below (I have translated into English what I read in Korean, so what was actually said in Chinese at the time could be slightly different but the meaning should be the same):

Yi Saek (이색, 李穡), a great Confucian scholar from the Goryo Dynasty of Korea, was an expert in "Chinese" language and culture. [KR:  I have put "Chinese" inside quotation marks because there was no standard Chinese during this time (end of the 1300s).] He had studied "Chinese" during the Yuan Dynasty since he was 10 years old because of his father who had a position in the Yuan Dynasty government. At the age of 20, he went to Beijing and studied at Guozijian (the imperial college at the time), and even worked at the Hanlinyuan (Hanlin Academy) of the Yuan government. Based on his credentials and knowledge of "Chinese", he was considered the best expert of "China" in Goryo.

So, when the [Mongol] Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) fell and the Ming Dynasty was established, King Chang of Goryo decided to send Yi Saek as envoy to meet the new Ming Emperor and establish diplomatic relations. When Yi Saek went to address Emperor Hongwu of the Ming, Hongwu said, "I hear that you studied in Guozijian, and were working in Hanlinyuan. So you must know 'Chinese'."

Then Yi spoke to the Emperor in "Chinese," which was clearly his forte.

Unfortunately, the Emperor couldn't understand Yi's Beijing topolect! The Emperor was from Central China (around Anhui province now).

The Emperor was confused and then said, "Your pronunciation of Chinese is like that of Naghachu (納哈出– Yuan Dynasty general, a Mongol; d. 1388)."

According to records, Yi Saek was greatly embarrassed and was made fun of for many, many years when he came back to Goryo for what happened.

So already in the late 1300s, topolects were a real problem, even for foreign diplomats who were speaking Pekingese!!

Also, when the Dynasty changed, the new elites probably spoke a different topolect from that of the previous Dynasty's elites. This change would have meant all the diplomats of China's tributary states had to learn a new language.

VHM:  References

Ming period Korean manuals for learning "Chinese" (these are two of my very favorite books from premodern East Asia) — McC-R (McMcCune-Reischauer romanization), RR (Revised Romanization):

老乞大 (McC-R Nogŏltae; RR Nogeoldae; MSM Lǎo qǐdà) — The Old Cathayan

朴通事 (McC-R Pak t'ongsa; RR Bak tongsa; MSM Piáo tōngshì) — Interpreter Pak

Wikipedia describes the first book thus:

…a textbook of colloquial northern Chinese published in Korea in several editions from the 14th to 18th centuries. The book is an important source on both Late Middle Korean and the history of Mandarin Chinese. Later editions were translated into Manchu and Mongolian.

Aside from providing priceless material for the study of vernacular Sinitic during the first half of the 2nd millennium AD, these two volumes contain invaluable information about commerce, culture, and customs of the period.  They make for endlessly delightful and edifying reading.

Svetlana Rimsky-Korsakoff Dyer has studied both of these works extensively:

1.    Grammatical Analysis of the Lao Ch'I-Ta: With an English Translation of the Chinese Text

Svetlana Rimsky-Korsakoff Dyer
Published by Australian National University(1997).
ISBN 10: 0909879184 ISBN 13: 9780909879181

2.   Pak the Interpreter: An Annotated Translation of Piao Tongshi 1677

Svetlana Rimsky-Korsakoff Dyer
Published by Pandanus Books.
ISBN 10: 1740761324 ISBN 13: 9781740761321

Baidu encyclopedia articles (in Chinese):  Interpreter Pak, The Old Cathayan

[Thanks to Bob Ramsey and Haewon Cho]


  1. Eidolon said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 7:02 pm

    In Yi Saek's case, there was not only topolectal interference, but also second language interference, since we should assume his primary language was a dialect of "Korean," and that he had learned "Chinese" from teachers – including, most likely, his father – bilingual in both. Given the deficiencies of oral standardization prior to the rise of mass education and communication, it's always amazed me there isn't even more linguistic variety around the world.

  2. Endymion Wilkinson said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 7:21 pm

    Thanks Krista.
    It's a great story.
    What words did the Sillok use for "Chinese" [language]?

  3. Travis said,

    September 27, 2017 @ 9:25 pm

    Fascinating. I don't know the details, but I have read, too, that Ryukyuan scholar – officials were generally educated in speaking the Japanese of the shogun's Court, which, if they weren't also conversant in Kagoshima (Satsuma) dialects could have easily created opportunities for communication difficulties – though I haven't read of specific examples.

    As for the standard court version of "Chinese" changing with each Dynasty, I hadn't thought of it, but that'd be really something if true.

  4. Kobo Daishi said,

    September 28, 2017 @ 2:07 am

    @Endymion Wilkinson

    What an honor to be able to correspond with you.

    I have 2 of your books. Your books just blew me away, especially your Chinese History, A Manual.

    The only books to ever do so are your book and Nicholas Shaffner's The Beatles Forever. Fantastic amount of material.


  5. Endymion Wilkinson said,

    September 28, 2017 @ 6:30 am

    Many thanks.
    Is it possible the Emperor was making fun of him: You studied under the (Mongol) Yuan and you speak Hanyu like a Mongol.

  6. Chau said,

    September 28, 2017 @ 1:28 pm

    @ Travis, RE: the standard court version of "Chinese" changing with each dynasty.

    There is a famous short story in 顏氏家訓 Yen-shih Chia-Hsün (Family Instructions for the Yen Clan) by 顏之推 Yen Chih-T'ui (Yan Zhitui) of the mid-sixth century during the Southern-Northern Dynasties.

    The following English translation is by 鄧嗣禹 Teng Ssu-yü published in T'oung Pao 通報, Monographie, volume 4. (1968).

    "Once a gentleman of the Ch'i court told me, "I have a son who is already seventeen years old. He knows something about writing letters and memorials. I am having him taught the Hsien-pi language and playing the lute (p'i-p'a) with the hope that he may gain proficiency and mastery in both. With these accomplishments he may serve the high ministers and officials, and obtain their favors. Is not that an important thing?" At that time I looked down and did not answer. Alas! How strange was that man's idea of child training! Even if they gained for you positions as high ministers of state, I would not want you boys to follow such methods."

  7. languagehat said,

    September 29, 2017 @ 2:17 pm

    Kobo Daishi: Thanks very much for your comment; I was intrigued enough to look up Endymion Wilkinson and his Chinese History, A Manual and was so impressed I remembered the name, and when I happened on the first (1973) edition at the Troubadour Books sale today I grabbed it. Way out of date, I know, and I hope to get a more recent version someday, but I'm only an amateur, so for the moment I'm happy with this!

  8. Krista Ryu said,

    September 30, 2017 @ 12:41 pm

    @Endymion Wilkinson,
    Hello Sir,
    Thank you for your question. It took me a while to find the text I could search from the Sillok.

    According to the text in Taejo Sillok volume 1 article 95, what the 天子(emperor) said was

    "그대가 원(元)나라에 벼슬하여 한림(翰林)이 되었었으니 응당 중국말[漢語]을 알 것이다."
    ="Since you served the position of Hanlin (govt official position) in Yuan, you must know Chinese (漢語)”

    Based on this we know that the Emperor referred to the language used at the time as the "language of the Han people(漢語)". However, this word is translated in the modern Korean text as 中国말(mal- speech or language) because that is the current modern term for language used in China.

    Hope this answers your question. Have a nice weekend.

    Thank you!

    Krista Ryu

  9. Endymion Wilkinson said,

    October 1, 2017 @ 8:00 am

    Many thanks, Krista!

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