Greek and Latin in China

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Stimulating, substantial article by Chang Che in SupChina (1/13/22):  "China looks to the Western classics".  Here are the first three paragraphs:

A block east of Tiananmen Square, in a classroom last July, Chinese school children were singing the nursery rhyme “Old McDonald Had a Farm” in Latin: “Donatus est agricola, Eia, Eia, Oh!” The students, aged 11 to 17, were taking an introductory Latin class with Leopold Leeb, a professor of literature at the prestigious Renmin University.

Every weekday during the summer, from nine a.m. to noon, Leeb holds a public class in a marble white church just a stone’s throw away from Beijing’s central government. On the day I attended, Leeb had given each student a Roman name. There was a Gaius, a Flavius, a Monica, and two sisters, Amata and Augusta. The sisters came from Changping, a two-and-a-half-hour train ride away. They sat in the front row and took naps during the 10-minute breaks.

In the halls of China’s elite universities, Leopold Leeb is sometimes known as “the legendary Austrian.” His friends affectionately call him “Leizi” — Lei from his Chinese name Léi Lìbó 雷立柏, and (子) an ancient honorific reserved for esteemed Chinese intellectuals, as in Confucius (孔子 Kǒngzǐ), Mencius (孟子 Mèngzǐ), and Lao Tzu (老子 Lǎozǐ). For Leeb, a pioneer of Classics education (the study of Greco-Roman antiquity) in China, the sobriquet is apt: Leeb’s textbooks and dictionaries form a rite of passage for nearly all Chinese who wish to embark on Western Classical study. He has written several monographs on Greek and Roman history, 13 Classics dictionaries, nine textbooks, and over two dozen comparative works, giving Chinese readers access to Western ideas and texts. At 54 with no family and no hobbies, he displays an almost religious devotion to his work. “Obviously,” one colleague wrote of him recently, Leeb is “more concerned about China’s yesterday, today, and tomorrow than many Chinese.”

The article  moves on to describe how the study of the classics in the United States is not only on the skids, it is actually under assault (see also the last entry under "Selected readings" below).  Incidentally, this is not just something that has been happening under the "Cancel Culture" movement of the last few years. I recall with consternation that one of the first acts of the new president of Middlebury College in 1990 was an attempt to abolish the Classics Department.  Bear in mind that he was himself a Chinese linguist and that Middlebury has long been renowned for its foreign language offerings.

The SupChina article then looks at the newly found interest in Western learning and subjects derived from cultures in other parts of the world, with Greek and Latin particularly growing by leaps and bounds.  It also pays attention to the deeper background of Western classical learning going back to the days of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and Nicolas Trigault  (1577-1628) who, like Leeb, were Catholic missionaries with a deep attraction to Chinese culture.

Chang Che shows how recent Chinese thinkers' serious interest in Western learning has led to reengagement with their own past, after more than a century of harsh critique grounded in admiration and emulation of the West.  How ironic it would be if one day the West has to relearn its Classical foundations from Chinese scholars!

For me, though, as a passionate Language Logger, the most poignant sentence in Chang Che's article is this:

Even some Chinese words, he [Leeb] explained, like the word for cheese, lào 酪, had likely come from Latin (lac is milk).

This is something that I myself had noticed decades ago:


Unknown. Possibly from a Central Asian language; compare Mongolian айраг (airag, fermented milk of mares) and Turkish ayran (yoghurt mixed with water). The phonetic similarity between Chinese (OC *ɡ·raːɡ, “milk”), Ancient Greek γάλα (gála, milk) and Latin lac (milk), from Proto-Indo-European *ǵlákts (milk) is worth noting (Schuessler, 2007).



    1. curdled milk, cream, cheese
    2. fruit juice
    3. koumiss


I wonder if Professor Leeb reads Language Log:  "Galactic glimmers: of milk and Old Sinitic reconstructions" (1/8/19)


Selected readings

[h.t. Scott Mauldin]


  1. John Rohsenow said,

    January 16, 2022 @ 6:09 pm

    Re: Prof. Leeb himself:
    Books by:

  2. Victor Mair said,

    January 17, 2022 @ 9:38 am

    Professor Joseph Farrell (UPenn) gave a series of lectures on Western classical learning in China a few years ago. He writes:

    That was in March 2019. Not so long ago, but it seems like something that happened in a different world. It was under the auspices of a center in the Shanghai Normal University, but it took me to several other cities. I lectured at Renmin, but I do not recall meeting or being told of Professor Leeb. The article about him tells a rather different story from the one I heard about the forces that have produced the current landscape of classical studies in China. My hosts cited the Institute for the History of Ancient Civilizations (IHAC) at Changchun University as the program responsible for training the majority of qualified faculty in Chinese universities. This also explains, according to them, why classical studies in China remain stronger in history than in literature. Fudan and Peking University are regarded by my contacts as the most prestigious classics programs, whatever exactly that means. IHAC evidently remains a force, but the city of Changchun seems to be something of a rust-belt town, and the university as a whole is probably not as important a place as it may once have been. At least, these are my impressions. So, I was very interested to read about Professor Leeb, and I will have to ask my Chinese colleagues for their comments.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 18, 2022 @ 9:13 am

    How many centuries or millennia back is the current Mandarin word for "milk" attested? I assume milk wasn't literally unknown in early Chinese culture, but milk/butter/cheese all seem marginal-to-completely-absent in most styles of Chinese cooking of which I am aware (very much unlike Indian cuisine). The Japanese word for "bread" (パン) is famously of indirectly Latin origin (via Portuguese in the 16th century) but maybe the "milk" word came into Mandarin (or its predecessors) earlier than that?

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    January 18, 2022 @ 11:58 am

    I know nothing about the period during which the current Mandarin word for "milk" became attested, but surely its presence (or otherwise) in "most styles of Chinese cooking" is irrelevant, is it not ? Milk is the food on which all neonates are fed, and that has been true for as long as mammals have existed.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 18, 2022 @ 2:10 pm

    @Philip Taylor: My prior comment was muddled and thus confusing, because as Prof. Mair correctly indicates the word that maybe/kinda/sorta looks related to the Latin word for "milk" means "cheese" or "curled milk" or "koumiss" etc. in various Sinitic languages. The wiktionary entry for the character 酪 says there's an early version of it in a dictionary from the Han dynasty, which is not consistent with a 16th-century Portuguese introduction but is consistent with an early borrowing from pastoral steppe peoples whose cuisine was more dairy-oriented than the Chinese.

    But looking at China-adjacent peoples in the same language family, yak milk and products made from it is a traditional staple of the Tibetan diet – I don't know if there are cognates of the relevant Tibetan words in Chinese and if so if they have dairy-oriented meanings or have drifted semantically.

  6. Andrew Usher said,

    January 21, 2022 @ 7:08 pm

    Philip Taylor, it is not necessary the the two sorts of milk (as it were) have the same word. It wouldn't surprise me for a language to have unrelated words for the 'milk' that feeds infants and the 'milk' used in cuisine.

    k_over_hbarc at

  7. Michael Watts said,

    January 24, 2022 @ 5:29 pm

    it is not necessary the the two sorts of milk (as it were) have the same word. It wouldn't surprise me for a language to have unrelated words for the 'milk' that feeds infants and the 'milk' used in cuisine.

    This is the case already in Mandarin, where the current word for milk is definitely 奶, but 乳 is available for formal or traditional usages.

    Milk: 牛奶, cow milk.

    Breast milk: 母乳, mother's milk.

    Lactose: 乳糖, milk sugar.

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