US post-secondary enrollments in foreign languages and the position of Mandarin

graphs showing the enrollments of Japanese and Mandarin over time, with Italian thrown in by way of comparisonFrom the way the U.S. media talk about the boom in Mandarin classes, it’s easy to get the impression that Mandarin is about to become the most studied language in the United States. So I offer the following overdue reality check.

The data come from the results of a large survey of foreign-language enrollments in U.S. post-secondary schools. The survey was conducted by the Modern Language Association. I started work on this post when the results were released in November 2007; but, well, I got distracted.

This post has lots of tables and figures, so for those who don’t want to scan through everything I offer some basic points up front.

  • Spanish has more enrollments than all other foreign languages put together.
  • By far the biggest enrollment boom since 1990 has not been for Mandarin but for American Sign Language.
  • The boom in enrollments in Arabic also surpasses that for Mandarin.
  • Mandarin is indeed growing in popularity — but in recent years only at the undergraduate level.
  • Japanese continues to be more popular than Mandarin, though by an ever-smaller margin.
  • Mandarin is the seventh most studied foreign language in U.S. post-secondary schools, behind Spanish (which leads Mandarin by a ratio of 16:1), French, German, American Sign Language, Italian, and Japanese.
  • Relatively speaking, enrollments in foreign languages are much lower than they were 30 years ago.

A few summary remarks of my own:

  • I don’t expect the high growth rates for Mandarin to continue for many more years unless the programs are dumbed down (in which case they wouldn’t count for much) or Pinyin gains a much more prominent role in Mandarin pedagogy (and not just at the introductory level). The difficulties of Chinese characters will help keep numbers down, as will the eventual realization that learning Mandarin isn’t an easy ticket to riches (or even a ticket to riches at all).
  • Japanese received a big boost in the 1980s, when the media cranked out story after story about the power of Japan’s rising economy and the need to learn the language. Yet Japanese didn’t become the next big world language. I predict a similar path for Mandarin.
  • A high percentage of those taking Mandarin classes in U.S. high schools are students who are both ethnically Chinese and already familiar with the language. The MLA didn’t provide figures on that for post-secondary students. But I would be surprised if such “heritage” students don’t represent a higher percentage of those in Mandarin language courses than heritage students in most other language classes.

OK, now on to some details.

Look below at the growth for American Sign Language since 1990. If Mandarin had had that sort of growth (4,820 percent!) the pundits would no doubt be telling us that the Chinese had already taken over the planet and were going to rule the entire galaxy within the next decade. (And don’t get me started about the supposed Mandarin in Serenity/Firefly.) But American Sign Language just doesn’t seem to get the same sort of respect, despite the fact that it still has more than 50 percent more enrollments than Mandarin. Arabic, which has also had a much faster growth rate than that of Mandarin, hasn’t received the same level of hype either.

Growth in Enrollments: in declining order of growth from 1990 to 2006

Enrollments 1990 2006 % Growth 2002-06 % Growth 1990-2006
American Sign Language 1,602 78,829 29.7 4820.7
Arabic 3,475 23,974 126.5 589.9
Korean 2,286 7,145 37.1 212.6
Mandarin 19,490 51,582 51.0 164.7
Hebrew 12,995 23,752 4.2 82.8
Portuguese 6,211 10,267 22.4 65.3
Italian 49,699 78,368 22.6 57.7
Spanish 533,944 822,985 10.3 54.1
Japanese 45,717 66,605 27.5 45.7
French 272,472 206,426 2.2 -24.2
German 133,348 94,264 3.5 -29.3
Russian 44,626 24,845 3.9 -44.3
Total 1,125,865 1,489,042 12.7 32.3

Change in enrollments over time: in declining order of total enrollment for 2006

Change between Surveys 1995-98 1998-2002 2002-06
Spanish 8.3% 13.7% 10.3%
French -3.1% 1.5% 2.2%
German -7.5% 2.3% 3.5%
American Sign Language 165.3% 432.2% 29.7%
Italian 12.6% 29.6% 22.6%
Japanese -3.5% 21.1% 27.5%
Mandarin 7.5% 20.0% 51.0%
Russian -3.8% 0.5% 3.9%
Arabic 23.9% 92.3% 126.5%
Hebrew * 20.6% 44.0% 4.2%
Portuguese 6.0% 21.1% 22.4%
Korean 34.0% 16.3% 37.1%
Total 5.0% 16.6% 12.7%

* Modern and Biblical Hebrew combined

Below: Russian may not have the top number of enrollments, but it certainly has some motivated students, given the high numbers of them in advanced courses.

Enrollments in Introductory-Level Courses vs. Enrollments in Advanced-Level Courses

Intro Enr. Advanced Enr. Total Enrollment Ratio of Intro Enr. to Advanced Enr.
Russian 17,527 6,569 24,096 2.67:1
Portuguese 7,387 2,422 9,809 3.05:1
German 72,434 18,758 91,192 3.86:1
French 160,736 40,927 201,663 3.93:1
Korean 5,511 1,397 6,908 3.94:1
Greek, Ancient 13,250 3,176 16,426 4.17:1
Mandarin 41,193 9,262 50,455 4.45:1
Spanish 669,432 142,602 812,034 4.69:1
Japanese 55,161 10,585 65,746 5.21:1
Latin 26,787 4,383 31,170 6.11:1
Hebrew, Modern 7,665 1,250 8,915 6.13:1
Arabic 20,571 2,463 23,034 8.35:1
Italian 69,757 7,593 77,350 9.19:1
Hebrew, Biblical 7,854 705 8,559 11.14:1
American Sign Language 72,694 5,249 77,943 13.85:1
Other languages 27,836 3,478 31,314 8.00:1
Total 1,275,795 260,819 1,536,614 4.89:1

One thing I find particularly troubling is that the number of graduate students studying Mandarin has fallen. (Please click on the link in the previous sentence, since the relevant table is too wide to fit on this page.) The much-ballyhooed but also much-deserved increase in students studying Mandarin has all been at the undergraduate level. Given that the grad enrollment as a percentage of total enrollment for Mandarin is about the same as that for French (2.63 percent and 2.73 percent, respectively) it might appear that Mandarin has simply reached a “normal” ratio in this regard. But native speakers of English generally need much more time to master Mandarin than to master French. Simply put, four years, say, of post-secondary study of French provides students with a much greater level of fluency than four years of post-secondary study of Mandarin.

Also, there is a great deal more work that needs to be done in terms of translations from Mandarin. I do not at all mean to belittle the work being done in French — or in any other language. In fact it pains me that the MLA’s list of languages being studied included neither Old French nor Provençal, both of which I have studied and love dearly. I just mean that Mandarin has historically been underrepresented in U.S. universities given the number of speakers it has and its body of texts that have not yet been translated into English. U.S. universities need to be producing many more qualified grad students who can handle this specialized work. And right now, unfortunately, that’s not happening.

Post-Secondary Enrollments in Select Sino-Tibetan Languages and Classical Japanese: 2002, 2006

Two-Year Colleges Undergrad Programs Grad Programs Total
Language 2002 2006 2002 2006 2002 2006 2002 2006
Cantonese 47 96 128 82 5 0 180 178
Literary Sinitic 0 0 56 101 18 12 74 113
Japanese, Classical 0 0 8 23 11 7 19 30
Taiwanese 0 0 34 21 13 0 47 21
Tibetan 0 0 43 56 35 64 78 120
Tibetan, Classical 0 0 8 11 20 33 28 44

The figures in the table above are probably too low. Literary Sinitic (“classical Chinese”) is probably especially underrepresented because often too little differentiation is given between it and modern standard Mandarin. But at least the numbers can provide minimum figures.

Enrollments in Introductory Classes: 2-Year Schools vs. 4-Year Schools

Language Ratio of Intro Enr. in 2-Year Schools to Intro Enr. in 4-Year Schools
Greek, Ancient 0.00:1
Hebrew, Biblical 0.01:1
Latin 0.04:1
Hebrew, Modern 0.07:1
Portuguese 0.11:1
Russian 0.15:1
German 0.20:1
Italian 0.23:1
French 0.24:1
Arabic 0.26:1
Mandarin 0.26:1
Korean 0.28:1
Japanese 0.39:1
Spanish 0.49:1
American Sign Language 1.47:1
Other languages 0.24:1

American Sign Language sticks out here as the only language that more people take at the introductory level at junior colleges than at universities. Roughly twice as many people take introductory Spanish in universities as at junior colleges. Introductory Japanese classes are surprisingly popular at the two-year college level, well above the level for introductory Mandarin, though Mandarin is not unpopular itself.

Course Enrollments in Some Asian and Pacific Languages

Language 1998 2002 2006 % Change 2002–06
Hindi/Urdu 1314 2009 2683 33.55
Vietnamese 899 2236 2485 11.14
Tagalog/Filipino 794 1142 1569 37.39
Sanskrit 363 487 607 24.64
Hmong 15 283 402 42.05
Thai 272 330 307 -6.97
Indonesian 223 225 301 33.78
Samoan 207 201 280 39.30
Cantonese 39 180 178 -1.11
Tibetan 80 78 120 53.85
Literary Sinitic 32 74 113 52.70
Pashto 14 103 635.71
Punjabi 32 99 103 4.04
Total 4270 7358 9251 25.73

Although more U.S. postsecondary students are studying languages other than English than ever before, that’s unfortunately not because U.S. students as a whole have finally embraced the study of languages. Rather, there are simply more students now. Relatively speaking, enrollments in foreign languages are much lower than they were 30 years ago.

graph showing that present US postsecondary enrollment in foreign languages is relatively much lower than it was in in the 1960s

If “ancient” foreign languages such as Latin and Ancient Greek were included in the graph, the imbalance between the 1960s and the present in foreign-language enrollments would be even greater.

source: Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2006 (PDF), MLA, November 13, 2007

updating Karlgren: a forthcoming reference book

The University of Hawai`i Press will be releasing another work in its groundbreaking ABC Chinese Dictionary Series, which is responsible for my favorite Mandarin-English dictionary, the Pinyin-ordered ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, edited by John DeFrancis.

The new work, which will be released in December 2008, is Minimal Old Chinese and Later Han Chinese: A Companion to Grammata Serica Recensa, by Axel Schuessler.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

Although long out of date, Bernard Karlgren’s (1957) remains the most convenient work for looking up Middle Chinese (ca. A.D. 600) and Old Chinese (before 200 B.C.) reconstructions of all graphs that occur in literature from the beginning of writing (ca. 1250 B.C.) down to the third century B.C. In the present volume, Axel Schuessler provides a more current reconstruction of Old Chinese, limiting it, as far as possible, to those post-Karlgrenian phonological features of Old Chinese that enjoy some consensus among today’s investigators. At the same time, the updating of the material disregards more speculative theories and proposals. Schuessler refers to these minimal forms as “Minimal Old Chinese” (OCM). He bases OCM on Baxter’s 1992 reconstructions but with some changes, mostly notational. In keeping with its minimal aspect, the OCM forms are kept as simple as possible and transcribed in an equally simple notation. Some issues in Old Chinese phonology still await clarification; hence interpolations and proposals of limited currency appear in this update.

Karlgren’s Middle Chinese reconstructions, as emended by Li Fang-kuei, are widely cited as points of reference for historical forms of Chinese as well as dialects. This emended Middle Chinese is also supplied by Schuessler. Another important addition to Karlgren’s work is an intermediate layer midway between the Old and Middle Chinese periods known as “Later Han Chinese” (ca. second century A.D.) The additional layer makes this volume a useful resource for those working on Han sources, especially poetry.

This book is intended as a “companion” to the original Grammata Serica Recensa and therefore does not repeat other information provided there. Matters such as English glosses and references to the earliest occurrence of a graph can be looked up in Grammata Serica Recensa itself or in other relevant dictionaries. The great accomplishment of this companion volume is to update an essential reference and thereby fulfill the need for an accessible and user-friendly source for citing the various historically reconstructed stages of Chinese.

Book reviews, vol. 6

Sino-Platonic Papers has rereleased for free its sixth volume of reviews, mainly of books about China and its history and languages (5.6 MB PDF).

The reviews are by David Utz, Xinru Liu, Taylor Carman, Bryan Van Nordan, and Victor H. Mair.


  • Review Article by David A. Utz of Ádám Molnár, Weather-Magic in Inner Asia. With an Appendix, “Alttürkische fragmente über den Regenstein,” by P. Zieme. Indiana University Uralic and Altaic Series, 158. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University, 1994.
  • Graham Parkes, ed., Heidegger and Asian Thought. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987. Reviewed by Taylor Carman and Bryan Van Norden.
  • Beijing Daxue Nanya Yanjiusuo [Peking University Institute for South Asian Studies], ed. Zhongguo zaiji zhong Nanya shiliao huibian (Collection of South Asian Historical Materials from Chinese Sources). 2 vols. Shanghai: Shanghai Guji Chubanshe, 1995. Reviewed by Xinru Liu.

The following 23 reviews are by the editor of Sino-Platonic Papers.

  • Ronald E. Emmerick and Edwin G. Pulleyblank. A Chinese Text in Central Asian Brahmi Script: New Evidence for the Pronunciation of Late Middle Chinese and Khotanese. Serie Orientale Roma, LXIX. Rome: lstituto ltaliano per ii Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1993.
  • YIN Binyong and SU Peicheng, eds. Kexuede pingjia Hanyu hanzi [Scientifically Appraise Sinitic and Sinographs]. Zhongguo yuwen xiandaihua congshu (Chinese Language Modernization Series), 1. Peking: Huayu Jiaoxue Chubanshe (Sinolingua), 1994.
  • WU Chang’an. Wenzi de toushi — Hanzi lunheng [A Perspective on Culture — Balanced Discussions on the Sinographs]. Wenhua Yuyanxue Congshu [Cultural Linguistics Series]. N.p. (Changchun?): Jilin Jiaoyu Chubanshe, 1995.
  • ZHOU Shilie, comp. Tongxingci cidian [Dictionary of Homographs]. Peking: Zhongguo Guoji Guangbo Chubanshe, 1995. (Reviewed twice from different perspectives in the same issue.)
  • KANG Yin. Wenzi Yuanliu Qianshi (The Origin and Development of Chinese Ideographs) (sic). N.p.: Guoji Wenhua Chubanshe, 1992.
  • DUAN Kailian. Zhongguo minjian fangyan cidian [A Dictionary of Chinese Folk Topolecticisms]. Haikou: Nanhai chuban gongsi, 1994.
  • CHANG Xizhen, comp. Beiping tuhua [Peking Colloquialisms]. Taipei: Shenge Shiye Youxian Gongsi Chubanshe, 1990.
  • ZHANG Xunru. Beiping yinxi xiaoche bian [A Compilation of Words with “er” Suffix in Pekingese]. Taipei: Taiwan Kaiming, 1991; 2nd Taiwan ed.; 1956, first Taiwan ed.
  • LI Sijing. Hanyu “er” [] yin shi yanjiu [Studies on the History of the “er” [] Sound in Sinitic]. Taipei: Taiwan Shangwu, 1994.
  • Erdengtai, Wuyundalai, and Asalatu. Menggu mishi cihui xuanshi [Selected Explanations of Lexical Items in The Secret History of the Mongols]. Mengguzu lishi congshu [Series on the History of the Mongolian People]. Hohhot: Neimenggu Renrnin Chubanshe, 1980; 1991 rpt.
  • Matthews, Stephen and Virginia Yip. Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar. Routledge Grammars. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • Killingley, Siew-Yue. Cantonese. Languages of the World / Materials 06. München-Newcastle: Lincom Europa, 1993.
  • ZHONG Jingwen, chief ed. Yuhai (An Encyclopedia of Chinese Folk Language), Vol. 1: Mimiyu (Chinese Secret Language). Vol. editors ZHENG Shuoren and CHEN Qi. Shanghai: Shanghai Wenyi Chubanshe, 1994.
  • Harrell, Stevan, ed. Cultural Encounters on China’s Ethnic Frontiers. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1995.
  • Woo, Henry K. H. The Making of a New Chinese Mind: Intellectuality and the Future of China. Hong Kong: China Foundation, 1993.
  • Miller, Lucien, ed. South of the Clouds: Tales from Yunnan. Translated by GUO Xu, Lucien Miller, and XU Kun. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1994.
  • Hoizey, Dominique and Marie-Joseph Hoizey. A History of Chinese Medicine. Tr. by Paul Bailey. Vancouver: UBC Press; Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993.
  • Crystal, David. An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Language and Languages. London: Penguin, 1992, 1994.
  • Day, Gordon M. Western Abenaki Dictionary. Vol. 1: Abenaki-English. Vol. 2: English-Abenaki. Mercury Series, Canadian Ethnology Service, Papers 128 and 129. Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1994-95.
  • Hassrick, Peter H. The Frederic Remington Studio. Cody, Wyoming: Buffalo Bill Historical Center, in association with University of Washington Press (Seattle, London), 1994.
  • Jonaitis, Aldona, ed. Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press; New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1991.
  • Jerry L. Norman and W. South Coblin. “A New Approach to Chinese Historical Linguistics.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 115.4 (1995),576-584.

Bits and Pieces

  • Letter concerning An Zhimin’s views on the origins of bronze metallurgy in China.
  • “Yet again on Tibet.” This is one in a continuing series of discussions with Edwin G. Pulleyblank, W. South Coblin, and others on the origins of the name “Tibet”.

This was first published in February 1996 as issue no. 70 of Sino-Platonic Papers.

Book reviews, vol. 5

Sino-Platonic Papers has rereleased for free its fifth volume of reviews, mainly of books about China and its history and languages (11.6 MB PDF).

Even if you have no particular interest in the specific works reviewed, I recommend at least browsing through this and all of the other volumes of reviews from Sino-Platonic Papers, as they often feature Victor Mair at his most direct and entertaining about a wide range of subjects.

Table of Contents:

  • Review Article: The Present State and Future Prospects of Pre-Han Text Studies. A review of Michael Loewe, ed., Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide. Reviewed by E. Bruce Brooks, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

N.B.: The following 29 reviews are by the editor of Sino-Platonic Papers.

  • Roger T. Ames, Chan Sin-wai, and Mau-sang Ng, eds. Interpreting Culture through Translation: A Festschrift for D. C. Lau.
  • Sau Y. Chan. Improvisation in a Ritual Context: The Music of Cantonese Opera.
  • CHANG Xizhen. Beijing Tuhua [Pekingese Colloquial].
  • CHANG/AIXINJUELUO Yingsheng [AISINGIORO *Yingsheng]. Beijing Tuhua zhong de Manyu [Manchurian in Pekingese Colloquial].
  • BAI Gong and JIN Shan. Jing Wei’er: Toushi Beijingren de Yuyan [“Capital Flavor”: A Perspective on the Language of the Pekingese].
  • JIA Caizhu, comp. Beijinghua Erhua Cidian [Dictionary of Retroflex Final-r in Pekingese].
  • Julia Ching and R. W .L. Guisso, eds. Sages and Sons: Mythology and Archaeology in Ancient China.
  • FENG Zhiwei. Xiandai Hanzi he Jisuanji (Modern Chinese Characters and Electronic Computers).
  • FENG Zhiwei. Zhongwen Xinxi Chuli yu Hanyu Yanjiu [Chinese Information Processing and Research on Sinitic].
  • Andre Gunder Frank. The Centrality of Central Asia.
  • HUANG Jungui. Hanzi yu Hanzi Paijian Fangfa [Sinographs and Methods for Ordering and Looking up Sinographs].
  • W. J. F. Jenner. The Tyranny of History: The Roots of China’s Crisis.
  • Adam T. Kessler. Empires Beyond the Great Wall: The Heritage of Genghis Khan.
  • David R. McCraw. Du Fu’s Laments from the South.
  • Michael Nylan, tr. and comm. The Canon of Supreme Mystery, by Yang Hsiung.
  • R. P. Peerenboom. Law and Morality in Ancient China: The Silk Manuscripts of Huang-Lao.
  • Henry G. Schwarz. An Uyghur-English Dictionary.
  • Vitaly Shevoroshkin, ed. Dene-Sino-Caucasian Languages.
  • Vitaly Shevoroshkin, ed. Nostratic, Dene-Caucasian, Austric and Amerind.
  • Laurence G. Thompson, comp. Studies of Chinese Religion: A Comprehensive and Classified Bibliography of Publications in English, French, and German through 1970.
  • Laurence G. Thompson, comp. Chinese Religion in Western Languages: A Comprehensive and Classified Bibliography of Publications in English, French, and German through 1980.
  • Laurence G. Thompson, comp. Chinese Religion: Publications in Western Languages, 1981 through 1990.
  • Aat Vervoorn. Men of the Cliffs and Caves: The Development of the Chinese Eremitic Tradition to the End of the Han Dynasty.
  • WANG Jiting, ZHANG Shaoting, and WANG Suorong, comp. Changjian Wenyan Shumianyu [Frequently Encountered Literary Sinitic Expressions in Written Language].
  • John Timothy Wixted. Japanese Scholars of China: A Bibliographical Handbook.
  • YÜ Lung-yü, ed. Chung-Yin wen-hsüeh kuan-hsi yüan-liu [The Origin and Development of Sino-Indian Literary Relations].
  • ZHANG Guangda and RONG Xinjiang. Yutian Shi Congkao [Collected Inquiries on the History of Khotan].
  • ZHANG Yongyan, chief ed. Shishuo Xinxu Cidian [A Dictionary of A New Account of Tales of the World].
  • Peter H. Rushton. The Jin Ping Mei and the Non-Linear Dimensions of the Traditional Chinese Novel.

  • William H. Baxter, A Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology. Reviewed by Paul Rakita Goldin, Harvard University.
  • JI Xianlin (aka Hiän-lin Dschi). Dunhuang Tulufan Tuhuoluoyu Yanjiu Daolun [A Guide to Tocharian Language Materials from Dunhuang and Turfan]. Reviewed by XU Wenkan, Hanyu Da Cidian editorial offices in Shanghai.
  • GU Zhengmei. Guishuang Fojiao Zhengzhi Chuantong yu Dasheng Fojiao [The Political Tradition of Kushan Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism]. Reviewed by XU Wenkan, Hanyu Da Cidian editorial offices in Shanghai.
  • W. South Coblin, University of Iowa. A Note on the Modern Readings of 土蕃.
  • Rejoinder by the Editor.
  • Announcement concerning the inauguration of a new series in Sino-Platonic Papers entitled “Bits and Pieces.”

This work also continues the discussion regarding the Chinese characters “??” and Tibet.

This was first published in July 1994 as issue no. 46 of Sino-Platonic Papers.

Introduction and notes for the Tao Te Ching

Victor Mair’s translation of the Tao Te Ching has certainly more than earned its place in a crowded field. Mair’s introduction and notes to the Tao Te Ching (Dàodéj?ng, to give the Pinyin form) are now available for free as part of the rereleases of the journal he edits, Sino-Platonic Papers.

Here’s the link: [The] File [on the Cosmic] Track [and Individual] Dough[tiness]: Introduction and Notes for a Translation of the Ma-wang-tui Manuscripts of the Lao Tzu [Old Master] (6.4 MB PDF). The work explains the reasons for this odd title, and in the process provides all sorts of linguistic and other goodness. This is well worth reading.

Here is how it begins:

Next to the Bible and the Bhagavad Gītā (BG), the Tao Te Ching is the most translated book in the world. Well over a hundred different renditions of the Taoist classic have been made into English alone, not to mention the dozens in German, French, Italian, Dutch, Latin, and other European languages. There are several reasons for the superabundance of translations. The first is that the Tao Te Ching is considered to be the fundamental text of both philosophical and religious Taoism. Indeed, the Tao or Way, which is at the heart of the Tao Te Ching, is also the centerpiece of all Chinese religion and thought. Naturally, the different schools and sects each bring a somewhat different slant to the Tao, but all subscribe to the notion that there is a single, overarching Way that encompasses everything in the universe. As such, the Tao Te Ching shares crucial points of similarity with other major religious scriptures the world over.

The second reason for the popularity of the Tao Te Ching is its brevity. There are few bona fide classics that are so short, yet so packed with food for thought. One can read and reread the Tao Te Ching over and over scores of times without exhausting the insights it offers.

The third aspect which accounts for the wide repute of the Tao Te Ching is the fact that it is supposedly “very easy to understand” (LXX.2 and see the note thereto) when actually it is exceedingly impenetrable. Paradox is the essence of the Tao Te Ching, so much so that even scholars with a solid grounding in Classical Chinese cannot be sure they have grasped what the Old Master is really saying in his pithy maxims. This deceptive ease which masks tortuous difficulty is both a challenge and an invitation, a challenge to the honest scholar and an invitation to the charlatan. Since no one can fully plumb the profundity of the Tao Te Ching, even the amateur cannot be held responsible for misrepresenting it. Hence the plethora of translations, many by individuals who command not one iota of any Chinese language. In the words of the eminent Dutch Sinologist, J.J.L. Duyvendak:

Not only do translations made by competent Sinologues vary considerably, but there also exists a multitude of so-called translations made by people who try to make up for their entirely imaginary or extremely elementary knowledge of classical Chinese by philosophical speculations which often are completely foreign to the Chinese spirit. With due acknowledgement of the interest which this Chinese classic has been able to arouse in a large circle, one cannot help regretting that the Tao-tê-ching has thus become the object of the worst dilettantism.

It is precisely because of my annoyance at the sheer presumptuousness of those who pretended to convey the words of the Old Master to others, when they themselves had not the slightest idea how to read them, that I vowed two decades ago I would never be so bold as to add my own voice to the cacophonous chorus of Tao Te Ching paraphrasts. Two unexpected and celebrated events, however, conspired to make me recant. One was the egregiously large advance and effusive national publicity awarded to an absolute tyro a couple of years ago who dared to dabble with the daunting Tao Te Ching. Although the individual concerned will remain mercifully unnamed, I felt duty bound to reclaim translation of the Tao Te Ching as the proper province of the conscientious Sinologist.

The other prod was the recent discovery of two ancient manuscripts in China which made it possible to produce a totally new translation of the Tao Te Ching far more accurate and reliable than any that has hitherto been published. This is the first translation of the Tao Te Ching based from its very inception wholly on these newly found manuscripts. The manuscripts came from a place in central China called Ma-wang-tui, not far south of the Yangtze River….

Above I expanded Mair’s acronym of TTC for Tao Te Ching.

This was first published in October 1990 as issue no. 20 of Sino-Platonic Papers.

The Art of War: a new translation

cover illustration for 'The Art of War', translated by Victor H. MairColumbia University Press recently published what I hope will become recognized as the standard English translation of the Art of War (S?nz? B?ngf? / ????). This is by my friend Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania’s department of Asian and Middle Eastern studies.

With the permission of the author and publisher, I offer below two excerpts from this work.

But first a bit of information from the publisher’s page for this title.

Victor Mair’s translation is the first to remain true to the original structure and essential style of the text.

Mair’s fidelity to the original, along with his insightful commentary and reliance on archaeologically recovered manuscripts, breaks new ground in solving The Art of War‘s difficult textual and contextual problems. He confronts complex questions concerning the authorship of the work, asserting that Sun Wu, a supposed strategist of the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 B.C.E.) to whom the text is traditionally attributed, never existed. Instead, Mair claims that The Art of War coalesced over a period of around seventy-five years, from the middle of the fourth century to the first quarter of the third century B.C.E.

Mair also reveals the way The Art of War reflects historical developments in technological and military strategy in civilizations throughout Eurasia, especially in regards to iron metallurgy. He demonstrates the close link between the philosophy in The Art of War and Taoism and discusses the reception of the text from the classical period to today. Finally, Mair highlights previously unaddressed stylistic and statistical aspects and includes philological annotations that present new ways of approaching the intellectual and social background of the work.

The book also features a foreword by Arthur Waldron that compares and contrasts Sun Zi and Clausewitz (1780-1831).

For those who would rather read the selections below in the original format, they are also available as PDFs:

Please note that at the time of this writing, Amazon’s “search inside” function for this book is screwed up. Instead it uses someone else’s translation. So don’t order what is listed on that site as the paperback edition; because it is the wrong book. (As of February 2008 there is no paperback of Mair’s translation.) But ordering what Amazon lists as the hardback should get you the correct book (ISBN: 978-0-231-13382-1). Or order directly from the publisher should your local bookstores not have this in stock.

OK, now here are the excerpts I promised.

Key Terms

Here are highlighted only several of the more important words and subtle concepts used in the book. Other technical terms and proper nouns are defined in the notes or in the introduction. For a superb handbook of basic Chinese philosophical terms, including many that are featured in the Sun Zi, see Zhang Dainian, Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy, trans. Edmund Ryden.

From The Art of War: Sun Zi’s Military Methods, translated by Victor H. Mair, © 2007 by Columbia University Press. Used by permission of Columbia University Press.

[Webmaster’s note: As Mair notes elsewhere, giving the pronunciations in Pinyin for Modern Standard Mandarin is “purely a convention of modern scholarship and does not reflect at all the pronunciation of Sinitic during the late Warring States period when this text was compiled.”]

bian. Variation, variety, transformation.

bing. The earliest form of the character used to write this word depicts two arms holding up an adze. The basic idea conveyed by this graph subsequently developed from the concrete and limited to the more general and abstract: weapon ? soldier ? troops ? war.

fa. Law, method, model.

bingfa. The combination of the previous two terms, it is usually rendered as “art of war” in English but may more literally be rendered as “soldierly methods,” “military methods,” etc. For further discussion of bingfa, see the introduction, n. 2.

gui. Deceit, deception; something contrary to the norm.

j?. Pivot, moment of change (functions somewhat like a tipping point); the instant just before a new development or shift occurs; the nodal point of a situation in flux. J? also refers to the first, imperceptible beginning of movement in an unstable situation. In organic metaphors, it means “seed, germ.” The sage or superior man can recognize the immanence or incipience of these crucial moments before they become manifest to others. It cannot be stressed too heavily that j? by itself does not mean “opportunity” nor does it mean “crisis,” although it is closer to the latter than to the former because of the extreme instability of a given situation and the unforeseen consequences that may follow.

. Count, calculate; plan; intention. Another word in the Sun Zi sometimes rendered as “plan” is mou (as in the title of chap. 3), though it tends more in the direction of “scheme” or “counsel.” Depending upon the context, and mou may also convey the idea of “strategy” or “stratagem.”

l?. A traditional measure of length equivalent to 300 paces (hence “tricent” in English). It is easy to think of how long a tricent is (about a third of a mile) by recalling that the English word “mile” is derived from Latin milia, millia (“a thousand [paces]”). For those who are not familiar with miles, a tricent is equal to approximately half a kilometer.

. Advantage, benefit; profit, interest (the basic meaning is “sharp,” which is why the character used to write it has a “knife” radical).

mou. See .

. Unformed, energetic substrate of matter; material energy; the primal “stuff ” of the universe; configural energy. In the Sun Zi, it usually refers to the vital force, energy, or morale of the men in the army. For more information on and its metaphysical implications, see Mair (1990:137–38) and Zhang (2002:45–63).

. See zheng.

quan. Power, expedient (assessment)—exerted by the commander in the field. The literal meaning of the morpheme is “horizontal balance,” hence “weigh, judge, (exert) power / authority.” Quan is often associated with bian or (qq.v.).

shi. Configuration, circumstances, efficacy, inertia, power / force (of circumstances), authority, (strategic / positional) advantage. The subject of chap. 5, but also discussed elsewhere in the text, this is one of the key concepts of the Sun Zi. It is also one of the most ineffable.

tianxia. All under heaven, i.e., the empire (writ large).

wen. Civil, culture (contrasts with wu). The evolution of the primary meanings of the graph used to write this word, in simplest terms, is as follows: tattoo ? pattern ? culture / civilization / writing. The earliest meaning of wen as “tattoo” still survives in the expression wen shen (“tattoo the body”). By the time of the Warring States period, however, when the Sun Zi was written, tattooing had become a form of punishment, and different words were used to refer to it, wen itself having transmuted into one of the most exalted terms in the language. See chapter 9, n. 12 and the biography of Sun Bin in the introduction.

wu. Martial, military (contrasts with wen). The character used to write this word shows a shafted weapon and a foot, i.e., a man going off to fight in a war.

xing. Form, shape, disposition. One of the most important tactical concepts in the Sun Zi, it occurs with particularly high frequency in chapter 6, where it means mainly the arrangement of forces, and in chapter 10, where it signifies different types of terrain. There is another word, meaning “punishment,” that is pronounced exactly alike (xing) and is written with a very similar character that one might well expect to find in a work of strategy such as the Sun Zi, but it does not occur even once. The xing meaning “form, shape, disposition” occurs a total of thirty-one times in the Sun Zi. In stark contrast, the xing meaning “punishment” occurs a total of twenty-four times in the Wei Liao Zi, a work which has very little to say about the xing meaning “form, shape, disposition.” Thus the Sun Zi and the Wei Liao Zi, which probably coalesced at approximately the same time (the second half of the fourth century and the early third century, though with the Wei Liao Zi being slightly later) may be said to be in mutual complementarity with regard to the advocacy of these two key concepts of strategy. Clearly the Sun Zi is concerned with tactics but not punishment, and vice versa for the Wei Liao Zi. Similar analyses could be carried out for other principal concepts in all of the extant military treatises from the Warring States and Han periods.

zhan. Battle; specific military actions and engagements, in contrast to bing (q.v.), which is more general and abstract.

zheng. Used in combination with to signify contrasting types of warfare; variously translated as “direct / indirect,” “regular / irregular,” “conventional / unconventional,” “orthodox / unorthodox,” “ordinary / extraordinary,” and so forth. Of these two terms, the more difficult to grasp is , which may be thought of as signifying “odd, strange, singular, unique, craft(y)” or whatever is not zheng (“straight, upright, correct, right, orthodox, normative,” etc). In purely military applications, may be thought of as “special operations” or “unconventional warfare,” whereas zheng are main force deployments and maneuvers. The counterposing of and zheng was not restricted merely to military operations but was applied to politics and morality as well:

Rule the state with uprightness,
Deploy your troops with craft
Gain all under heaven with noninterference.
(Tao te Ching / Dao de jing, 57)

When there is no uprightness,
correct reverts to crafty,
good reverts to gruesome.
(Tao te Ching / Dao de jing, 58)

Nine1 Varieties2

This chapter addresses the question of responding deftly to contingencies and advises awareness of both the advantages and the disadvantages of any action that might be contemplated. The principle of preparedness is proposed as the surest way to avoid disaster.

Master Sun said,
The method of waging war is ordinarily that the general receives a mandate from the ruler, then assembles the army and brings together the masses. He does not encamp on unfavorable terrain; he joins with allies at terrain having a crossroads; he does not linger on forsaken terrain; he devises plans to extricate his forces from surrounded terrain; if he finds himself on desperate terrain he does battle.

There are paths that he does not take; there are armies that he does not strike; there are cities that he does not attack; there are terrains that he does not contest; there are ruler’s orders that he does not accept.3

the general who is versed in the advantages4 of the nine varieties of terrain5 knows how to wage war; the general who is not versed in the advantages of the nine varieties, although he may know the types of terrain, cannot gain the advantages of the terrain. If one prosecutes war without knowing the techniques of the nine varieties, although one may know the five advantages,6 one will not be able to gain the use of one’s men.

For this reason,
in his considerations, he who is wise must pay attention both to advantage and to disadvantage. By paying attention to advantage, his affairs will proceed with assurance; by paying attention to disadvantage, his troubles will be resolved.

For this reason,
that which causes the feudal lords to submit is disadvantage; that which causes the feudal lords to serve is encumbrance; that which causes the feudal lords to give allegiance is advantage.

the method of waging war is not to rely upon the enemy’s not coming, but to rely upon my waiting in readiness for him; it is not to rely upon the enemy’s not attacking, but to rely upon making myself invulnerable to attack.

there are five fatal flaws in a general: recklessness, for he may be killed by the enemy; timidity, for he may be captured by the enemy; irascibility, for he may be provoked by the enemy; incorruptibility, for he may be insulted by the enemy; solicitousness, for he may be made anxious by the enemy. In all of these respects, if a general overdoes them, it will be disastrous for waging war.

The overthrow of an enemy and the killing of a general are the inevitable consequences of these five fatal flaws. They cannot be left unexamined.7


  1. There is vast controversy among Chinese commentators over the significance of “nine” in the title. Some say that it only means “a large number of,” while others contend that it literally means “nine.” In either case, there have been many proposals put forward for which particular group of nine (or many) items is intended. After careful study, the reader is invited to suggest his or her own set of nine (or many) variations. A good place to begin might be to look at chapter 11, “Nine Types of Terrain,” with which the present chapter
    shares considerable overlap and resonance.
    Wang Xi: “I claim that ‘nine’ is simply a very large number. The method of waging war requires infinite variations.”
    Zhang Yu: “‘Variation’ is the method of not being constrained by constancy. This implies that, when one is confronting an evolving situation [i.e., something that is happening], one should follow what is appropriate and act accordingly. Whenever one is struggling with someone else for advantage, it is necessary to know the nine varieties of terrain. Therefore, this chapter comes after ‘The Struggle of Armies.'”
  2. The term bian may be more literally rendered as “transformations.” However, no single translation of bian is suitable for this chapter, since the term is applied to widely different phenomena, including “alternatives” and “contingencies,” aside from “varieties” and “transformations.”
  3. The Yinque Shan bamboo strip manuscripts (pp. 98-99) include a commentary on these five exclusionary (“that he does not”) clauses. The commentary emphasizes and explains the specific conditions under which a general may choose not to carry out certain (viz., the first four) courses of action that he would normally be expected to take. The fifth exclusionary clause subsumes the preceding four clauses: “When the ruler’s orders contravene these four contingencies, they are not to be carried out.”
  4. And disadvantages, of course.
  5. This word is missing in the Song-period Wu jing qi shu (Seven military classics) and Taiping yulan (Imperial survey of the Great Peace [reign period]) editions of the text.
  6. This probably refers to the advantages deriving from the exclusionary clauses iterated above and discussed in n. 3.
  7. Since it appears so frequently at the conclusion of a passage, the injunction “they cannot be left unexamined” would appear to be a formulaic expression in the rhetoric of the period.

Other works by Mair published by Columbia University Press include The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, The Shorter Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, and The Columbia History of Chinese Literature.

massive Korean dictionary of Chinese characters nears completion

The final volumes in what is being touted as the world’s largest Chinese character dictionary are scheduled to be published in May.

The fifteen-volume work (excluding the index) will reportedly cover some 60,000 Chinese characters and include about 500,000 Sinitic words. By comparison, the Zhongwen da cidian (????? / Zh?ngwén dà cídi?n), published in Taiwan in the 1960s covers 49,905 Chinese characters.

The project was initiated by the Institute of Oriental Studies of Dankook University, South Korea, in 1978.

The first volume of the ?????? ? (in Mandarin: Hàn-Hán dà cídi?n; “Dictionary of Chinese characters Korean use,” as it is translated on the institute’s Web site) was issued in 1999. Last year, volumes 10-12 were published.

The project has reportedly cost more than W20 billion (US$21.3 million).

Yet more work may still be needed.

Prof. Kim Eon-jong of the Department of Korean Literature in Classical Chinese at Korea University said, “This project has great significance from the standpoint of cultural history. But it’s a pity that the institute hastened the final stage. It must complement and supplement the dictionary later.”


Reviews of books about China, languages, Buddhism, etc.

Sino-Platonic Papers has rereleased the fourth volume in its series of book reviews: Reviews IV (2.7 MB PDF).

This volume was first published in November 1992.

Here are the books reviewed in this volume:

  • YU Taishan. Saizhong shi yanjiu (A Study of Saka History)
  • QI Rushan. Beijing tuhua [Peking Colloquialisms].
  • Parkin, Robert. A Guide to Austroasiatic Speakers and Their Languages.
  • Rosemont, Henry, Jr., ed. Chinese Texts and Philosophical Contexts: Essays Dedicated to Angus C. Graham.
  • Faure, Bernard. Le Bouddhisme Ch’an en mal d’histoire: genèse d’une tradition religieuse dans la Chine des Tang.
  • Bernard Goldman. The Ancient Arts of Western and Central Asia: A Guide to the Literature.
  • Steven F. Sage. Ancient Sichuan and the Unification of China.
  • Joan Grant. Worm-eaten Hinges: Tensions and Turmoil in Shanghai, 1988-9.
  • Michel Soymie, et al., ed. Catalogue des manuscrits chinois de Touen-houang: Fonds Pelliot chinois de la Bibliothèque Nationale.
  • XIANG Chu, ed. and annot. Wang Fanzhi shi jiao zhu [The Poems of Brahmacârin Wang, Collated and Annotated].
  • François Jullien. La propension des choses: Pour une histoire de l’efficacité en Chine.
  • MORIYASU Takao. Uiguru=Manikyô Shi no Kenkyû (A Study on the History of Uighur Manichaeism. — Research on Some Manichaean Materials and Their Historical Background).
  • ZHOU Yiliang. Zhong-Ri wenhua guanxi shi lun [Essays on Sino-Japanese Cultural Relations].
  • Denis Sinor, ed. The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia.
  • WU Jiacang and JIANG Yuxiang, ed. Gudai xinan sichou zhi tu yanjiu [Studies on the Ancient Southwest Silk Roads].
  • Derk Bodde. Chinese Thought, Society, and Science: The Intellectual and Social Background of Science and Technology in Pre-modern China.
  • YOSHIKAWA Kojiro. Five Hundred Years of Chinese Poetry, 1150-1650: The Chin, Yuan, and Ming Dynasties. Translated with a Preface by John Timothy Wixted. Including an Afterword by William S. Atwell.
  • Mabel Lee and ZHANG Wu-ai. Putonghua: A Practical Course in Spoken Chinese.
  • A. D. Syrokomla-Stefanowska and Mabel Lee. Basic Chinese Grammar and Sentence Patterns.
  • LIU Wei-ping, Mabel Lee, A. J. Prince, Lily Shaw Lee, and R. S. W. Hsu, comp. Readings in Modern Chinese.

This issue also includes a note to the editor from Edwin G. Pulleyblank.

See also