The Tao of semiotics. Zen and etymology.

Sino-Platonic Papers has rereleased for free Tracks of the Tao, Semantics of Zen (950 KB PDF), by Victor H. Mair.

After a brief introduction, Mair, who has translated more than one classic Taoist text, asks, “How did Tao and Zen enter our vocabulary? And what do these two extraordinarily powerful words really mean?”

He then enters into a “somewhat lengthy excursion into the neglected realm of philology” but keeps to his word to “try to make it as painless and entertaining as possible.”

It’s a fascinating and wide-ranging essay, especially for those interested in historical linguistics.

This is issue no. 17 of Sino-Platonic Papers. It was originally released in April 1990.

‘Indo-European Vocabulary in Old Chinese’

Sino-Platonic Papers has rereleased for free Indo-European Vocabulary in Old Chinese. A New Thesis on the Emergence of Chinese Language and Civilization in the Late Neolithic Age (2.9 MB PDF), by Tsung-tung Chang of Goethe-Universität.

Here’s the table of contents:

  1. Recent developments in the field of historical linguistics
  2. Monosyllabic structure of Chinese words and Indo-European stems
  3. Tonal accents of Middle Chinese
  4. Preliminaries on the comparison of consonants and vowels
  5. Some IE stems corresponding to Chinese words of entering tone
  6. Middle Chinese tones and final consonants of IE stems
  7. Some IE stems corresponding to Chinese words of rising tone
  8. Some IE stems corresponding to Chinese words of vanishing tone
  9. Some IE stems corresponding to Chinese words of level tone
  10. Reconstruction of Middle Chinese vocalism according to Yün-ching
  11. Old Chinese vocalism
  12. Vocalic correspondences between Chinese and IE
  13. Initials of Old Chinese
  14. Initial consonant clusters in Old Chinese as seen from IE-stems
  15. Proximity of Chinese to Germanic
  16. Relation of Old Chinese to neighboring languages
  17. Emergence of Chinese Empire and language in the middle of the third millennium B.C.


  • Abbrevations
  • Bibliography
  • Rhyme Tables of Early Middle Chinese (600)
  • Rhyme Tables of Early Mandarin (1300)
  • Word Index
    • English
    • Pinyin

This was first published in January 1988 as issue no. 7 of the journal.

Indian influence on Chinese popular literature: a bibliography

Sino-Platonic Papers has rereleased for free another book-length back issue: A Partial Bibliography for the Study of Indian Influence on Chinese Popular Literature (10.8 MB PDF), by Victor H. Mair.

Here are the contents:

  • Journals and Works Referred to in Abbreviated Fashion
  • Catalogs of Tun-huang Manuscripts and Bibliographies of Studies on Them
  • Chinese Studies, Texts, Translations, and Dictionaries
  • Japanese and Korean Studies, Texts, Translations, and Dictionaries; Southeast Asian Sinitic Dictionaries
  • South and Southeast Asian and Buddhicized Central Asian Texts, Translations, and Dictionaries (Includes Indic, Tibetan, Uighur, Indonesian, etc.)
  • Near and Middle Eastern Texts, Translations, and Dictionaries
  • Studies and Texts in European Languages (Other than Translations from the Above Groups)
  • Films, Performances, Lectures, Unpublished Manuscripts, and Personal Communications
  • Articles and Books Not Seen

The introduction is also online in quick-loading HTML format.

This was first published in March 1987 as issue no. 3 of Sino-Platonic Papers.

Reviews of books on oracle bones, language and script, violence in China, etc.: SPP

Sino-Platonic Papers has rereleased the third volume in its series of book reviews: Reviews III (8.3 MB PDF).

This volume was first published in October 1991.

The main topics of the books in this volume are

  • Violence in China
  • Scientific Stagnation in Traditional China.
  • Oracle Shell and Bone Inscriptions (OSBIs)
  • Proto-Language And Culture
  • Language and Script
  • Reference Tools for Sinitic Languages
  • Literature and the Life of Peking
  • Religion and Philosophy
  • Words
  • The New World
  • “Barbarian” Business
  • South Asia
  • Miscellaneous

For those who hesitate to download such a large file without knowing which books were reviewed, you may consult the table of contents (small HTML file).

linguistic nationalism and Hoklo (Taiwanese, Minnan)

Sino-Platonic Papers has rereleased its August 1991 issue: Linguistic Nationalism: The Case of Southern Min.

An excerpt from the introduction:

In this paper, I will explore aspects of the social value of Southern Min. I draw on data collected in three Southern Min-speaking communities in which I have done participant-observation fieldwork: Penang, Malaysia; Tainan, Taiwan, and Xiamen (Amoy), the People’s Republic of China, focusing in particular on the political importance of Southern Min in Tainan. I take as one goal that of drawing attention to the importance of regional identities and differences in Chinese society, differences all too often disregarded by those who seek to reify ‘Chinese culture’ as a monolithic entity.

Also, the color scheme of the online catalog for Sino-Platonic Papers has been adjusted a little in order to make clearer which issues are presently available for free download.

SPP: Ch’an/Zen Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism

Sino-Platonic Papers has rereleased Buddhist Influence on the Neo-Confucian Concept of the Sage, by Pratoom Angurarohita.

This is issue no. 10 and was first published in June 1989.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction.

There are three lines of thought that can be traced as the main sources of Neo-Confucianism. The first is Confucianism itself. The second is Buddhism, via the medium of the Ch’an [Zen] sect, for of all the schools of Buddhism, Ch’an was the most influential at the time of the formation of Neo-Confucianism. The third is the Taoist religion, of which the cosmological view of the Yin-Yang school formed an important element. The cosmology of the Neo-Confucianists is chiefly connected with this line of thought.

Since Buddhism had become an intimate part of Chinese intellectual life for several centuries, it was impossible for the Sung reformists to replace Buddhism entirely by their new philosophy. While using concepts found in the Confucian Classics, the Neo-Confucianists interpreted them in the light of Buddhist understanding. To limit the topic of study, this paper will examine only the influence of Buddhism on the Neo-Confucian concept of the sage, focusing on sagehood as an attainable goal and self-cultivation. The study of the concept of the sage in Neo-Confucianism will show not only the Buddhist influence, but also the development of the concept from early Confucianism.

The full essay is also available as a PDF (1.6 MB), which preserves the look of the original printed issue.

scripts related to Chinese characters — an article

sample of some of the scripts discussed in the paper; click to view the articleThe most recent rerelease from Sino-Platonic Papers is The Family of Chinese Character-Type Scripts, by Zhou Youguang, one of the main people behind the creation of Hanyu Pinyin. So it’s no surprise that his name has come up before in Pinyin News.

This article, from September 1991, categorizes and briefly discusses more than a dozen scripts derived from Chinese characters, most of which were used inside China by non-Han people.

The link above is to an HTML version. The original format of the article is preserved in the PDF file (650 KB).

Critique of ordering of dictionaries for Mandarin Chinese

Sino-Platonic Papers has rereleased for free its very first issue, from February 1986: The Need for an Alphabetically Arranged General Usage Dictionary of Mandarin Chinese: A Review Article of Some Recent Dictionaries and Current Lexicographical Projects (1.5 MB PDF), by Professor Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.

This is an important essay that helped lead to the production of the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, which is my favorite Mandarin-English dictionary.

Here is how it begins:

As a working Sinologist, each time I look up a word in my Webster’s or Kenkyusha‘s I experience a sharp pang of deprivation Having slaved over Chinese dictionaries arranged in every imaginable order (by K’ang-hsi radical, left-top radical, bottom-right radical, left-right split, total stroke count, shape of successive strokes, four-corner, three-corner, two-corner, kuei-hsieh, ts’ang-chieh, telegraphic code, rhyme tables, “phonetic” keys, and so on ad nauseam), I have become deeply envious of specialists in those languages, such as Japanese, Indonesian, Hindi, Persian, Russian, Turkish, Korean, Vietnamese, and so forth, which possess alphabetically arranged dictionaries. Even Zulu, Swahili, Akkadian (Assyrian), and now Sumerian have alphabetically ordered dictionaries for the convenience of scholars in these areas of research.

It is a source of continual regret and embarrassment that, in general, my colleagues in Chinese studies consult their dictionaries far less frequently than do those in other fields of area studies. But this is really not due to any glaring fault of their own and, in fact, they deserve more sympathy than censure. The difficulties are so enormous that very few students of Chinese are willing to undertake integral translations of texts, preferring instead to summarize, paraphrase, excerpt and render into their own language those passages which are relatively transparent Only individuals with exceptional determination, fortitude, and stamina are capable of returning again and again to the search for highly elusive characters in a welter of unfriendly lexicons. This may be one reason why Western Sinology lags so far behind Indology (where is our Böthlingk and Roth or Monier-Williams?), Greek studies (where is our Liddell and Scott?), Latin studies (Oxford Latin Dictionary), Arabic studies (Lane’s, disappointing in its arrangement by “roots” and its incompleteness but grand in its conception and scope), and other classical disciplines. Incredibly, many Chinese scholars with advanced degrees do not even know how to locate items in supposedly standard reference works or do so only with the greatest reluctance and deliberation. For those who do make the effort, the number of hours wasted in looking up words in Chinese dictionaries and other reference tools is absolutely staggering. What is most depressing about this profligacy, however, is that it is completely unnecessary. I propose, in this article, to show why.

First, a few definitions are required, What do I mean by an “alphabetically arranged dictionary”? I refer to a dictionary in which all words (tz’u) are interfiled strictly according to pronunciation. This may be referred to as a “single sort/tier/layer alphabetical” order or series. I most emphatically do not mean a dictionary arranged according to the sounds of initial single graphs (tzu), i.e. only the beginning syllables of whole words. With the latter type of arrangement, more than one sort is required to locate a given term. The head character must first be found and then a separate sort is required for the next character, and so on. Modern Chinese languages and dialects are as polysyllabic as the vast majority of other languages spoken in the world today (De Francis, 1984). In my estimation, there is no reason to go on treating them as variants of classical Chinese, which is an entirely different type of language. Having dabbled in all of them, I believe that the difference between classical Chinese and modern Chinese languages is at least as great as that between Latin and Italian, between classical Greek and modern Greek or between Sanskrit and Hindi. Yet no one confuses Italian with Latin, modern Greek with classical Greek, or Sanskrit with Hindi. As a matter of fact there are even several varieties of pre-modern Chinese just as with Greek (Homeric, Horatian, Demotic, Koine), Sanskrit (Vedic, Prakritic, Buddhist Hybrid), and Latin (Ciceronian, Low, Ecclesiastical, Medieval, New, etc.). If we can agree that there are fundamental structural differences between modern Chinese languages and classical Chinese, perhaps we can see the need for devising appropriately dissimilar dictionaries for their study.

One of the most salient distinctions between classical Chinese and Mandarin is the high degree of polysyllabicity of the latter vis-a-vis the former. There was indeed a certain percentage of truly polysyllabic words in classical Chinese, but these were largely loan- words from foreign languages, onomatopoeic borrowings from the spoken language, and dialectical expressions of restricted currency. Conversely, if one were to compile a list of the 60,000 most commonly used words and expressions in Mandarin, one would discover that more than 92% of these are polysyllabic. Given this configuration, it seems odd, if not perverse, that Chinese lexicographers should continue to insist on ordering their general purpose dictionaries according to the sounds or shapes of the first syllables of words alone.

Even in classical Chinese, the vast majority of lexical items that need to be looked up consist of more than one character. The number of entries in multiple character phrase books (e.g., P’ien-tzu lei-pien [approximately 110,000 entries in 240 chüan], P’ei-wen yün-fu [roughly 560,000 items in 212 chüan]) far exceeds those in the largest single character dictionaries (e.g., Chung-hua ta tzu-tien [48,000 graphs in four volumes], K’ang-hsi tzu-tien [49,030 graphs]). While syntactically and grammatically many of these multisyllabic entries may not be considered as discrete (i.e. bound) units, they still readily lend themselves to the principle of single-sort alphabetical searches. Furthermore, a large proportion of graphs in the exhaustive single character dictionaries were only used once in history or are variants and miswritten forms. Many of them are unpronounceable and the meanings of others are impossible to determine. In short, most of the graphs in such dictionaries are obscure and arcane. Well over two-thirds of the graphs in these comprehensive single character dictionaries would never be encountered in the entire lifetime of even the most assiduous Sinologist (unless, of course, he himself were a lexicographer). This is not to say that large single character dictionaries are unnecessary as a matter of record. It is, rather, only to point out that what bulk they do have is tremendously deceptive in terms of frequency of usage.

Strongly recommended.