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Although long out of date, Bernard Karlgren’s (1957) remains the most convenient work for looking up Middle Chinese (ca.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.

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 (Dàodéjīng, 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.

interviews with Y.R. Chao

I’ve just stumbled across a book-length series of interviews with Y.R. Chao (Zhao Yuanren / Zhào Yuánrèn / 趙元任 / 赵元任). Even better: The complete text is available for free on the Web!

China Scholars Series: Chinese linguist, phonologist, composer and author, Yuen Ren Chao. An Interview Conducted by Rosemany Levenson, with an introduction by Mary Haas.

Wow. This is absolutely fabulous. The Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley, deserves praise for this. Other works of interest to readers of Pinyin News are also available; but more about those later, in separate posts.

In case any readers are not familiar with Chao (1892-1982), he was the finest linguist ever to come out of China. He was also a supporter of romanization; he was even the lead creator of an ingenious if somewhat complicated romanization system for Mandarin: Gwoyeu Romatzyh. But there’s no way a few short sentences could do justice to the depth and breadth of Chao’s learning. To get a better idea of the man, read the introduction to the work linked to above — and then read the rest!


Further reading: Y.R. Chao’s translation into Gwoyeu Romatzyh of the Humpty Dumpty section of Through the Looking-Glass, with Hanyu Pinyin and English

Pure Land Buddhism and Amida Buddha: a historical and philological analysis

Sino-Platonic Papers has rereleased for free Life and Light, the Infinite: A Historical and Philological Analysis of the Amida Cult (2.2 MB PDF), by Soho Machida.

Here’s a bit of borrowed biographical information about the author:

Soho Machida spent twenty years as a Zen monk at Daitokuji monastery, Kyoto, before moving to the United States, where he received a master’s degree in theological studies from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught at Princeton University and the National University of Singapore, and is now a professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. He has written extensively on religion and ethics.

And here’s the table of contents of the work.

  1. Two Names of Amida Buddha
  2. Amida, Amita, or Amrta?
  3. Amida Buddha and Indian Mythology
  4. Which came first, Amitayus or Amitabha?
  5. The Idea of Luminosity in Mahayana Thought
  6. The Encounter of Buddhism and Zoroastrianism
  7. Luminosity and the Cult of Mithra
  8. Parallel Features with Iranian Religion
  9. The Old Religion of the Indo-Iranians
  10. Conclusion
  11. Endnotes
  12. Bibliography

This was originally published in December 1988 as issue no. 9 of Sino-Platonic Papers.

On dictionary compilation and the etymology of loanwords in Sinitic

The latest free reissue by Sino-Platonic Papers is Hànyǔ wàiláicí de yǔyuán kǎozhèng hé cídiǎn biānzuǎn (Philological Research on the Etymology of Loanwords in Sinitic and Dictionary Compilation / 漢語外來詞的語源考證和詞典編纂 / 汉语外来词的语源考证和词典编纂 ), by Xú Wénkān (徐文堪 / Xu Wenkan) of the editorial offices of the Hanyu Da Cidian.

It was first published in February 1993 as issue no. 36 of Sino-Platonic Papers.

This issue is in Mandarin, not English, and is written (by hand) in Chinese characters.

The file of this issue is a 1 MB PDF.

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.