Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Which Resources Do You Recommend for Interpreting Classical Chinese Terminology?

This is a follow-up to Manyul’s recent post about the TLS.

I’m wondering whether professors of Chinese philosophy at English-speaking universities encourage their students to begin to access terms in the original Chinese.  Perhaps it would be as simple as referring them to the glossary in the back of Ivanhoe and Van Norden’s Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy and then prompting them to be aware of those key terms in their reading, or it could be as complex as asking them to research a particular term across various texts.

There are a couple of reasons for asking.  The first is that I have a belief that beginning to entertain the notion that there is more to a Chinese term’s semantic field than is represented in any particular translation yields a more profitable understanding for the student, and (assuming others hold the same belief) I’m curious about how others go about encouraging that.  The second is that the potential of computing power to help in this regard is now quite high, and so I am wondering how electronic resources may be playing a role.  The perspective I’m looking for is that of the professor who is teaching the student who is not competent in Chinese.

There are also other perspectives that will be different but just as illuminating for me: 

  • The student’s perspective.  Suppose your professor introduces a new technical term in class, for instance, 禮 li (ritual propriety), and you want to know more about it. Or suppose you are doing a research paper and want to get a better understanding of 道 dao/tao.  Where would you turn?  What resources would you look to?
  • The professional scholar’s perspective on accessing classical texts and lexical resources for the scholar’s own use.  For instance, suppose you want to know how many times the term 知 appears in the Analects and in what contexts.  How do you go about finding out?  Further, suppose you come across some terms in your reading of the Analects that are not (God forbid) immediately apparent in meaning.  Where do you turn?
  • The non-Chinese-reading philosopher’s perspective.   If you are a practicing philosopher who happens to have an interest in Chinese philosophy but not a few spare years to get up to speed on the language, how do you penetrate the texts?  If you dip into the Chinese, what resources do you use?
  • The scholar’s recommendation for the above.  If you are a scholar competent in Chinese and a colleague asks you to recommend resources for penetrating the technical terminology of classical Chinese philosophy, what would you recommend?
  • The lay person’s perspective.  If you are outside of formal academics but interested in the language of Chinese philosophy, what resources do you use?
Wow, those are a lot of perspectives.  Originally, I had planned on separating them into several different posts, but it occurred to me that responses may likely converge and that one group can learn from another, so it would be better to have them in one place.

One final and related question: if any of the resources you mention are inadequate in any way, what would you envision as a remedy?  What kind of resources do we need that are not already available?


July 1, 2011 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Pedagogy |


  1. Hi Brian,

    These are very good questions. I guess I’m a “lay person,” but I’m going to take a stab at your questions. I’ll answer that question first, i.e., “If you are outside of formal academics but interested in the language of Chinese philosophy, what resources do you use?”
    For dictionaries I use and recommend, see my blog about this HERE. Worth mentioning here are Schuessler’s etymological dictionary, the Kangxi Zidian (online), Donald Sturgeon’s Chinese Text Project and TLS (both online).
    I think the glossary in the back of Ivanhoe and Van Norden’s Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy is helpful, as is Zhang Dainian’s Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy. Using the indexes to find treatments of the various terms in Graham’s Disputers of the Tao, or Schwartz’s The World of Thought in Ancient China would be helpful. As of now, however, I have accumulated quite a few papers by various scholars who have written on specific concepts. (I have also made word documents where I collect information on specific topics/concepts/words: I assume students could do the same, although I would hope teachers would be able to give the students a list of places to look, to save them time.)

    re: “suppose you want to know how many times the term 知 appears in the Analects and in what contexts. How do you go about finding out?”
    — Up until recently, I would use the FIND function in Word to search through the Chinese texts (I have most of them on my hard drive now). But it would now be easier to do that kind of search on TLS, or Stugeon’s site (in the “Texts” section, “advanced search,” “statistics”).

    re: “suppose you come across some terms in your reading of the Analects that are not (God forbid) immediately apparent in meaning. Where do you turn?”
    — I look in various dictionaries and also various translations. For example, for the Analects I would look in Slingerland, Ames, Lau, and Waley.

    re: “What kind of resources do we need that are not already available?”
    — Well, both TLS and The Chinese Text Project are good, and continue to develop. TLS apparently needs more volunteers to input Chinese texts and English translations. Bill Haines has told me he would like to see more (true) interlinear translations of the texts. The “new trend” for translators to include the Chinese text somewhere close to the translation is really helpful. Obviously, for long texts like the Huainanzi, this might not be feasible, and publishers often have different views, but I think this is the way to go. It has certainly helped me immensely.

    Comment by Scott "Bao Pu" Barnwell | July 2, 2011 | Reply

  2. Hi Brian, A great set of questions! I would say that two key resources are multiple translations of a single text, and commentaries (traditional and/or contemporary) on a given text.

    One of the key moments in my college education, I have come to realize, took place early in my freshman year when I read the Iliad and the Odyssey back-to-back, the first in Latimore’s translation that strives to capture the cadence and structure of the Greek, and second in Fitzgerald’s translation that aims to capture the beauty of Homer’s poetry. There are differences between the two texts in the original Greek, I suppose, but what came through for me was the way that translation serves as a lens that can bring into focus some, but not all, aspects of the original.

    We can do the same thing–and, along the way, bring out different aspects of the semantic field of key terms–by finding ways to assign multiple translations. It’s also a great approach for the non-Chinese-reading philosophers you talk about. (When Michael Slote and I taught our NEH Summer Seminar on Confucianism to philosophers meeting precisely this description, we tried our best to have the participants read multiple translations.) Of course, not all translations are equally valuable, and so being able to discuss the reason for differences in interpretation/translation with a competent instructor is a key part of the process.

    Commentaries also help, and so I like the way that the Hackett series of translations, in particular, is experimenting with different ways to make commentaries on a given passage available and salient, without too badly obstructing the flow of the main text. As Henderson, Makeham, Gardner, and others have emphsized, commentaries also come out of a context and consciously engage in “focusing” the meaning in a particular way, but this in no way undermines their usefulness.

    Comment by Steve Angle | July 3, 2011 | Reply

  3. I think that you’ve answered the question for yourselves pretty well with a previous post: https://warpweftandway.wordpress.com/2011/06/09/thesaurus-linguae-sericae/
    This project appears to work to integrate things that professionals and laymen want in these archive sites.

    I’ve also used the Shuhai Wenyuan, especially when I had grammatical questions: http://shuhai.dsturgeon.net/

    Comment by Joshua Harwood | July 4, 2011 | Reply

  4. Regarding resources I agree with what’s been said. Another source of good beginning guidance, I think, is the old “Literary Chinese by the Inductive Method” books by Herrlee Creel, though they’re out of print.

    I’ve come to rely heavily on Sturgeon searches. (I haven’t tried searches in TLS.) A Sturgeon-search can be helpful even if one’s Chinese is limited, for these reasons: 1. Many texts on the site (even in search results) are presented along with English translations, albeit old ones, which can be helpful in parsing the Chinese 2. A button to the left of each passage will give you the passage set up so that rolling your cursor over a character displays a dictionary’s set of dictionary definitions for the character (and below the passage, the definitions of all characters in the passage are set out in order of first appearance). The definitions are a poor source for researching a character directly, but they can help you understand the context of the character you are researching. 3. If you don’t have a Chinese font in your computer, you can still search for a character by copying and pasting into the search box.

    People whose Chinese is better may find that going through the results of a large Sturgeon-search is quicker if one uses CTRL-F to highlight each occurrence of the search term.

    I used to be a professional philosopher (mostly Anglo ethics and Greek, and then a cumulative three years or so working on early Chinese). I rarely got to teach Chinese philosophy. In my teaching generally, which was mainly at the intro level, I preferred to use rather than attack the view that words can be defined, because I found it a very good way to persuade students that they can make progress by thinking. I would have them work collectively on definitions of some relatively easy words, starting with ‘paint’. One of them would propose a definition and I’d write it on the board. Then I’d solicit a counterexample (pointing out that there are two kinds: non-paint that fits the definition, and paint that doesn’t). Then I’d solicit a revision to avoid the counterexample. Then I’d solicit a counterexample. Then a revision. And again and again, so students would see a way to make progress in thinking (not just about definitions) by having a dialogue with oneself. After several cycles with ‘paint’, we’d end up with a definition that says “paint is a liquid that…” – and I’d point out that they’ve been looking at lots of paint the whole time, it’s all around them, and not one bit of it fits the definition. Moral of the story: you – even you – can make lots of progress just by thinking, because good thinking doesn’t have to look beyond what you already know, what’s obvious. The main thing is to actually notice the obvious and take it into account. The exercise can also help students feel comfortable talking in class, and to think of discussion as something other than either self-expression or a debate contest.

    An modified – extended – version of the exercise might help students develop a more sophisticated view of what the meaning of a word looks like, so to speak. The trick would be to do it without undermining what I think is an important engine of philosophical work: the stubborn faith that elegant answers to big questions just might be found.

    Comment by Bill Haines | July 5, 2011 | Reply

  5. For students at the introductory level I like the Routledge 2 volume _Encyclopedia of Confucianism_ (edited by Yao), or the _Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy_ (edited by Cua). The nice thing about the former is that each entry usually has a couple of references to secondary scholarship in English.

    For my own research I like the CHANT database (www.chant.org), the Sturgeon website, and the Sikuquanshu online. I’ve also found an electronic version of the Hanyudacidian to be helpful. And, as pointed out above, looking at various translations of a text can be invaluable.

    Comment by Agui | July 7, 2011 | Reply

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