Translating Modernity

Foreign translators, lexicographers and their Chinese assistants were a busy lot in the late nineteenth century. Their collaborative efforts and their contributions to modern Chinese lexicology were profound, yet who really remembers their works? Although their achievements seem nowadays to be little more than curios relegated to the shelves of archives or rare book collections in libraries, they provide a unique trajectory of how foreign terminology, including musical terms entered modern Chinese.

The bulk of texts written and translated by foreign missionary educators and their Chinese collaborators at the Tongwenguan in Beijing and the Kiangnan Arsenal in Shanghai included science, history, geography, geometry, chemistry, law and medicine.

As the translation of these texts had to be rendered into acceptable literary Chinese that was beyond the capabilities of most missionary scholars, an oral transmission of the original text was read to a Chinese assistant who then wrote it down. This procedure was no different to what Jesuit missionaries were doing two and a half centuries earlier, and if we comb the earliest translations of Buddhist texts in China, we will find that this collaborative process has a long history.

Let's look at a few examples. The American Baptist missionary Carl T. Kreyer and his Chinese assistant Cai Xiling compiled a trumpet manual  titled 喇叭吹法 published by the Kiangnan Arsenal in 1877. Cai could have chosen a phonetic transliteration for trumpet, but he used 喇叭 presumably because the Chinese instrument (also called 唢呐) share a similar curved-back flaring bell.

Wang Tao (1828-1897), one of the founders of modern journalism in China, used the word dānchún (单纯) a phonetic transliteration of the English 'dance' in his Jottings of Carefree Travels (1867) to describe 'men and women in western countries' moving about rhythmically in fixed steps or sequences to music. He writes:

In Western countries men and women assemble for what is known in their language as 'Dancing.' It can perhaps be seen as a survival of the Miao custom of dancing in courtship under the moonlight, as is still practised in Japan and other countries to the east. To the British it is a form of amusement. Each year in June and July big gatherings are held, and what a sight they are! A hundred, or perhaps two or three hundred handsome boys and girls, twelve to sixteen years old, are chosen from the town and partnered up by age. They are first taught the steps by a female instructor, taking months of practice to master them. Each of the various dances is named according to step and rhythm.
Liang Qichao's 'new-style prose' was imbued with vocabulary from Chinese Buddhism, Daoism, the Yijing, and vernacular novels. He also favoured the Japanese variants, what are often called  'graphic loans.' The loans as Lydia Liu writes referred to 'classical Chinese character compounds that were used by the Japanese to translate modern European words and were introduced into modern Chinese.'

Foreign loanwords expressed an allegiance to something 'new' and 'modern,' but transliterating foreign names and words was far from standardized.  Liang bemoaned of names ‘being translated in a hundred different ways by a hundred people.' Robert Morrison, Elijah C. Bridgman, William Milne and other Protestant missionaries grappled with attempting phonetic transcriptions as did many of their Chinese collaborators. If we swing the lexical pendulum in the other direction, foreign lexicographers of English-Chinese dictionaries in the nineteenth century found a number of Chinese terms for the one English word.

In Lobscheid's English and Chinese Dictionary (1867) the entry for 'school’ includes the following:


Each of the Chinese renderings of 'school' has slightly different shades of meaning. The word 学校 was reintroduced from the Japanese gakkō, but as Masini points out 学校 was already used by Mencius, employed by Guido Aleni in Zhifang waiji (Records of the Places Outside the Jurisdiction of the Office of Geography) in 1623 in Hangzhou and by Fan Shouyi in Shenjianlu (My Observations) ca. 1720 'to refer to the European school system.'

Liu Ching-chih describes the lack of uniform transcription rules in rendering foreign musical terms and names in the early twentieth century:

Most of the translations were for teaching purposes, especially during the first half of the 20th century during which there were practically no music text books on the development of European music, compositional techniques and aesthetics. In view of this, teachers at conservatories of music and university music faculties had to compile their own textbooks by rendering articles and books in foreign languages into Chinese.

Let’s now have a look at some instruments rendered into Chinese taken from several texts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

These examples are taken from 'Appendix III' in my unpublished doctoral dissertation School Songs and Modernity in Late Qing and Early Republican China, Monash University, Melbourne, 2000.

1. 阿保笛 (oboe). Modern equivalent: 双簧管. Used by Xiao Youmei in ‘Introduction to Music '音乐概说', in 学报, no. 1, 1907.

2. 阿尔赓 (organ). Modern equivalent: 风琴. Used by Guo Songdao in London and Paris Diaries, 1876-1879 (伦敦与巴黎日记). 风琴 is used by Zeng Zhimin in ‘音乐教育论 (1904) and Xiao Youmei in '音乐概说,' 1907. Cf. 大筒琴 rendered as ‘European organ in Lobscheid English and Ch:inese Dictionary (1867, vol 3:1256).

3. 古拉料捏笛 (clarinet). Modern equivalent: 单双管. Used by Xiao Youmei in '音乐概说' 1907. Cf. 掂笛 in Lobscheid English and Chinese Dictionary (1867, vol 1, p. 395).

4. 洋琴 (piano). Modern equivalent: 钢琴. Used by Li Shutong in ‘Biographical Sketch of Beethoven,’ in 音乐小杂志, issue 1, 1906. Cf. 大洋琴 皮亚娜 披雅娜. 'Pianist' in K. Hemeling (1916: 1308) is rendered as 弹钢琴家and 大洋琴家. 钢琴 is used by A.H Mateer New Terms for New Ideas: A Study of the Chinese Newspapers (1913:70).


Hemeling, K, English-Chinese Dictionary of the Standard Spoken Language and Handbook for Translators, Shanghai: Statistical Department of the Inspectorate General of Customs, 1916.

Lobscheid, W, English and Chinese Dictionary with Punti and Mandarin Pronunciation, Hong Kong: Daily Press, 1867, vols. 1-4.

Liu, Lydia Translingual Practice: Literature,National Culture and Translated Modernity in China 1900-1937, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995:331.

Masini, Federico, The Formation of Modern Chinese Lexicon and Its Evolution Toward a National Language: The Period from 1840-1898, Department of Oriental Studies, University of Rome, 1993.

Mateer, A. H., New Terms for New Ideas: A Study of the Chinese Newspapers, Shanghai: Presbyterian Mission Press, 1913.

'Selections from Jottings of Carefree Travel by Wang Tao (trans. Ian Chapman), Renditions 53, 54 (Spring and Autumn): 2000, p 172.

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