CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 13, March 2008


Lionel Giles: Sinology, Old and New | China Heritage Quarterly

Lionel Giles: Sinology, Old and New

John Minford

The following excerpt is from a preface to a reissuing of Lionel Giles' translation of Sunzi's The Art of War. It is a timely addition to our general discussion of 'New Sinology' (see <> and David Hawkes, 'Chinese: Classical, Modern and Humane', in China Heriage Quarterly, Issue 12, December 2007). John Minford's own translation of Sunzi's text was published by Penguin Classics in 2003.—GRB

Lionel Giles' translation of The Art of War, now almost a hundred years old, has stood the test of time very well. Lionel, like his more famous father Herbert (1845-1935), was a fine Sinologist of the old school. He was born on the 29 December 1875, at Sutton in Surrey, where his grandfather was Rector of the local church.[1] He was his father's fourth son by his first wife Catherine Fenn (the first two sons died in China in infancy), and died on 22 January 1958. He was educated privately in Belgium (Liège), Austria (Feldkirch), and Aberdeen,[2] and subsequently completed his education at Wadham College, Oxford University, where he studied Classics, obtaining his BA in 1899 (First Class Honours in Mods, Second Class in Greats). Lionel seems to have been a self-effacing individual. It is interesting to note that Herbert Giles, in his Memoirs, confesses that his son Lionel acted as a 'devil' for him in writing the substantial 1910 China entries for the new edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.[3] His willingness to be a 'backroom boy', to work quietly for others, seems to have characterised Lionel's life as a scholar.

During almost his entire professional career, he worked in the British Museum (which then incorporated what is now the British Library), entering it in 1900, and eventually rising to become Keeper of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts in 1936. There he worked with such distinguished 'orientalists' as Laurence Binyon (1869-1943; worked in the Museum 1893-1933) and Arthur Waley (1889-1966; worked in the Museum 1913-1930). Lionel Giles retired officially in 1940, but continued to work informally in the Museum until a few years before his death. Unjustly neglected by today's students of China, he represents an era of Sinology when a scrupulous respect for and familiarity with ancient texts was combined with a broad reading in several European languages, engagement with major intellectual issues and trends of the day, and a fluent English prose style. He produced a series of translations for the general reader of some of the great classics of Chinese philosophy—The Sayings of Lao Tzu (1904), Musings of a Chinese Mystic: Selections from the Philosophy of Chuang Tzu [selected and adapted from Herbert Giles' version] (1906), The Sayings of Confucius (1907), Taoist Teachings from the Book of Lieh Tzu (1912), The Book of Mencius (1942), A Gallery of Chinese Immortals (1948)—all titles published in John Murray's excellent Wisdom of the East series, edited by Cranmer-Byng father and son. He also published a vast number of scholarly articles and shorter translations (many in the pages of the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, or T'oung Pao), and several valuable bibliographical studies including An Alphabetical Index to the Chinese Encyclopedia, which he finished in 1911 (the year after his Art of War translation). He quietly helped many other workers in the field, as when he undertook the huge task of proofreading W. E. Soothill (1861-1935) and Lewis Hodous's (b.1872) Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms.[4] Soothill, who was Professor of Chinese at Oxford, in his Preface dated 1934, gave thanks, hailing Lionel as the 'illustrious son of an illustrious parent', and referring to his 'ripe scholarship and experienced judgement'. Soothill died shortly after writing the preface. Three years later (1937), his collaborator Hodous wrote a Preface, from Hartford, Connecticut, praising Lionel's work in glowing terms: 'Dr Giles ... has had to assume a responsibility quite unexpected by himself and by us. For two to three years, with unfailing courtesy and patience, he has considered and corrected the very trying pages of the proofs, while the Dictionary was being printed. He gave chivalrously of his long knowledge both of Buddhism and of the Chinese literary characters.'

In 1951, Lionel Giles was honoured by King George VI who made him a C.B.E. 'in recognition of his services to Sinology'—a most appropriate citation. In a fine obituary, printed in the Hong Kong University Journal of Oriental Studies in 1960, J. L. Cranmer-Byng writes of his friend as a 'slight figure, a mild looking man with a rapt expression... Giles once confessed to me that he was a Taoist at heart, and I can well believe it, since he was fond of a quiet life, and was free of that extreme form of combative scholarship which seems to be the hall mark of most Sinologists.' He was 'particularly fond of his home, The Knoll, in the village of Abbot's Langley near Watford. Here in summer weather he liked to sit in his small but well-grown garden and chat with a congenial friend or two.' He was apparently a methodical and neat man. His manuscript of A Gallery of Chinese Immortals was 'beautifully written in a neat hand with the footnotes added in red ink.' Cranmer-Byng also alludes to Lionel Giles' important role as Secretary of the China Society (he took this on in 1911).

Lionel Giles wrote countless excellent book reviews for the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. He was capable of being most generous in his appraisal of others (more so than his father). Of Lin Yutang's The Wisdom of China he wrote: 'Brilliant and versatile as ever, he is able to give us a better insight into the hearts of his countrymen than any other writer.'[5] On the subject of Pearl Buck's version of the novel Shuihuzhuan, he wrote: 'One feels that the author of The Good Earth, with her broad and tolerant outlook on life, was the predestined translator of this work [All Men Are Brothers], instinct as it is with a warm, comprehensive humanity.'[6] But he could also be severely, if politely, critical, as in his review of E. R. Hughes' Chinese Philosophy in Classical Times: 'Though his fluency never deserts him, one cannot help feeling that it is being used not so much to fill the gaps in our knowledge as to conceal the deficiencies in his... We begin to wonder if the writer is fully competent to undertake a piece of work involving so much translation from the Chinese...'[7] In a lengthy review of Arthur Waley's Catalogue of Paintings Recovered from Tun-huang, he begins by singing his Museum colleague's praises: 'It is ... fortunate that the Catalogue has been prepared by a scholar of the calibre of Mr. Waley. Indeed, it is hardly too much to say that he is the one man in this country who combines sufficient knowledge of Buddhism, Oriental art, and the Chinese language to undertake such a task.' But Giles goes on to devote fourteen pages to a list of polite but precise, fearless and judicious corrections, on occasions including the eminent French Sinologue Pelliot: 'Both Mr Waley and Professor Pelliot are wrong here...'[8] Contrast this with the earlier heated exchange in the pages of the New China Review between Waley and Giles père on the subject of translating Chinese poetry.[9]

From time to time, Lionel used the occasion of a book review to put forward a well-considered argument on some general matter, as when writing about Xiao Qian's Etchings of a Tormented Age: 'He begins by telling how the collapse of the Manchu Empire led to a further revolution in the world of letters, in which the plain vernacular was universally adopted in place of the age-hallowed classical style. This is putting it too strongly. Chinese as it is actually spoken is too clumsy and diffuse to be suitable for most forms of literary expression, especially poetry; and although the old allusive, carefully balanced style of composition has been generally abandoned, it cannot be said that its place has been taken by the language of the market-place. There are many gradations between these two extremes, and even in journalism some compromise has been found necessary. Admittedly some change in the direction of greater simplicity was called for; but now that the first flush of revolutionary enthusiasm is over the reformers are beginning to realize how difficult it is for a nation to cut itself off from tradition and make an entirely fresh start. Our own great innovator, Wordsworth, found it impossible in the long run to use the language of common speech consistently for poetic purposes, and it may reasonably be doubted whether poems will ever be written in the vernacular to compare with those of the great T'ang masters. All the more must our sympathy go out to those ardent spirits who are struggling to solve so complex a problem, in order that Chinese literature may continue to prove not unworthy of its glorious past.'[10]

He was sometimes highly critical of the missionary bias of the previous generation of translators, as in the Introduction to his own Analects, where he takes James Legge and others to task: 'The truth is, though missionaries and other zealots have long attempted to obscure the fact, that the moral teaching of Confucius is absolutely the purest and least open to the charge of selfishness of any in the world.' He goes on to claim: 'Confucianism really represents a more advanced stage of civilisation than biblical Christianity... His whole system is based on nothing more nor less than the knowledge of human nature.'[11]

As a critic of translation, he could be firm: 'M. Margouliès has a nice appreciation of Chinese literary composition which is remarkable in a foreigner; he can savour the fine points of style that distinguish authors of different dynasties and different schools; yet apparently he cannot see that a rigidly literal translation of these same authors must almost necessarily obliterate the style which is of their very essence, and reduce them all to a dead level devoid of inspiration... [And yet] good French prose, with its grace, flexibility and lightness of touch, is precisely the medium which would appear best suited for the rendering of ku-wen.'[12] Lionel proceeds to compares the French version unfavourably with his father's versions in Gems of Chinese Literature.[13]

During his long tenure at the British Museum, Lionel Giles worked on an exhaustive catalogue of the priceless collection of some seven thousand manuscripts dating between c.400 and 1000CE, which the explorer Aurel Stein had brought back from the oasis of Dunhuang after 1907. This life's work of his finally bore fruit in 1957, a year before his death, with the publication of the magnificently produced and impeccably researched descriptive Catalogue of the Chinese Manuscripts from Tunhuang in the British Museum (xxv + 333 pp).[14] 85% of the manuscripts were of Buddhist texts, 3% Taoist, 12% secular or non-religious. 'It was no light task', he wrote in 1941, 'even in a physical sense, for the total length of the sheets which had constantly to be unrolled and rolled up again must have amounted to something between ten and twenty miles.' A simpler introduction to the subject is provided in his booklet for the China Society, Six Centuries at Tunhuang (1944), based on a lecture delivered in October 1941.

Lionel Giles was a fluent and elegant translator, with a wide repertoire of expressions. Take this passage from one of his earliest published works, The Sayings of Lao Tzu:

All men are radiant with happiness, as if enjoying a great feast, as if mounted on a tower in spring. I alone am still, and give as yet no sign of joy. I am like an infant which has not yet smiled, forlorn as one who has nowhere to lay his head. Other men have plenty, while I alone seem to have lost all. I am a man foolish in heart, dull and confused. Other men are full of light; I alone seem to be in darkness. Other men are alert; I alone seem listless. I am unsettled as the ocean, drifting as though I had no stopping-place. All men have their usefulness; I alone am stupid and clownish. [15]

One of his finest translations was an eloquent rendering of the Tang-dynasty poet Wei Zhuang's (c.836-c.910) long ballad-poem about the devastating sack of the city of Chang'an by the brigand Huang Chao in 881. Lionel's somewhat old-fashioned and restrained style as a translator enhances the relentless detail of the terror, the rape and pillage. The poem in translation reads almost like a present-day news report from a war-zone.

Every home now runs with bubbling fountains of blood, Every place rings with a victim's shrieks – shrieks that cause the very earth to quake.

Our western neighbour had a daughter—verily, a fair maiden! Sidelong glances flashed from her large limpid eyes, And when her toilet was done, she reflected the spring in her mirror; Young in years, she knew naught of the world outside her door. A ruffian comes leaping up the steps of her abode; Pulling her robe from one bare shoulder, he attempts To do her violence, But though dragged by her clothes, she refuses to pass out of the vermilion portal, And thus with rouge and fragrant unguents she meets her death under the knife.

Like so much of his work, this translation was published in the pages of a learned journal (T'oung Pao, 1924). The poem itself had long been lost, and Giles re-discovered it among the Dunhuang materials he was working on at the Museum. His account of this 'most romantic discovery' is to be found on pages 21-23 of Six Centuries at Tunhuang. As he writes: 'Such things are brought home to us with peculiar poignancy in these days of air-raids and bombing.'[16]

The Giles translation of The Art of War was first published in 1910, by Luzac & Co., the old London Orientalist publishing house. Lionel dedicated it to his younger brother, Capt. Valentine Giles, officer in the Royal Engineers, 'in the hope that a work 2400 years old may yet contain lessons worth consideration by the soldier of today.' It is one of his most thorough and scholarly works, and unlike his various popular translations, contains not only the complete Chinese text, but also an extensive and excellent textual apparatus and commentary. It is quite remarkable how deeply and thoroughly Giles enters into the (often intractable) text, recognising the quality of the Chinese writing (and even identifying the occasional rhyming jingle—see XII:16). In some ways, and surprisingly, this is a superior Sinological achievement to anything by his father, H. A. Giles, the great Cambridge Professor. The care with which Lionel reads, translates and sometimes synthesises the often rambling and contradictory commentaries, is remarkable. On top of all of this, he enlivens the book with many stimulating, sometimes controversial editorial asides, references to episodes in western history, to Maréchal Turenne (1611-1675), Napoleon, Wellington, the Confederate General 'Stonewall' Jackson (1824-1863) and Baden-Powell (1857-1941) and his Aids to Scouting. Giles (like Professor Li Ling today at Peking University) was constantly on the look out for contemporary resonances ('lessons worthy of consideration'), as when he saw the link between Sunzi's thinking and the development of 'scouting' as a branch of army training. It is also worth remembering the historical and personal context in which he was translating: a mere ten years earlier, the Boxer Uprising was at its height and the Western legations in Peking were under siege; one of Lionel's other brothers, Lancelot, was serving as a young Student Interpreter in Peking, where he was decorated for gallantry in the defence of the Legation.[17] In Chapter XI, section 13, Lionel comments that the commentators' injunction not to rape and loot 'may well cause us to blush for the Christian armies that entered Peking in 1900 AD.'

With this new edition, readers of The Art of War are in safe hands. They are presented with a reliable and readable translation from a seasoned reader of literary Chinese, and (most importantly) as they read they are able to consult in English a rich selection of traditional Chinese readings and commentaries. Together these form a sound basis on which the reader can reach conclusions, as opposed to the ready-made (and often unquestioning) interpretations and instructions that tend to emerge from the numerous more recent versions.

Some of us today are striving to bring back into Chinese Studies something of the depth (and excitement) of the best early Sinology, to create a New Sinology, that transcends the narrow concerns of the prevalent Social Sciences-based model.[18] We recognise (as did Lionel Giles) the urgency of applying the past to the present, the pressing need to understand today's China, as the world's rising power. In so doing, we are deeply aware of the need to understand the historical roots of China's contemporary consciousness. For these purposes, this work is a model study, scholarly but at the same time alive both to enduring humanistic concerns and to concrete present-day issues. It exemplifies ideals similar to those announced by Lionel's contemporary, the great humanist, scholar, translator and promoter of the League of Nations, Gilbert Murray, when he wrote in 1918:

The scholar's special duty is to turn the written signs in which old poetry or philosophy is now enshrined back into living thought or feeling. He must so understand as to re-live.'[19]

To go a little further back in time, Giles' work continues the grand tradition of Thomas Arnold, father of Mathew, and reforming headmaster of Rugby School, of whom Rex Warner wrote:

When he [Arnold] spoke of Thucydides or Livy his mind was directed to the present as well as the past... In his hands education became deliberately 'education for life.'[20]

These are the very goals, this is the very breadth, to which the New Sinology also aspires. And this little classic, so old, and yet so relevant and popular today, is an ideal text for the purpose. Which brings us to the next fundamental tenet. To read this book in the original, one needs to know literary (or classical) Chinese—now rarely taught in the world's universities. This basic ability, some degree of familiarity with the literary language in which the majority of China's heritage is expressed, is essential for anyone professing to 'understand' China. David Hawkes made the point eloquently in his Inaugural Lecture at Oxford [see the December 2007 issue of China Heritage Quarterly—Ed.]:

To lack either one of these two languages [the Classical and the Colloquial] would not be a mere closing of certain doors; it would cripple the researcher and render his labours nugatory... Just as the study of Colloquial literature constantly involves the student in reading memoirs, biographies, commentaries, and criticisms in Classical Chinese, so the study of Chinese antiquity necessitates his perusal of learned works by modern Chinese scholars written in the Colloquial language...

For Hawkes, this insistence on a broad literacy in both kinds of Chinese (since they are so inextricably interwoven) is but part of a broader vision:

The study of Chinese is not merely the study of a foreign language. It is the study of another culture, another world—'une autre Europe au bout de l'Asie'—Michelet called it.[21] To go into this storehouse of dazzling riches and select from among the resplendent vessels of massive gold one small brass ashtray made in Birmingham – this would be to show a want of imagination, a lack of love, that would unfit us for university teaching of any kind.[22]

To return to the book in hand: to read The Art of War at all intelligently in translation, one needs to be familiar with its historical and philosophical context. And then its contemporary relevance becomes even clearer and even greater. Lionel Giles succeeds in providing the essential materials for this sort of informed reading. There exists no better representation of the old tradition of Sinology at its most typical and at its best.

Giles occasionally made errors of judgement. For example, he misjudged the early French translation of Amiot, which he deemed 'little better than an imposture'. In fact Amiot was working (as did many Jesuits) from a Manchu paraphrase of the eighteenth century, which makes his 'free' and discursive version all the more interesting. Giles' recurring and often ill-tempered broadsides against the unfortunate Captain Calthrop and his flawed 1908 translation (he almost seems to have been emulating his notoriously irascible and often petulant father) are the only feature that mars and dates an otherwise splendid book. This defect is not to be found in his other writings.

—From John Minford, 'Foreword' to a new edition of Sunzi: The Art of War translated by Lionel Giles, forthcoming, Vermont: Tuttle, 2008.


1. Much of the family information is to be found in Aegidiana, or Gleanings Among the Gileses, printed for private circulation in 1910. I am much indebted to Giles Pickford, Lionel Giles' great-nephew, for pointing me in this direction, and to Darrell Dorrington for his help in locating this fascinating family chronicle. They were also both instrumental in allowing and facilitating the reproduction of the photograph of Lionel used as a frontispiece to this book.

2. As were all the other surviving sons—Bertram, Valentine and Lancelot. Both Bertram (born 1874) and Lancelot (born 1878) entered the British China Consular Service, following in their father's footsteps. Valentine became a soldier and joined the Royal Engineers.

3. Charles Aylmer, 'The Memoirs of H. A. Giles', East Asian History, 13/14 (June/December 1997), pp.51-2.

4. Soothill, William Edward, and Lewis Hodous, A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms, with Sanskrit and English equivalents and a Sanskrit-Pali index (London, 1937).

5. BSOAS 13, 3 (1950), p.798.

6. BSOAS 7, 13 (1934), p.631.

7. BSOAS 11, 1 (1943), p.236.

8. BSOAS 7, 1 (1933), pp.179-92.

9. See, for example, Giles' 'A Re-Translation', in New China Review, 2 (1920), pp.319-40, and 'Mr Waley and "The Lute Girl's Song"' in NCR, 3 (1921), pp.423-28.

10. BSOAS 11, 1 (1943), pp.238-9.

11. The Sayings of Confucius: A New Translation of the Greater Part of the Confucian Analects, with Introduction and Notes by Lionel Giles (London, 1907), pp.26-8.

12. Review of Margouliès, Le Kou-wen Chinois, in BSOAS, 4, 3 (1927), pp.640-643.

13. Herbert A. Giles, Gems of Chinese Literature: Prose, second edition, Shanghai and London, 1922.

14. 'He devoted the greater part of his available time and energy to studying the manuscripts, continuing this work as his health permitted after his retirement.' E. G. Pulleyblank, BSOAS, 22, 2, p.409.

15. The Sayings of Lao Tzu, translated from the Chinese, with an Introduction, by Lionel Giles, Assistant at the British Museum, London, 1904, p.54.

16. His translation has recently been reprinted in a more widely read anthology. See Minford & Lau, Chinese Classical Literature: An Anthology of Translations, New York, 2000, pp.933-944.

17. See Lancelot Giles, The siege of the Peking legations: a diary, edited with introduction: 'Chinese anti-foreignism and the Boxer uprising', by L.R. Marchant, foreword by Sir R. Scott, Nedlands: Western Australia, 1970.

18. I refer especially to the courageous work of my colleague Geremie Barmé, who together with others has over the past few years begun the articulation of a New Sinology.

18. Gilbert Murray, 'Religio Grammatici: The Religion of a Man of Letters', Presidential Address to the Classical Association, 8 January 1918, collected in Humanist Essays, London, 1964. Murray was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1866, and died in 1957 at Oxford, where he had been Professor of Greek for nearly thirty years (1908-1936).

19. Rex Warner, English Public Schools, London, 1946.

20. Jules Michelet, Histoire de France, vol.VIII, 'Réforme', Paris, 1855, p.488.

21. David Hawkes, ed. Minford and Wong, Chinese: Classical, Modern and Humane, Hong Kong, 1989, pp.18-9.