CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 24, December 2010


Chinese Scholarship in Australia | China Heritage Quarterly

Chinese Scholarship in Australia

Liu Ts'un-yan 柳存仁

Professor Liu Ts'un-yan 柳存仁 (1917-2009) delivered his Inaugural Lecture at The Australian National University on 5 October 1966. For students of the Chinese language, the following observation in this lecture holds as true today as it did some forty-six years ago:

Professor Hawkes has reminded us that while reading modern colloquial Chinese we have at the same time to consult many materials written in the classical style. Otherwise we cannot really understand what we are studying. This is perfectly true. We may corroborate Professor Hawkes's views by arguing conversely. Even our contemporaries cannot possibly avoid classical phrases, no matter what they are writing in colloquial Chinese—official documents, public correspondence, telegrams, personal letters, speeches, notes, newspapers, or magazines.

During a time of hysterical cultural iconoclasm in mainland China, Professor Liu presented a deeply humanistic vision of Chinese Studies, one that many of his students, friends and admirers have pursued in a myriad of ways. Much of what he said in this Inaugural Lecture would seem to resonate with those who are seriously interested in China today. My thanks to my colleague Duncan Campbell for suggesting we publish this lecture online in full.—The Editor

Fig. 1 Professor Liu in his study, June 2004. Photograph: Ingrid Fung, his grand-daughter

It was not until I had been working for some time in a university abroad that I came to know the importance of an inaugural lecture. In China there are many occasions when someone has to make a formal speech. In some cases one actually has to write an article every year somewhat like a newspaper's New Year leader or a statesman's solemn declaration. It is, however, doubtful whether these writings are ever read seriously by anyone. And there are also occasions when, as the Australian writer Marjorie Barnard puts it, 'even Chinamen could make nothing grow'.[1] Perhaps the delivery of a professor's inaugural lecture is just such an instance. That is why Chinese universities usually dispense with it. Personally I do not go so far as to suggest it be dispensed with, but on the other hand I do not relish the idea of over-publicizing the work of one's own department. However that may be, this evening for the first time I speak publicly from the Chair of Chinese. Let me 'follow the middle path', as a Chinese classical saying goes, be faithful to my own convictions, and take this opportunity to explain to people 'within as well as without the university what an ideal department of Chinese should be.

Before I do so I should like to pay tribute to my two predecessors. Professor Hans Bielenstein, as we all know, is a distinguished scholar specializing in Chinese history of Hann times and well known for his work on the geography and population of early China. In 1953, at the old Canberra University College, he founded the School of Oriental Studies, where Chinese was one of the main courses. Its second professor and my immediate predecessor, Professor N. G. D. Malmqvist, is a celebrated phonologist of the Chinese language, particularly of the Syh-chuan dialect. Their academic achievements are highly appreciated by Chinese and Western scholars alike as important parts of the general field of international Sinology. I feel honoured to fill the Chair held in succession by these great scholars.

An ancient Chinese once put forward a very human idea. I don't like to say this was Confucius, for I am afraid that people may associate his sacred name with 'Confucius's lips' which are the two pieces of wood thrown on the floor of Confucius's temple in an American China town, for the purpose of divination. He said:

The path is not far from human nature. If what is regarded as the path is far from human nature, then it is not the path.[2]

By analogy, as an Oriental language and literature, Chinese should occupy a place in university disciplines not so far removed from that occupied by any other kindred language and literature, and in an ideal faculty of Oriental studies, the way a Chinese thinks should not be so far removed from the way an Australian thinks.

Suppose there is before us a young Australian of university age who has come to study at the Department of Chinese in the Faculty of Oriental Studies of this University. Suppose he knows nothing of this language, which has over three thousand years' history and cultural background to it and is stilI in daily use now among seven hundred million people. At the end of three or four years of study in this Department he hopes to be able to read Chinese fiction and current Chinese periodicals and certainly to comprehend the implications of the texts. Then he hopes either to go to China, as did Herbert Giles, to continue Chinese studies enthusiastically while carrying on his official duties, or to pursue Chinese learning at home, as did Dr Arthur Waley who, we have heard with deep regret, passed away in June last, and who was the greatest English translator of Chinese literature in the last fifty years, even though he had never set foot on Chinese soil. If such are the aspirations of our undergraduates in the Chinese Department, how shall we plan our academic courses so as to achieve these ends? Can a university, which is not located in the native land of a language, fulfil such a mission? Must we look to some miracle like the deus ex machine of ancient Greek theatre?

Obviously we cannot guarantee that all our present and future students become Gileses and Waleys. Nevertheless we do fervently hope that possibly one or two may become a Giles or a Waley. What, then, can we reasonably expect of our students? Or, in other words, what are the urgent demands in this respect which the great Australian community has a right to make on us? These are the problems which have deprived me of many a night's sleep.

Indeed, we owe these obligations not only to society; we must also remember the recipients of our teaching – Australian university students. The students' qualities, aptitudes, and thirst for knowledge are an important source of energy and motive force in university life. What are the things they have come to the Chinese Department of the Faculty of Oriental Studies to look for? What are the answers they seek to obtain? Where do they intend to go and what do they propose to do after graduation? How can they become active members of superior ability in Australian society? I often think over these questions, too, and try to see if we are qualified to answer them.

As a product of Western civilization the modern university had its origin in medieval European ecclesiastic education. Its objective was to produce an all-round man rather than to give technical and professional training. Nowadays this concept may have changed in certain ways, but in the Humanities we still respect this great tradition. This is precisely what is meant by the Chinese classical saying: 'The accomplished scholar is not a utensil [for another man's purpose]'.[3] That is to say, a scholar of moral integrity does not regard himself merely as an instrument.

Fig. 2 Looking towards Black Mountain, ANU campus. Photograph: GRB

What the students of Chinese are learning appears to be a mere instrument. But it is an instrument only in the sense that it is a medium through which advanced studies in much broader fields may later be made. A mere knowledge of a language does not in fact constitute the real understanding of that language. In order to understand the feelings expressed in the Chinese language one must be acquainted with at least some of the many rich works of literature which have been written in Chinese. In order to understand under what living conditions the Chinese people produced these literary works and in order to gain an insight into the activities, progress, and struggles described in these works, one must needs have some knowledge of the thoughts gradually evolved throughout the past three thousand years and the vivid history of the Chinese people who have used this language. The latter quest belongs to the field of the Department of Asian Civilization. The former falls properly under the functions of the Chinese Department.

In short the Chinese language and literature is our field of study. Yet our Department is different both from the Syh-yi-goan (College of Translators), [4] where the Chinese empire trained translators of documents in various foreign languages, and also from the many language centres which modern states have established in connection with political, diplomatic, and professional training. This is because we are concerned not only with a language and literature but, through the learning of that language and literature, with something more lasting, a deeper, and hence more intimate and even sympathetic, understanding of the people whose language and literature we are studying. This kind of intimacy and sympathy may not necessarily be needed at a specific time or for a specific purpose, and they may not be required at all in seeking answers to pressing current problems. Such problems may be what many people outside the university, are concerned with) and such answers may be what some scholars in other departments within this University are searching for. But these intellectual exercises fall outside the scope of the Chinese Department. Viewed objectively, these intellectual exercises undoubtedly have their value. But the very urgency of the problems involved and the very specialization in them necessarily confine their studies to modern – strictly-speaking, contemporary – themes.

Our efforts on the other hand aim at studying a language and literature with a very long cultural background. However breathtaking current events in a country may be, they are only sections on the broad historical scene and not its entire panorama. The full significance of a contemporary scene can be viewed only in the light of the past and in the relation to its future. To teach the evolution of the Chinese language, for example, is not just to teach the development of the movement for simplified characters which are being promoted both in mainland China and in Taiwan. For, to talk about simplified characters without a historical understanding of the etymological changes can, at the most, only enable us to learn a certain number of these simplified characters. How can these icy ideographs composed of a few strokes possibly arouse people's interest, let alone sympathy?

Of course the Chinese Department does not exclude contemporary practical teaching material, and we have not the least intention of restricting our syllabus to classical works only. On the contrary, some of our teaching material has been written only within the last ten to fifty years. The point I have raised here is a matter of insight: the academic discipline of a university Chinese department should aim, it seems to me, at cultivating in the student a kind of personal discernment, power of comprehension, and ability of interpretation. We describe these faculties metaphorically by the conventional Chinese term huoo-how (an expression originally used in reference to cooking, and to the tempering of metals, which can best be translated as 'seasoned maturity'). If we liken studying to cooking, our idea is that while frying uses strong fire, this type of cooking does not heat the food so thoroughly as steaming, smoking, or gentle baking. As objects of study, practical and theoretical problems are of equal importance. But over-emphasis on practical problems often neglects the latent factors which lie behind these problems and have made these problems what they are. Events are not random: they have both cause and effect. Again take, for example, the present movement to promote simplified characters which can be traced back to the latter half of the nineteenth century. 'The latter half of the nineteenth century' already belongs to history, although to the Chinese events of that time happened as if yesterday.

The Chinese people may be unfortunate in having a very heavy historical load on their backs. Since, however, the object of our studies is to understand things Chinese, we must realize that any attempt at quick results is likely to jeopardize real success. Chinese scholars can appreciate how the habit of pipe-smoking among Oxford students is conducive to academic pursuits. To my mind – although I do not smoke a pipe – the charm of pipe-smoking lies in that slow burning which fades, yet is always rekindled. This approach shows that Oxford scholars are not after quick results in their studies. Using the method of strong fire we may by continuous drills, exercises, and tests bring about a rapid training of students in certain aspects of the Chinese language, but we will not be able to make the students understand things Chinese in general as successfully as they have done with the Chinese language. Broadly speaking university discipline should emphasize the intellectual aspect of Chinese learning, while language training is merely part of general education. We should, of course, not neglect language training. Nor should we deny that initially at least it is an important part of university education and that it is a comparatively tangible part which everybody can see and assess. On the one hand, therefore, the language training our students receive should not be inferior to that obtained at any language centre, and on the other we may still inculcate an academic approach to Chinese learning, which does not seek quick results. How to strike a proper balance between these two aspects of our work is a serious problem.

Quite apart from the utilitarian approach, Chinese studies, even in Chinese universities, have always branched into a language section and a section of literature and history. The latter devotes itself to historical evolution of Chinese literature, literary criticism, various literary genresbiographies of literary figures, and the practice of creative writing. The syllabus of the former includes Chinese phonology, etymology, and research into dialects, and this branch of learning has made spectacular development in some Chinese universities in the last fifty years. So even in Chinese universities the emphasis has always been on one of the two main sections of Chinese language studies. Those universities which show no particular leaning towards either often happen to be the ones with no particular achievements to speak of.

These universities, whether on the Chinese mainland or in Taiwan, educate Chinese students, while ours is an Australian university. Australian students begin to study Chinese only after they have entered the university. So their Chinese standard lags on the average twelve years behind that of a Chinese university student. It would be idle and presumptuous to claim that our graduate after three or four years' study of Chinese will, all round, be as proficient in his knowledge of the language and as capable of expressing himself in it as the average Chinese university graduate. Rather we should expect our graduates to be the equal of their Chinese counterparts in understanding certain aspects of things Chinese. Our young scholars ought to be able to comprehend, directly, recent Chinese scholars' works which are related to their own field of interest. When our young scholar writes a thesis, whether long or short, he will have not only consulted all source materials in European languages but he will also have acquainted himself with researches in the same field by Chinese and Japanese scholars, and he will be able to make some contribution of his own. In this respect there is no reason why Australian scholars – or any other Western scholars for that matter – should not do the work as well as Chinese scholars. Indeed, they may even be able to do better in certain respects, because apart from English they are usually better grounded in French, German, and other European languages. On the other hand, Chinese scholars have as a rule a deeper textural understanding of Chinese material and possibly a stronger power of synthesis than Western and Japanese scholars.

Fig. 3 Lake Walter Burley Griffin seen from the Acton Peninsula, ANU campus. Photograph: GRB

Today, Chinese scholars of their own language and literature should academically approach the West just as Western scholars ought to approach the East or, in the case of Australians, the North. That is to say, each side should not hesitate to consult the other in the field of Sinology. Unless an Australian graduate is good for nothing he need not have any inferiority complex when he hears a young Chinese lady speak beautiful, standard Mandarin. In studying things Chinese, the Chinese people have for long understood the value of consulting foreign records; to them learning has always been a common heritage of the world. Furthermore the world has shrunk considerably as a result of scientific advancement, and now the distance between East and West and between North and South is much shorter than before. This fact is fully borne out by the very great depth of many learned writings on Chinese subjects published in European languages in the last decades. I think this is a matter of which Western Sinologists may rightly be proud. I have earlier mentioned the achievements of Professors Bielenstein and Malmqvist formerly of this University. Other Western scholars in Australia have also accomplished much and contributed their shares towards the sum total of Chinese studies by Westerners. As their students, young Australian scholars including our graduates have the right to be proud of their achievement.

Possibly our fault lies in not having publicized these facts. Indeed, to be psychologically prepared for actually being drawn closer and closer to Asia, Australians of today, it seems to me, ought to pay particular attention to the study of Oriental cultures. Everything is ripe for such a move.

In this connection I am not disappointed that the students who annually attend our courses in the Chinese Department are numbered only inscores, and that we turn out only two or three Honours graduates each year. Rather I regret that so far we have not taken any initiative in calling an International Congress of Orientalists on Australian soil. Such a gathering will not only be a spur to Australian's enthusiasm in studying Oriental cultures but also enable scholars from all over the world to become acquainted with the high standard of Oriental studies achieved in Australian universities. This Congress will in fact not cost us much money. It will nevertheless demonstrate the willingness of Australia as a member of the family of nations to offer her facilities for international scholars to meet for more and better understanding of one another's thinking and learning. Our contribution in this respect will become a worthy part of human history. I take this opportunity to submit this proposal for serious consideration by the Federal Government of Australia, the Australian public, and the several centres of Oriental studies in the Southern Hemisphere.

Next I wish to speak on the characteristics of the Chinese language as I see them.

Characteristics of the Chinese Language

For Chinese students the study of the Chinese language begins in their childhood. They may not necessarily feel it difficult, for it is their mother tongue. Ordinary Chinese may feel that classical Chinese, in which they are not trained, is difficult and the so-called colloquial Chinese easy. In fact, if by classical Chinese is simply meant prose written in the classical style, such as the Confucian Analects, the Works of Mencius, or the writing of Sy-maa Chian and Harn Yuh, but not rhyme-prose and traditional poetry, this kind of classical Chinese is actually not very difficult. The reason is that, however profound the thoughts conveyed in such writings, the syntactic structure of classical Chinese prose has long become stereotyped, and today it remains what it was about 100 B.C. Very little change has since taken place. During the 2,000 years from that time to the present day, while the content of classical Chinese may have varied, its expressive modes and syntactic structure have never gone beyond the scope of the dozens of ancient texts which can be represented by four or five typical books. Its study cannot therefore be said to be difficult if only students confine their efforts to these few works. For example, a very presentable Ph.D. thesis can be written if one studies the syntax of 'Tarn-gong', which is merely one of the forty-nine chapters of the Book of Rites. Even this book as a whole consists of no more than 99,010 characters.

Yet it is for another reason that I say that classical Chinese is not difficult to learn. Colloquial Chinese has the same characteristics as we find in classical Chinese except that it is richer in vocabulary and more wordy in syntax. What strikes the eye of a Western scholar is the fact that not all Chinese characters are phonograms, although the overwhelming majority of them are composed of the ideograph of the character, which is commonly called the 'radical', and a phonogram to indicate the pronunciation of the character. Thus, although the Chinese writing 'may be said to be semi-phonetic, it is still strange to Western people. Moreover, throughout the ages these so-called phonograms have undergone many changes which even specialized linguists can only roughly trace. Our present pronunciation of these characters is quite different from the way they were pronounced when they were first invented. These phonograms are therefore of little help to students. To study the Chinese language phonetically would, indeed, be a hard task.

Since the Chinese writing is not phonetic it naturally does not use an alphabet. What it uses is a number of strokes: 'vertical downstroke', 'dot', 'downstroke to the left', 'downstroke with a hook', etc. As mnemonics these symbols do help the student to know the structure of Chinese characters. So much so that within a month of study he can fluently repeat: 'This is a "roof-radical"; that is a "woman". This is a "tree or wood"; that is "water".' To outsiders this may sound very much like academic jargon. Yet it is from this pseudoacademic jargon that one gets an inkling of the secret of the Chinese language.

Whether partially phonetic or not, prototype Chinese characters were in themselves all ideographs, their function being to indicate ideas in the mind rather than to register the sound from the mouth. In the case of a few earliest characters it is truer to call them pictures rather than pictographs. Characters such as yun (clouds), yeu (rain), muh (eye), shoou (head), neau (bird), men (door, gateway), and maa (horse) were originally pictorial and the way in which they are written today remains much the same in strokes as the seal writing of two millennia ago. This is why to students of the Chinese language, Chinese and foreigners alike, the meanings of many characters can be guessed at, even though the characters cannot be pronounced. The radical of a character usually indicates the idea. There are now more than two hundred such radicals, which, once memorized, not only provide the student with a clue to the significance of the word but also help him to look up other words in the dictionary, for in almost all Chinese dictionaries characters are classified according to radicals. Precisely because of this predominant feature of the ideography in the Chinese language many writers of rhyme- or parallel-prose during the Hann and the period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties simply used to group characters of the same radical by fours or sixes into a sentence, and a number of such kind of sentences into a paragraph, hardly using any verb. For example:

Northward rise dense forests and giant trees –
Medlar, cedar, and camphor,
Cinnamon, prickly ash, and anise tree,
Chinese cork, wild pear, red willow,
Hawthorn, chinaberry, jujube, and chestnut,
Mandarins and citrons, breathing forth their fragrance.[5]

The original text by Sy-maa Shianq-ru of the above English translation includes fifteen characters all with a 'tree' radical. His literary technique is to conjure up, by consecutive pictures in the mind of the reader, the scene of a dense forest. Once these individual pictures are projected upon the mind, the imagination is left to play freely; one is led to a comprehension of the complete scene and no more explanation is needed. Even the necessary verbs are left out. In this sense, a Chinese text, when properly composed, may serve as a tapestry to be hung up on the wall for one's visual appreciation. Many Chinese paintings of 'free style' (shiee-yih huah) by such celebrated masters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as Ba-dah Shan-ren and Jin Dong-shin are highly prized by Western museums, for in their strokes and lines such paintings have something akin to the works of modern abstract painters. But Western museums or art galleries have never paid attention to Chinese calligraphy. In my view Chinese calligraphy is much nearer than anything else to the works of such great sculptors as Lynn Chadwick, Henry Moore, and Ossip Zadkine. Those who appreciate the sculpture entitled 'The Sprinter', by Arturo Martini, would do well to study courses offered by the Chinese Department and should learn to write Chinese characters with a brush. Whether or not a Chinese character can stand on its own feet simply depends on its angles and lines; the same principle underlies both sculpture and calligraphy.

However, to say that the meaning of a Chinese character is easy to comprehend does not mean it is necessarily easy to pronounce. Foreigners who have been in China either recently or some time ago will have come across several other dialects besides Mandarin. On the one hand the existence of so many dialects bespeaks the historical fact that Chinese people in the past had been gradually expanding from north to south. So today the dialects of Canton, the Hakkas, Jiang-shi, Amoy, and Swatow still retain the ancient final consonants -m, -p, -t, and -k, while among the various dialects of Jiang-su, Jehjiang, and Hwu-nan Provinces some stilI preserve the ancient voiced (sonant) initials b', d', g', dz', z, etc. On the other hand, the existence of so many dialects shows that the Chinese language has not yet been successfully unified. What the Chinese people have achieved during the last two thousand years in linguistic unification mainly lies in written, not spoken, Chinese, and by 'written Chinese' is meant principally the classical form which has since about 100 B.C. gradually been settling down to what it is still today.

But, to be able to write without being able to speak is as inconvenient as being paralysed in one side of the body. From a political point of view, too, this is very inconvenient, because orders from the government cannot effectively reach the people through writing only. Hence the so-called 'official dialect' or 'Mandarin', which is an artificial mixture of dialects gradually evolved among officials coming from various provinces in the north and south of China. Mandarin contains few ancient sounds and is therefore of less value than some other dialects to scholars who either study phonetic values of ancient Chinese sounds or try to reconstruct a phonetic system for ancient Chinese language. It has nevertheless been the most commonly used dialect in the widest linguistic area during the last few centuries. Through an academic study by linguistic experts Mandarin has gradually become the 'national language' based mainly on the Peking dialect. And this natural growth is just what it should be. In other words, the gwo-yeu which we are now teaching at the Australian National University is the living dialect spoken by millions of educated people in China. To the majority of the Chinese people themselves Mandarin and their native dialect are one and the same thing. Others have come to adapt their own dialect to this uniform, standard language. For instance, when a native of Soochow reads a book, he pronounces the character wenn (to inquire) as vən even though his dialect pronunciation is mən. This may be said to show his appreciation of the importance of Mandarin. There are also people who are 'proficient' in both Mandarin and their own and other people's patois. Anyway, in the past decades the Chinese whether in China or abroad have been at one in using this 'national language', just as the English accepted Dr Johnson's dictionary as 'fixed' English.

Fig. 4 View over lake Walter Burley Griffin from the National Museum of Australia, Acton Peninsula, toward the National Library of Australia. Photograph: GRB

Friends in the West should not underestimate the importance of the 'national language', if only because there is actually not much difference between it and the pronunciations of several other living Chinese dialects. When Chinese, who speak various dialects within the phonetic systems of Yun-nan, Shan-dong, Syh-chuan, and Shanghai, gather under one roof, apart from playing the ubiquitous game of mahjong they can also freely exchange opinions without suffering from much linguistic handicap. And this is one great contribution which the movement for the 'national language' in the past fifty years has made.

When we talk about gwo-yeu, Westerners will immediately think of the tones of the Chinese language. That the same syllable may be enunciated in different tones with which the meaning of a word or phrase varies is something new and interesting. For instance, mai (mai3) and may (mai4) have the same initial and final, but are pronounced slightly differently in tone. The first means to buy, the second means to sell. However, the four tones of Mandarin – two 'even' tones, one 'raising' tone and one 'departing' tone – are slightly different from the traditional tones as handed down from the sixth century and still used in writing classical poetry and rhyme-prose. In its four tones Mandarin is also different from those Chinese dialects which still retain the 'entering' tone or tones. In fact gwo-yeu is a much simpler dialect than others, as I have mentioned in a previous passage.

Why, then, has the Chinese language come to possess this tonal characteristic which enlarges the vocabulary? We must appreciate the fact that the Chinese language has long lost its compound initial consonants such as kl-, gl-, while the finals of individual syllables, apart from vowels, end only in -k, -t, -p, -m, -n, or -ng. Thus the finals of Chinese syllables are much simpler than those of many other languages. Moreover, there are no inflectional affixes, so we cannot indicate gender, person, number, case, and tense directly by the monosyllabic characters themselves. The result is that the Chinese language has many homonyms. For example, we have a character which means 'bad' but none which means 'badly'. We have a character for 'spoon' but none for 'spoonful'. We say something corresponding to 'clever', but there is no separate character for 'cleverness'. When Mencius was arguing with someone in the year round 330 B.C., the question he put to his opponent, when translated into English, is:

Is the whiteness of a white feather like that of white snow, and the whiteness of white snow like that of white jade?[6]

In the Chinese text, however, the character for 'whiteness' is the same as that for 'white'. When there are too many homonyms, the listener may not be able to tell which character is meant; so it is necessary for identifying purposes to further differentiate the pronunciation of a syllable between several tones to connote different meanings. This method is merely a makeshift to avoid too many homonyms. Now, if we transcribe the sounds of Chinese characters in accordance with the Wade-Giles system of romanization we can only obtain some 550 syllabic headings and this is all we have for recording the pronunciation of the Chinese language. Only in this transcription we use the same spelling for all the different tones of a syllable. These 550 spellings are not enough to represent the peculiar tonal features of Chinese syllables. In recent years scholars have continued to use this old method of romanization. In order to enable students to pronounce Chinese sounds as accurately as they are pronounced by the Chinese people in China, GR (Gwoyeu Romatzyh) or official Chinese Latin Script is naturally more useful. From now onwards Sinologists are indeed more fortunate than their predecessors.

If there are some students who are annoyed with the four tones of Chinese, I hope the trouble they undergo may be compensated for by the following two factors.

(a) The Chinese language is highly analytical. This is rather exceptional in things Chinese, for, as you have seen from my earlier discussion in this lecture, the Chinese people have a tendency to synthesize. I think that the analytical nature of the Chinese written language is a product of its non-phonetic characteristics which simply do not lend themselves to synthetization. This, however, suits very well the analytical mind of the Westerner. In this respect the analytical structure of Chinese is near that of modern English while differing from the highly synthetical Latin, Italian, or even from French which signifies tense by its verbs.

(b) After learning Chinese for a long time one comes to realize that the number of Chinese characters in daily use is far smaller than the English vocabulary. Of course there are many obsolete words in ancient Chinese texts. As a rule our average vocabulary is about four to five thousand characters, roughly one-third of that of English. Yet we cannot say that the vocabulary of modern Chinese is small nor the thought expressed meagre.[7]

It seems strange to Western scholars, though quite natural to the Chinese, that we do not pay attention to methodical, systematic, grammatical analysis. This linguistic laissez-faire does not facilitate study by Western students. In the old days recitation was the method scholars emphasized in learning the Classics. Having learnt a piece off by heart fluently, one tried to enter into the spirit of the style, the vitality, and the atmosphere of the text. In so doing one often ignored its grammatical and syntactic structure. There is something to be said for this manner of study if we admit that the beauty of a language lies not in streamlined orderliness nor in straight-jacket rules and formulae, but rather in idiomatic illogicality and arbitrary usage. Unfortunately, this makes it more difficult for the beginner to learn a language. This fact is almost an insult to the Western scholar who specializes in Chinese as a foreign language, for in acquiring knowledge of Western academic disciplines the Chinese themselves never fail to note first of all the grammar and syntax of a Western language.

In his Yi-jian Jyh ('Records of Strange Happenings'), Biing-jyh, jiuann 18, Horng May (1123-1202) records:

When a Kitan child first learns to read [Chinese], the text is first rearranged in reverse order in colloquial speech and he then' learns it. Sometimes three words are used for one in the original. Recently I was on a diplomatic mission to the Jin. Mr Wang Buu, a junior secretary, who was serving as vice-envoy and was accompanying me on my journey to the land of the Kitans, often told me this story for amusement: When the child reads the couplet Neau-Suh chyr-jong shuh, Seng-chiau yueh-shiah men (In pond's reflection birds roost on tree; Monk knocks at gate beneath the moon) he would read it as Yueh-ming-lii heh-shanq men-tzyy daa, Shoei-dii-lii shuh-shanq lao-ia-zuoh. It is always roughly like this. Mr Wang, a native of Jiin-jou, is himself a Kitan.[8]

This is the arrangement in the Kitan syntax of a Chinese couplet as recorded in Southern Sonq times by a Chinese ambassador to the court of the Jin Tartars. It is delightfully fresh in so far as the expression chyr-jong shuh (a tree reflected by the pond) is changed into shoei-dii-lii shuh-shanq (on a tree reflected in the water) and for neau (birds) they simply say lao-ia (crows). It sounds perhaps more interesting than Jea Dao's (788-843) original poem,[9] and it is to be regretted that so few records like this are preserved in old Chinese literature.

Fig. 5 Lake Walter Burley Griffin seen from the Acton Peninsula, ANU campus. Photograph: GRB

Since the eighteenth century a considerable number of fragmentary works on Chinese syntax and grammar have been written. But they cannot be regarded as comprehensive technical works, for their contents are only concerned with etymological research and textual annotation on ancient books. Later, when more contacts took place between the East and the West, books on Chinese grammar and syntax were produced by some authors, but they were obviously imitating books on the grammar and syntax of other languages and trying to impose them on the Chinese tongue. The result is that while no Chinese would read them they might actually lead Western scholars astray. Fortunately this deplorable practice has on the whole died out in the past twenty years, and now we have many systematic works on classical and modern Chinese grammar and syntax which are original works by Chinese authors and not copies of others. In this way not only has a proper climate been created for this branch of study, but, thanks to the assiduous work of the experts, the reading public has gradually become better informed. In the past, however, Chinese scholars generally lacked a comprehensive and accurate conception of the Chinese language. Some early works on Chinese grammar, which were based on books such as J. C. Nesfield's English Grammar Series first published in 1895, could only do harm. If Chinese authors in recent years have been able to produce original works of their own and have continued to enlarge this field of study, this may well be due to stimulus from European scholars specializing in Chinese grammar and syntax. This is of course a welcome sign. In most cases Chinese scholars, whether in China or abroad, began to study the grammar and syntax of their own language only after they had already acquired some background knowledge about its synthetic characteristics. This is, in my opinion, an advantage. For instance, one contemporary Chinese grammarian points out the existence in classical Chinese of what is known as 'unit noun' (some scholars call it 'measure word' or 'classifier') between a noun and a numeral adjective or a demonstrative. Another says that, when translated, a Chinese 'localizer' (which 'is a bound word forming the second component of a subordinate compound, resulting in a time and place word') becomes an English preposition. Yet another asserts that the distinction between a preposition and a conjunction is in fact quite vague. These linguistic theories about classical and colloquial Chinese are new and were undreamt of by old Chinese grammarians several decades ago.[10]

Classical or Colloquial Chinese?

'What are the motives which prompt Australian students, like European or American students, to learn Chinese?' is probably a delicate question. The most reasonable answer from the university point of view is of course: 'The purpose is academic'. Nevertheless it would be quite unrealistic to say that scholars need not read Chinese newspapers and through them keep themselves well informed of current events. Although we are not directly responsible for training interpreters, translators, or diplomats, they may well be our by-products. So the most sensible approach to the matter is for us to look at Chinese standards at universities in other countries, particularly those of the British Commonwealth. We cannot live always in our own little world, and we should be bold enough to put forward our own ideas.

When, in 1961, Professor David Hawkes delivered his inaugural lecture from the Chinese Chair at Oxford he raised the problem of classical against colloquial Chinese and arrived at the conclusion that for academic research these two categories of Chinese were difficult to keep apart. (Click here for the full text of Professor Hawkes' speech.) Having shown how source materials from both classical and colloquial Chinese were interrelated and how neither could be ignored, Professor Hawkes said:

It may be felt that the illustrations I have chosen are either too frivolous or too narrowly literary. But what I have said is true of almost any branch of Chinese studies. Just as the study of Colloquial literature constantly involves the student in reading memoirs, biographies, commentaries, and criticism in Classical Chinese, so the study of Chinese antiquity necessitates his perusal of learned works by modern Chinese scholars written in the Colloquial language.[11]

The expression 'Chinese antiquity' in this passage made me feel rather uneasy at the time I read it. But I happened to be in the Library this morning and noticed that next to the big volumes of Legge's translation of Chinese Classics on the shelf there is placed a large book titled The Book of the Dead, a translation of 'the Egyptian hymns and religious texts which the Egyptians inscribed upon the walls of tombs and sarcophagi, coffins and funeral stelae, papyri and amulets'. This made me even more startled. Sometimes the opinions of Western scholars do wake up Chinese people and make them reflect. Certainly there are some people who believe that the Chinese Classics are now dead books. But I don't think so. However, while I entirely accept Professor Hawke's views, I would also like to add a little bit of my own about the study of classical or colloquial Chinese.

Classical Chinese of the remote past, that is before the Former Hann, which Professor Karlgren, from a linguistic viewpoint, calls 'archaic Chinese', was, basically, probably the colloquial language of that time. Admittedly these linguistic records were very imperfect, due to the difficulties of writing with primitive instruments. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, this kind of Chinese language had become fixed in the early Hann. In Sy-maa Chian's Records of the Grand Historian some sentences representing ancient speech may still be found. In the Hann-shu ('History of the Former Hann Dynasty') there are, however, few sentences in the spoken style which were written by Ban Guh. The prose of Tarng and Sonq Dynasties, apart from that of lyrical nature, did no more than imitate the ancients both in style and in atmosphere. In these circumstances there is really no difference in reading essays by Tzeng Gwo-farn of the nineteenth century and writings by the Grand Historian of 100 B.C., simply because the former was deliberately imitating the latter. Indeed such imitation did not cease with Tzeng Gwo-farn. Even to this day, no writer of classical Chinese is an exception to the general rule, no matter which literary school of the ancients he happens to admire and emulate. This may well have been the reason why in his works on early Chinese pronunciation Professor Karlgren can only classify them roughly into archaic Chinese and ancient Chinese. By 'ancient Chinese' he means classical Chinese of about the sixth century. If we look only at the writings of the various periods while ignoring their phonetic systems we will see that there is archaic Chinese in ancient Chinese, and people living now sometimes still write archaic Chinese. While Dr Sun Yat~sen was still alive, a piece was written, later adopted as the Chinese national anthem, in which there is the following couplet:

Lead on, Comrades,
Vanguards ye are!

There is a sonorous ring of antiquity in the Chinese text of this couplet. And no wonder, for it is an imitation of the language used by the Duke of Jou in a composition celebrating the completion of building the capital city of Luoh-yang in about 1030 B.C.[12] Chinese writers are so hopelessly classic-minded! Poems written in the last fifty years by some important political figures on the Chinese scene, who are really poets as well, reflect their way of thinking and even the motive force behind their actions more truthfully than their official statements. Ninety-nine per cent of these documents and poems are in the classical style.

Professor Hawkes has reminded us that while reading modern colloquial Chinese we have at the same time to consult many materials written in the classical style. Otherwise we cannot really understand what we are studying. This is perfectly true. We may corroborate Professor Hawkes's views by arguing conversely. Even our contemporaries cannot possibly avoid classical phrases, no matter what they are writing in colloquial Chinese – official documents, public correspondence, telegrams, personal letters, speeches, notes, newspapers, or magazines. Here I do not mean writings like Dr Hwu Shyh's 'My Late Mother's Life' (Shian-muu shyng-shuh, 1921) which is entirely in classical Chinese. Nor do I mean his 'Humble Opinions about Literary Reform' (Wen-shyue gae-liang chwu-yih) or his letter to Chern Dwu-shiow, even though both were also written in the classical style. What I mean are the references to classical Chinese literature as contained in the writings of the so-called colloquial-style Chinese by some fifty leading masters including Hwu Shyh, Luu Shiunn, Jou Tzuoh-ren, Liang Chii-chau, Wu Jyh-huei, Shyu Jhy-mo, and even Lao Shee, who is most skilful in using dialects of North China in his literary works. The contemporary linguistic scholars Jaw Yuanrenn, Luo Charng-peir, and Lii Fang-guey jointly translated Karlgren's Etudes sur la phonologie chinoise [13] and they took particular care to render it into true colloquial style. However, readers accustomed to other colloquial Chinese writings will at first sight find it quite unfamiliar. Moreover, despite the modern style of the Chinese translation, this book actually deals with ancient Chinese phonetics.

Fig. 6 Mount Ainslie seen from the National Library of Australia. Photograph: GRB

As with us students in some universities in the United Kingdom study Chinese 'for only two and a half or three years, starting with very elementary texts. The period for study set for our Honours School is no more than four years. Therefore, if we fail to make the best plan or if either the teachers or the students fail to do their best, or if our enthusiasm flags half-way, then we shall waste our time and labour. So, with so short a period of time as four years at our disposal, it seems sensible to concentrate on modern and even contemporary writings. We must nevertheless trace the real origins of present-day colloquial Chinese.

Even after written Chinese of Hann times had become fossilized, each subsequent period or dynasty was not entirely devoid of scholars of independent thinking. So there were people like Wang Chong of the Later Hann, Yan Jy-tuei of the Northern Chyi about 550, Lii Jyh of the Ming dynasty, and Yu Jenq-shieh of the mid-nineteenth century. Although they wrote in classical Chinese, they said what they wanted to say. Their literary styles, and particularly the ideas couched in them, differed considerably from the traditional ones of the Chinese intelligentsia.

In Chinese intellectual tradition, Buddhism is an import from abroad. So, in translating sūtras from the Hann down to the Tarng, scholars had to coin many new words and phrases. Many Zen Buddhists in the Tarng dynasty have left behind their lecture notes known as yeu-luh or goroku. However, in order to attract the people, night meetings were often convened by Buddhist monks in which thrilling miraculous stories were told. These are called 'secular tales' (swu-jeang). These goroku and 'secular tales' had greatly stimulated the growth of Chinese popular literature. And in the ninth century there developed the art of popular story-telling accompanied by singing. The busy lanes beside Dah Shianq-gwo syh ('The Prime Minister's Monastery') in Biann-liang of the Northern Sonq may have been the cradle of story-tellers' manuscripts and drama. By the mid-thirteenth century the Chinese had produced presentable drama: in the North the style had been influenced by the Kitans, the Jin Tartars, and the Mongols, but another branch, the Uen-jou tzar-jiuh, was perhaps tinged with Indian colour through maritime communication. Besides the short stories, long novels were gradually settling down in definite forms during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Among these, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Jin-pyng-mei ('The Golden Lotus'), the Shoei-huu ('All Men Are Brothers'), and the Shi-you jih ('Monkey') were either evolved by joining up many short stories or were based on some crude prototype versions. As a result, traces of early forms of 'story-telling accompanied by singing' are revealed in these novels, and if it had not been for the joint efforts of the earlier compilers we would not have had such individual creations as the Dream of the Red Chamber, and this in turn has opened the door to a whole new realm of literature for modern writers - I mean, that of belles-lettres.

About the latter half of the sixteenth century some literati of the Ming dynasty began seriously to write in a colloquial style and freely to set down what they wished to say. Apart from Lii Jyh, the Yuan brothers of the so-called Gong-an School [14] were most prominent. Although their ideas were original, these men were unable to refrain from frivolous behaviour in their personal lives, and so their literary opinions were not held in high respect by their contemporaries. Nevertheless, they were the forerunners of the modern 'new literature' movement.

The 'May Fourth Movement' of 1919 was a continuation and culmination of the various socio-political and ideological reforms advocated by Chinese intellectuals and by students returned from Japan and the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. So far, the promotion of colloquial Chinese which formed part of the May Fourth Movement has, in appearance at least, reaped remarkable fruits. However, in vocabulary and phraseology and in the content of thought the movement has not been so successful as in the reform of the written style. The leaders of the May Fourth Movement had planned the reform of Chinese society, but although they did cause a stir at the time, ultimately either their efforts were but ripples on that vast sea which was China or perhaps the torrents of revolution were so violent that some of them were swept off their feet.

Admittedly, in order to understand the present, one must look at the profile of the past, however difficult it may be. The crux of the matter does not lie in the literary style of the material for study. Rather, I think that while we use material with a literary flavour for language study we should constantly bear in mind its historical background. This is an unsensational but practical approach to the matter. Although we are fully aware that it is even more difficult to study the colloquial goroku of Tarng times than the ancient phonetics of the Book of Odes, yet we can only proceed along these lines and hope for the best. Whenever our fourth-year students study Ming novels – which are colloquial enough – and find it necessary to change the text in order to make it clearer, I often recall what Caliban says to Stephano in The Tempest:

Remember first to possess his books;
for without them he's but a sot.
                                                                      Act III, sc. ii.

The Ming novelists and Shakespeare lived in the same age.

Related material from China Heritage Quarterly:


[1] 'Dry Spell', included in WaIter Murdoch and H. Drake-Brockman, Australian Short Stories (Oxford, 1965), p. 279.

[2] Quotation from the Jong-rong. Cf. Legge's translation in The Chinese Classics, I, The Doctrine of the Mean, Ch. 13, p. 393.

[3] The Chinese Classics, I, Confucian Analects, Bk Il, Ch. 12, p. 150.

[4] The Tyi-du Syh-yi-goan under the Court of Imperial Sacrifices. See Ming-shyy (ed. Ell-shyr wuu-shyy, 1935), 74/165.

[5] Quotation from the 'Tzyy-shiu fuh', in Wen-sheuan (Commercial Press, eds. 1936 and 1960), 7/155. English translation from Burton Watson Records of the Grand Historian, Vol. 2 (Columbia University, 1961), p. 303.

[6] Legge, op. cit., II, The Works of Mencius, Bk VI, Pt I, Ch. 3, pp. 396-7.

[7] It may be interesting to note some opinion on this point expressed by Western scholars. For instance, in her Chinese Literature (Walker & Co., N.Y., 1964; transl. from La Littérature Chinoise by Anne-Marie Geoghegan) Odile Kaltenmark (p. 6) says 'Chinese suffers from lack of preciseness – which makes it a poor scientific language – but it is very expressive, and permits great economy in expressing ideas; therefore it is excellent for synthesis, but very imperfect for analysis'.

[8] Biing-jyh (ed. Shyr-wann jiuann-lou tsong-shu), 18/2b-3a.

[9] 'Tyi Lii Ning iou-jiu' in Chyuan Tarng-shy, IX (ed. Jong-hwa 1960), 572/6639.

[10] Wang Leau-i, Jong-gwo yeu-faa lii-lueen, Vol. II (Jong-hwa, 1957), pp. 116-19; Liou Shyh-ru, Wey-jinn nan-beei-chaur liang-tsyr yan-jiow (Jong-hwa, 1965); Yuen-ren Chao, Mandarin Primer (Harvard University, 1961) p.152; Wang, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 330.

[11] David Hawkes, Chinese: Classical, Modern and Humane (Oxford, 1961), p. 21. Also available at:

[12] Legge, op. cit., III, Pt 2, The Books of Chow, Bk XIV, The Numerous Officers, p. 454; Bernard Karlgren (transl.), The Book of Documents, To Shi (Stockholm, 1950), p. 55.

[13] Stockholm, 1915, Chin. transl. by Jaw and others, Jong-gwo in-yunn-shyne yan-jiow (Commercial Press, Shanghai, 1940).

[14] Biography of Yuan Horng-daw, Ming-shyy, 288/713.