Professors Wade & Giles

Highly entertaining post by Andrew Leonard at Salon – entertaining for the Chinese students among us at least. Leonard recounts the current controversy over competing Romanization systems in Taiwan, and then delves into the background of the first two professors of Chinese at Cambridge, Thomas Wade and Herbert Giles (whose namesake Romanization system most of us have had to face at one time or another), whose relationship was not exactly what you’d think:

All my adult life, the names Wade and Giles, the first two professors of Chinese at Cambridge, have been linked inseparably in my head, as I am sure is true for countless other students of Chinese. But how many know that the two men were enemies, or that one was opposed to missionary evangelization (also a sin in my book,) or was a powerful advocate for better treatment of Chinese by the British?

Throughout the piece, Leonard’s love of the Chinese language comes through. Leonard loves Chinese because of, not in spite of, its difficulties and complexities.

As lazy a student as I have been over the years, I can still relate. You’ll never get bored with a subject where there’s always something else to learn, something else to master.

The Discussion: 23 Comments

Yeah – I’ve always really dug on Giles, though his translations tend to be overly Victorian. And the Wade-Giles system really doesn’t get its due from today’s students — it’s a very good romanization system, and in some ways more accurate than Pinyin (e.g. in the way it marks aspirated/unaspirated consonants, where Pinyin’s use of English close equivalents can mislead people into thinking that, say, Pinyin ‘b-‘ is voiced).

I’ve also got a soft spot for Gwoyeu Romatzyh, which has an endearingly mad-scientist feel to it, and Kennedy’s Yale romanization system, which I think is still the best way for American newbies to get a quick grip on the sounds of Mandarin — but that’s neither here nor there.

October 2, 2006 @ 9:52 am | Comment

Yale was the first one I learned, and I liked it a lot. I don’t really know Wade Giles. I resisted Pinyin at first, but now I like it the best. It’s simple and once you accept that the letters don’t necessarily correspond to how you’d pronounce them in English (like “q” and “x”), I think it works really well. But yeah, you need someone to teach it to you in conjunction with proper pronunciation.

That Romatzyh is just weird!

October 2, 2006 @ 11:05 am | Comment

Thanks for a terrific anecdote, Lisa – I never heard this before! I always assumed Wade & Giles were academic partners. I’m also glad to understand that, even at that time, some westerners did not approve of Christian missionaries trying to expand their cults in Asia.

Now, if only I knew how to properly pronounce “Giles” name. Is it with a hard or soft “G”? British posters, SOS. ๐Ÿ™‚

October 2, 2006 @ 1:28 pm | Comment

The whole article is great, Slim – check it out. Lots more about Wade and Giles, including the former’s role in the Opium wars…

October 2, 2006 @ 1:39 pm | Comment

Slim — Soft ‘G.’

Lisa — one of the ideas with Gwoyeu Romatzyh (invented by Zhao Yuanren / Y.R. Chao, who was himself a really fascinating polymath) was that it would represent different tones by means of spelling changes instead of diacritical marks. It’s a neat idea — especially since I used to believe that one problem with Pinyin/Wade-Giles/Yale is that the tones are marked with diacritics, sending the subliminal message that they’re extraneous and not very important — but unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to actually lead to better tone reproduction from students using it. I taught myself the system a while back, but have since more or less forgotten it.

October 2, 2006 @ 3:38 pm | Comment

I get your point, Brendan, but I think I’d rather just use a pen to put in the tone marks than have to memorize all the different spellings for the different tones. I mean, aren’t I supposed to be learning characters too? God knows I have enough trouble with that…

October 2, 2006 @ 4:15 pm | Comment

Yeah – I no longer think that proper tone memorizationa and reproduction is a simple matter of diacritics anyway; I just dig Gwoyeu Romatzyh for the sheer baroqueness of it. As Chao – one of my idols – would’ve spelled it, “fuhtzar, jiow shyh hao wanr!” (复杂, 就是好玩儿!)

October 2, 2006 @ 5:41 pm | Comment

Shanghai Slim said it for me:

Thanks for a terrific anecdote, Lisa – I never heard this before! I always assumed Wade & Giles were academic partners. I’m also glad to understand that, even at that time, some westerners did not approve of Christian missionaries trying to expand their cults in Asia.

October 2, 2006 @ 7:58 pm | Comment

I’ve never had any problems with Wade-Giles. It was the system I learned in my college days in the mid-80s, when I took an introductory class on Chinese history (“5000 years in 10 weeks” as my professor described the course). To this day I still prefer to romanize Chinese names in WG.
I also prefer Tongyong Pinyin to Hanyu, but not for any political reasons. My objections to Hanyu Pinyin are aesthetic – I just don’t like the look of all those Q, X and Z’s.
As for Shanghai Slim’s question, my history professor always pronounced the “g” in Giles softly.

October 3, 2006 @ 3:20 am | Comment

Thank goodness someone had the presence of mind to come up with Pinyin.

Wade-Giles, IMO, does nothing but make trying to learn Chinese more difficult than it should be.

October 4, 2006 @ 12:46 am | Comment

Actually, I think the use of q, x and so in Hanyu Pinyin is a good thing. There are no exact English equivalents to the sounds those letters represent, and I think it’s a good way of reminding learners of this.

THM, somewhere in the universe I have a bookmark for a romanization converter – very useful! I never really learned Wade-Giles either, and when I was working on a project recently that used a strange mish-mosh of WG, Pinyin and god knows what else, this converter really came in handy.

October 4, 2006 @ 2:50 am | Comment

I had an undergraduate professor who (in the early 1990s) clung tenaciously to Wade-Giles. When I came to grad school, I had to switch to pinyin. Like it or loathe it, pinyin has become the standard at the major historical journals and university presses. Inevitably, it’s what we use in class too with allowances for certain people/places where the W-G or “Postal” system is widely known.

Great post and discussion.

October 4, 2006 @ 3:16 am | Comment


To be honest, I don’t have much use for PinYin either, except for typing characters on the computer.

You can compose a sentence for me in pinyin (with tone marks) and you might as well be writing in Latin because I’ll be lucky to figure out whatever it is your trying to convey.

Again, using Pinyin on the computer is a different story because I can see and identify the correct characters that I’m lookign for.

At least for me, Pinyin does provide more of an accurate pronunciation guide than the Wade-Giles format.

If you come across that bookmark, feel free to forward it my way. I’d be interested in takeing a peek at it.


October 4, 2006 @ 9:39 am | Comment

OtherLisa – I said it was for aesthetic reasons I didn’t like the q’s, x’s and z’s in Hanyu Pinyin. I agree those letters do the best job when it comes to helping with pronunciation. But aesthetics and practicalities are two different things. There’s a good reason why the entries for Q, X and Z in your ENGLISH dictionary are shorter than those for other letters!
When my daughter was born, I polled a number of non-Chinese speaking friends for their opinons on which romanized name (WG, Hanyu or Tongyong) to use for her ROC passport. The winner was the Hanyu version, with the consensus being it looked the most “exotic”. And for that reason alone I went with the bland WG version of her Chinese name ๐Ÿ™‚

October 4, 2006 @ 1:51 pm | Comment

I learned Wade-Giles because that was what my first Classical Chinese textbook used. (Actually, the best Classical Chinese textbooks I’ve seen – the Shaddick books and Creel’s “Literary Chinese by the Inductive Method” – both use W-G, since they’re pretty old school.) There’s no compelling reason to use it anymore, since Pinyin is the standard – Hanyu Pinyin, that is, not the butchered series of half-baked “standards” that is Tongyong Pinyin – but in its day, Wade-Giles was quite the thing. Kind of like “traditional” characters.

October 4, 2006 @ 2:35 pm | Comment

Pinyin’s influence by Esperanto actually makes it easier to learn the pronunciation of other European languages. In fact, the easiest way to explain the the pronounciation of the Pinyin “c” is to use the Slavic example, such as “Srebrenica, Bosnia”. The Pinyin “r” is like the Polish ‘rz’, as in “Zbigniew Brerzinski”. The Pinyin “x” is close, but quite the same as the Spanish “xerez”.

As for Pinyin vowels, such as ‘u’ and ‘u with umlaut’, I find the best explanation with Turkish. The unstressed ‘i’ in ‘jiaozi’, is the same as the “i without a dot” used in Turkish. One beef I have with Pinyin is “ou”. Instead of using ‘o’ and ‘o with umlaut’ to represent this vowel pair, Pinyin uses ‘ou’ and ‘o’. It just makes so much more sense to represent vowel pairs with the same Roman alphabet, differentiated with umlauts.

October 4, 2006 @ 9:55 pm | Comment

While I understand the history and development of vestigially pictorial characters, my anecdotal observation of native Chinese using their own language is that it actually impedes communication rather than enhancing it. The time it takes for someone to write a simple address at the post office or the continual debate among people about which character is the appropriate “Lu” is amazing. It has nothing do with a Romanization argument. The Chinese don’t even understand each other. As for the importance of tonality, it amazing how many conversations in the street involve very badly mispronounced Mandarin (I’m not even talking abour local dialects which are a whole ‘nother story!). Repetitive systems of simple characters are an amazingly simple yet very rich and very expressive ways to communicate.

Romanization can work wonders for a country. Just take a look at where Turkey would be if Kemal Ataturk had not instituted it 1923. I actually think that the lack of universal romanization in China is one of the factors holding the Chinese back. It may even be a dream come true for those in charge. Isn’t it interesting that English becomes the defacto second language?

October 5, 2006 @ 2:05 am | Comment

Well, I agree with most of your comments Ahmet but romanization by itself does not necessarily guarantee social progress. Thanks to romanization efforts by the French, the Vietnamese have done away with hanzi for at least a hundred years now. Higher literacy rates aside, I am not convinced that this has made much of a difference in terms of modernization.

Also, complete romanization of Chinese will inevitably be met by the issue of romanization according to which regional language/dialect? If romanized Beijing Mandarin is imposed in all of China without the neutralizing effects of hanzi, what’s to stop Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, etc… from demanding romanization systems of their own? If China does away with hanzi completely, English will not only become the de facto second language, it may end up become an official language of government like it has in India. I don’t think that is something that any Chinese government would support, regardless of who is in charge.

October 5, 2006 @ 8:54 am | Comment

Considering the fact that China will always be a barbarian backwater full of brainwashed drones who have no original thoughts to express, I really don’t see the point in any of this.

World Civilisation will learn far more from other marginal countries like Paraguay and Senegal, than the world will ever learn from the savages of Communist China. The Chinese language is 100 percent useless for world civilisation, because China is controlled by the 100 percent ignorant savages of the Communist Party.

October 5, 2006 @ 12:56 pm | Comment

Ummm…communist party aside…you have the cultural legacies of Buddhism and Daoism, Confucious, Mencius, Lao She, I could go on…

Plus the Chinese language is the root from which Japanese writing developed.

The characters are beautiful and encode thousands of years of aesthetic and cultural tradition.

And a billion plus people speak some version of it.

October 5, 2006 @ 3:15 pm | Comment


I respect you, Ivan, and I can’t deny the justice of *some* of your comments. Despite the cultural and intellectual poverty that defines China today, however, I think learning Chinese *is* a worthwhile endeavor, because at least it’ll allow you to acquaint yourself with the truly worthwhile aspects of Chinese philosophy and literature. As for its uselessness to contemporary world civilization (btw – and I know I’ll get major shit for this – I find the concepts of “barbarian” and “civilization” to be outdated), I’ll quote the late, great historian Sokichi Tsuda, who once stated that studying Chinese civilization is like “examining excrement in a test tube” (or words to that effect). Even though he basically devoted his whole career to it. (Mostly to show how its legacy was harmful to Japan.)

So there you go. Even if you think the Chinese language is shit, at least it can be interesting shit, and maybe you can even learn from the very fact of its shittiness. ๐Ÿ˜‰ X)~

October 5, 2006 @ 3:49 pm | Comment

Oh, hey, Ivan! We missed you!

October 7, 2006 @ 3:42 am | Comment

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