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Workshop Report



"Researching Modern Chinese Technical Terminologies:
Methodological Considerations and Practical Problems"
An International Workshop at the University of Göttingen,
24-25 October 1997

Despite the recent monographs by Federico Masini and Lydia Liu, the formation of modern Chinese scientific and technical terminologies remains an under-researched and somewhat under-estimated topic. The recently established Chinese Scientific Terminologies Project at the University of Göttingen and the Technical University Berlin, initiated and directed by Professor Michael Lackner and funded by the Volkswagen-Foundation, is the first attempt to systematically reconstruct the terms in which modern Chinese scientific discourse is articulated. The workshop was organized by the Göttingen/Berlin project in order to discuss the many methodological and practical problems of its undertaking with reknown scholars working in the field and, if possible and feasible, to lay the foundations for an international network of researchers on modern Chinese terminological history. This workshop was attended by 19 scholars from six different countries and benefited in part from related co-operation projects financed by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the French CNRS and the Research Grant Council of Hongkong.

Michael Lackner set the agenda for the following discussions with a keynote address outlining the methodology and the current state of the Göttingen/Berlin project as well as some of its main theoretical and practical problems. In his theoretical considerations, Lackner dealt with the relation between terminological and conceptual change, and in particular with the competing interpretations of this relation by linguists, philosophers of language and historians of ideas. In addition, he addressed the question of how to define the terminological "core" of any given scientific discipline. Turning to practical issues, he highlighted the difficulty in reliably assessing the significance of different types of source materials, such as dictionaries, textbooks, introductory works and learned articles etc. for the development and stabilization of a specialized lexicon. During the following two days, these and a number of related questions were intensely discussed in three panels, focussing respectively on "Methodology and Linguistics", "Social Sciences and Humanities" and "Science and Technology".

The first panel examined the methodological aspects of terminological history from multiple perspectives. Viviane Alleton (Paris) pointed out in her paper that the Chinese language and script per se do not constitute obstacles for the coining of extensive and accurate terminologies, as has been demonstrated in studies on the nomenclatures of the natural sciences. With regard to the more complex cases of technical practices (e.g. laboratory manipulations) and the social sciences, Alleton argued that a systematic analysis of the recurrences of "formants" (i.e. all the morphemes used in the composition of words, including the so-called "suffixes") will reveal precise indications about the extent and implications of the most important notions and may thus help to understand the role of historical and ideological factors in the formation of modern Chinese terminologies. Thekla Wiebusch (Göttingen) questioned the appropriateness of the existing categorizations of the different types of loan-words and the morphological structure of neologisms in modern Chinese. In many cases it is simply impossible to prove that a certain term is indeed a "return loan" from the Japanese, i.e., that it was not used in China without interruption. Equally disputed is the question whether "suffixes", such as -xing or -hua, which are very frequent in neologisms, can be understood as true suffixes in the narrow sense defined by modern linguistics. Benjamin T'sou (Hong Kong) stressed that the process of relexification cannot be understood without paying regard to the "cultural filtering" by the speakers of the recipient language, and that in every attempt to describe terminological innovation lexifical stratification has to be taken into account as well. When shifted to high register language, new terms that were initatially rendered by means of phonetic loans may eventually be replaced by semantic loans or vice versa. The problem of Japanese loan-words in modern Chinese was addressed in two papers. Hu Baihua (Hongkong) elaborated through a broad range of examples that such loan-words are more frequent than most linguists are willing to admit, and that it is important to analyse not only their content but also their form. Wolfgang Lippert (Erlangen) exemplified in his paper how an analysis of 19th century dictionaries can help to reconstruct the migration of words between China and Japan. Many terms used in Japan for the translation of Western notions (especially from the social sciences) that were to make their way into the Chinese lexicon after the turn of the century, were originally drawn from the Chinese tradition. Similar to the usage of terms of Greek and Latin origin in the scientific lexicon of the West, the early Japanese translators apparently regarded Chinese characters as the most appropriate vehicle for the translation of new ideas, thus facilitating "re"-importation into China. Concluding the first panel, Alain Peyraube (Paris) analysed the linguistic terminology employed in the earliest Chinese grammar of the Chinese language, the Mashi wentong by Ma Jianzhong and Ma Xiangbo which, as Peyraube convincingly argued, was modeled after the Grammaire de Port-Royal. Although the Ma's innovative grammar appears to have been largely incomprehensible to contemporary readers, many important linguistic terms coined by the Ma brothers are still in use today. These terms were derived from three sources: they were either directly taken from the stylistic/philological tradition, created from within this tradition by means of semantic shift or, in the majority of cases, borrowed from Western languages.

The second panel, dedicated to "Social Sciences and Humanities", followed Peyraube's track of analysing how specific terms were introduced into the Chinese lexicon. Rudolf G. Wagner (Heidelberg) traced the notion mouvement/undo/yundong in the sense of "social action" from revolutionary France through Meiji Japan to China where it arrived on the eve of May 4, 1919. Taking advantage of the cosmological opposition between "movement" and "stagnation", the protagonists of May 4 consciously styled their own actions as a legitimate and necessary "movement" for and by the people, thus paving the way for numerous future movements or "campaigns" that were to be initiated and carried out with equal zest. Xiong Yuezhi (Shanghai) investigated the origins of the Chinese terms ziyou (liberty), minzhu (democracy) and zongtong (president, i.e., the notion of a head of state that can be forced to resign by popular vote). While the term ziyou for "liberty" only stabilised in the early 20th century after much competition, the term minzhu for "democracy", which had first appeared in W.A.P. Martin's translation of Wheaton's Elements of International Law in 1864, was already frequently used in the 1870's. "President" was translated in many different ways, even as huangdi (Emperor), until 1878 when the term zongtong became wide-spread after former American President U.C. Grant's visit to China. Rune Svarverud (Oslo) pointed out the ambiguity of the Chinese terms quan and quanli as translations of the Western notion of "rights". Both terms can be used for "power" as well, and according to Svarverud even a very charitable reading of early translations does not allow to draw a clear line between the two notions within Chinese political discourse. No matter how diverse the contexts, "rights" always remained inextricably linked to "power". Leaving the realm of politics, Joachim Kurtz (Göttingen) argued that terminological history can also serve as a tool to reconstruct the reception of Western philosophies in China. Drawing on data compiled by the Göttingen/Berlin project, he reviewed the changing Chinese translations of Kant's epistemological notion of "things in themselves" - from initial efforts to render the term by borrowings from the buddhist lexicon to the creation of visibly "foreign" terms of art to Mou Zongsan's recent attempt at "re-buddhification" -, and related the different strategies to changes in Chinese perceptions of Western philosophy as a whole. In a similar vein, Fang Weigui (Göttingen) discussed the changes in Chinese attitudes towards "foreigners" and "the foreign" on the basis of terminological data gathered from 19th century sources. It was precisely the shift of view from "barbarians" through "people from overseas" to "westerners" and finally "foreigners" (yi-yang-xi-wai) that paved the way for the integration of Western knowledge and its specialized terminologies into China.

Bridging the gap to the last panel on "Science and Technology", Zhu Weizheng (Shanghai) drew attention to the influence of newly devised technical terms on the writings of reform-minded officials during the late Qing and early Republican period. Zhu's poignant remarks were complemented by Ingo Schäfer (Berlin) who analysed Tan Sitong's reference to "Western sciences" in the latter's famous theory about the "ether" (yitai). Rather than using terms from "Western" natural sciences as they were discussed at the time, Tan utilized the new words as freely chargeable building blocks for a cosmological foundation of his political and social ideas. His choice of a phonetic rendering of the "ether" instead of the competing term chuanguangqi (qi that transmits light) may, on the one hand, be a result of this argumentative strategy. On the other hand, Tan may also have felt the need to distinguish the multi-facetted notion he was introducing from the qi-theory of the Song philosopher Zhang Zai.

In contrast to the fuzzy terminologies of the humanities, the nomenclatures of the natural sciences are a rather precisely delineated field of enquiry, as became apparent in the paper by Wang Yangzong (Beijing) on early Chinese translations of chemical terms. Wang demonstrated that J. Fryer's and Xu Shou's attempt to coin new Chinese terms for the chemical elements was much more successful than the almost simultaneous undertaking by J. Kerr and He Liaoran. Yet, Fryer and Xu did not succeed in creating an adequate terminology for the conceptual notions of chemistry. The reason for this failure was at least twofold: firstly, their translations were based on textbooks that did not reflect the latest developments in the field; secondly, they tried to introduce their subject on a very basic level. The resulting terminological gap was eventually filled in the early years of this century through translations from Japanese. The complex origins of modern Chinese chemical nomenclature were also taken up by David Wright (Bracknell) in his discussion of Yan Fu's translation of technical terms. Concentrating on Yan's rendering of J.St. Mill's System of Logic, Wright's analysis revealed not only the famous translator's utter inconsistency with regard to technical terms in general, but, more specifically, that Yan also frequently and unwittingly mixed terms originating from different terminological systems. It is therefore indeed somewhat ironic that Yan was appointed to direct the newly established standardization office at the Ministry of Education in the very year his problematic translation of Mill's Logic was published. Georges Métailié (Paris) probed into the formation of modern Chinese botanical terminology. Starting from the observation that the modern Chinese terms for basic botanical notions had already stabilized by the early 1920's, Métailié scrutinized a broad range of Chinese and Japanese dictionaries, encyclopedias and textbooks from the 19th and early 20th century in order to pin down the most important period of terminological change. He concluded that this period was the decade bracketing the turn of the century when the botanical nomenclature then current in Japan was integrated into the Chinese lexicon with almost no modifications. Iwo Amelung (Berlin) presented preliminary results from the Göttingen/Berlin project in the area of physical terminology. His analysis of the Chinese terms for the discipline of "physics" itself as well as for the individual subdivisions of that field, such as "mechanics", "dynamics" and "statics", demonstrated on the one hand that it is indispensable to understand competing translations in light of the contemporary state of the art in the West and, on the other, that a specific term, like wulixue for "physics", may stabilize very quickly if there is sufficient interest in the subject it denotes. Growing interest, however, does not guarantee terminological consistency. The urgent need for manuals, textbooks and general introductions after the turn of the century led on the contrary to astounding confusion, even in the terminology for such basic phaenomena as "refraction" and "diffraction". Finally and last but not least, Andrea Eberhard (Berlin) discussed the translation of mathematical symbols and signification in the late 19th century. Her comparison of the efforts of, amongst others, Li Shanlan and Fryer with traditional Chinese mathematical nomenclature and means of signification proved that the introduction of Western mathematics did not replace existing practices at once. Rather two separate discourses co-existed more or less independently from one another until the turn of the century when the terminology as well as the practice of traditional Chinese mathematics was eventually abandoned.

The concluding discussion focussed on three general issues that were touched upon in many papers and that are of special importance to any systematic research on the genesis of modern Chinese scientific terminologies. The first issue was the question of how to define the specific terminology of any scientific field in opposition to i) non scientific or low register vocabulary and ii) the lexicon of other disciplines. Here it was suggested to start by compiling for each area a catalogue of its "organizing notions" as well as their Chinese translations, and then to complement this sample with terms identified from the most relevant sources (above all Chinese textbooks, dictionaries and introductory monographs and articles from the late 19th and early 20th century) in each field as well as with the general terms of scientific discourse as collected, e.g., in the Vocabulaire générale d'orientation scientifique. Even if such a procedure is certainly more feasible in the natural sciences than in the realms of the social sciences and the humanities, it seemed to be far more appropriate than to start with an analysis of either individual notions or texts. The second issue was the demand to understand the formation of modern Chinese terminologies within its historical as well as political and social context. Without thorough knowledge of the historical development of the sciences and their terminologies in the West, it is impossible to comprehend the impressive intercultural effort at their translation into China. In order to situate this effort in context, it was also stressed that it may be advisable to borrow from the methods of the sociology of knowledge, in particular in order to reconstruct the ways and means, not only of the entry of individual terms into China, but also of their further spread and diffusion. Thirdly, there was considerable agreement that even with all these requirements fulfilled a general theory of language change in China is nowhere near in sight, and that any attempt at a systematic conceptual history of modern China will have to rely on the completion of a sound foundation in terminological history. In order to progress towards this latter goal and discuss in greater detail the questions this Göttingen workshop has left unresolved, the participants expressed the wish to organize a second meeting on researching modern Chinese terminologies within the next year.

Iwo Amelung / Joachim Kurtz

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Last modified: December 31, 1997 by Joachim Kurtz