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As Jorge Luis Borges remarked, every dictionary is based on the obviously unwarranted hypothesis that languages are made up of equivalent synonyms. From a pragmatic point of view this hypothesis is certainly indispensable. Yet, everyone who ever had to translate seemingly unproblematic texts or propositions into a foreign tongue has experienced that different languages consist only to a very limited extent of equivalents. Even within Europe, with its many shared cultural and linguistic roots, the incongruencies between the terms of the different national and regional languages represent a persistent nuisance for the translator. In the case of two systems of speech and writing as different as the European and the Chinese, the difficulties of translation and the limits of translatability inevitably become even more obvious. At times, they may seem nearly insurmountable.

In view of this situation, the attempt, undertaken since the mid-nineteenth century, to translate entirely foreign systems of knowledge--the Western sciences and their underlying philosophical premises--into the Chinese cultural and linguistic context must be viewed as a truly challenging enterprise. In contrast to the historical, political, sociological and intellectual aspects of China's encounter with the modern West, this enterprise has up to now not been sufficiently studied. Except for the works of Novotná (1967-69), Ivanov (1973), Lippert (1979), Masini (1993), Xiong (1994), Shen (1994) and Liu (1996), a number of essays investigating the evolution of particular terms and some fruitful explorations into the political language of the Chinese revolution, which have each examined individual aspects of the problematic, no systematic study has been undertaken, neither in Chinese or Japanese nor in any Western language. The WSC-Project is intended as a step towards systematically reconstructing the formation and development of the terms in which scientific discourse is articulated in the Chinese speaking worlds today.

The WSC-Project aims to understand the translation of Western sciences and philosophies into China through the reconstruction of Chinese scientific terminologies coined, altered, disputed and successively refined since the early nineteenth century. Due to the vast amount of relevant sources, the project will limit its scope for the time being to the disciplines of philosophy, logic, physics, chemistry, geography (i.e. "knowledge on foreign countries"), politics and international law. In addition, it will concentrate on the formative period of modern Chinese scientific vocabulary between ca. 1840 and 1930. Although there were scattered efforts to translate "Western learning", as it was known at the time, into Chinese languages by Protestant missionaries in the first decades of the nineteenth century, it was only in the aftermath of China's violent opening during the so called "Opium Wars" of 1839-42 and 1860 that the terms of the Western sciences began to find their way into Chinese learned discourse. For obvious reasons, Chinese scholar-officials were at first almost exclusively interested in knowledge they considered as being useful for the defence of the Qing empire against further foreign aggression: besides geographical knowledge on the nations that so powerfully demonstrated China's vulnerability, the scholarly elite initially decided to import above all such knowledge and "cunning clues" that promised to cure the empire's apparent military and economic weaknesses. The "Unequal Treaties" forced upon China by various Western powers then also incited increased interest in the pratice and intellectual tenets of international law. Eventually, areas of Western learning that seemed to possess the potential to upset the foundations of the traditional Chinese state came into view around the turn of the century: promoted by a small, but constantly growing number of reform-minded literati, political, social and, finally, philosophical theories were introduced into the reeling empire, now mainly through Japan, China's once despised neighbour in the east that seemed to have mastered the challenge of Western imperialism so much better than the intellectually self-sufficient Middle Kingdom.

The terms that were needed to translate the new ideas from various fields of Western learning into Chinese discourse were coined in a process that relied from the onset to a great extent on intercultural cooperation. In addition to Chinese literati, Japanese scholars and Protestant missionaries from many Western countries were involved in the invention of the new lexicon. No matter if working on their own or in groups, all translators had to overcome enormous difficulties. In contrast to translations between European languages where translators searching an appropriate rendering could turn to Greek or Latin prototypes, the Chinese language did not share a conceptual reservoir with the Indo-European languages wherefrom new terms could be inferred. Neither existed a tradition of translation comparable to European experiences that may have provided suitable models for the interlingual transfer of hitherto unknown ideas. Finally, the unique characteristics of the Chinese language and in particular its script proved to be an obstacle that more often than not turned the naturalization of foreign concepts into a choice between aesthetic and semantic inadequacy. In view of all these difficulties, it is no doubt a remarkable achievement that translators eventually succeeded in inventing thousands of largely adequate terms for the flood of new ideas streaming into China in the course of its confrontation with the modern West.

The reconstruction of the scientific terminologies that have evolved from this complex process of translation, appropriation and intellectual naturalization must rely on the systematic examination of extensive source materials. Besides contemporary dictionaries and encyclopedias, the WSC-Project takes into account selected monographs and translations of works on individual scientific disciplines or topics, textbooks, introductory articles in learned journals and the evolving press as well as essays, travel reports, diaries and personal memoirs written by Chinese diplomats, scholars and students. Following the compilation of a bibliographical database on the transmission of Western learning into China, that by now contains more than 8.500 relevant titles (monographs and articles), we have established a preliminary sample of new Chinese scientific terms on the basis of specialized and general dictionaries published between 1815 and 1916. This terminological sample currently includes entries on approx. 125.000 simple and compound terms. At the moment, the sample data is being cross-checked with lists of Western terms compiled from contemporary specialized dictionaries of European languages in order to assess to which extent it represents a full or biased picture of the scienctific disciplines that were to be translated. Simultaneously, we have begun to analyze a considerable number of primary texts, beginning with the earliest or arguably most influential works in each field.

For an outline of the accomplished and projected results of our effort, please consult our publications page.

Select Bibliography

Ivanov, V.V., Terminologija i zaimstvovanija v sovremennom kitajskom jazyke,Moskow 1973.
Lippert, Wolfgang, Entstehung und Funktion einiger chinesischer marxistischer Termini. Der lexikalisch-begriffliche Aspekt der Rezeption des Marxismus in Japan und China,Wiesbaden 1979.
Liu, Lydia H., Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity. China, 1900-1937,Stanford 1996.
Masini, Federico, The Formation of Modern Chinese Lexicon and its Evolution toward a National Language: The Period from 1840 to 1898,Berkeley 1993.
Novotná, Zdenka, "Contributions to the Study of Loan-words and Hybrid Words in Modern Chinese", Archiv Orientální35 (1967), pp. 613-648; 36 (1969), pp. 48-75.
Shen Guowei, Kindai Nitchu goi koryushi: Shin kango no seisei to juyo,Tokyo 1994.
Xiong Yuezhi, Xixue dongjian yu wan Qing shehui,Shanghai 1994.


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Last modified: July 15, 2001 by Joachim Kurtz