Andrew Leonard has a Salon article called “Choosing Giles over Wade” (you’ll have to look at an ad for a moment before the “continue to article” link appears in the lower right-hand corner) that begins with an amusing description of being “attacked as an imperialist for spelling the name of the Chinese province Sichuan as Szechwan” as a lead-in to the multiplicity of romanizations for Chinese (“Street signs in Taiwan are a mad mix of Wade Giles, and at least three other systems: Postal System Pinyin, Yale and Gwoyeu Romatzyh”) and a very silly excursus on how wonderful it is that Chinese has such a complicated writing system (“It is not just the depth and richness of thousands of years of culture and history that are embedded in the many thousands of intricate ideograms. It is in the very fact that I am not sure which dictionary to reach for, or which method to use for identifying a given character. This is not the place to discourse on such techniques—the point is, there is no right or even sure way to proceed…”) before getting to what is to me the most interesting part:
Anyone interested in the Chinese language, whether an expert or novice, would do well to read the transcript of a lecture that Herbert Giles gave at Columbia University in 1902. It is a fascinating introduction to the Chinese language that at once illustrates both its awesome complexity and its enduring powers of seduction. The occasion of the speech is Columbia’s decision to endow a professorship in Chinese studies, something that Giles considers quite admirable, given the small number of scholars in the field at the time. He even notes that “Twenty-five years ago there was but one professor of Chinese in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; and even that one spent his time more in adorning his profession than in imparting his knowledge to classes of eager students.”
I sat bolt upright in my cubicle upon reading that statement. The only person Giles could possibly be referring to would be Wade—the first professor of Chinese at Cambridge, and the original creator of the Romanization system that Giles later modified into its enduring form. I immediately went looking for more information.
Alas, there are still limits to the Internet’s capabilities. David McMullen’s “Chinese studies at Cambridge—wide-ranging scholarship from a doubtful start”, from the Magazine of the Cambridge Society, is not yet available online, and the initially promising “The Formation and Development of Sinology at Cambridge” by Que Weimin of the Department of History, Zhejiang University, turned out to be in Chinese, and I am currently without my dictionaries. But I did find a speech given by Giles’ great grandson, Giles Pickford, in Taiwan in 2005, on the occasion of the founding of a new museum. Pickford observed that Giles had made many enemies in his life, including…. Thomas Wade.
The plot thickens! Thomas Wade may have been [a soldier] in the infamous Opium Wars, giving heft to any theories of Wade-Giles Romanization as a tool of neocolonialist ideological oppression. But Giles, apparently, was something else. According to Pickford, “Giles was also disliked by the Christian Missionaries whose work he despised. This antagonism was contrary to British Government policy, which saw the work of the missionaries as entirely legitimate and beneficial. Giles disagreed, and made his disagreement very open and public… Giles was also unpopular with the British traders because he opposed the overcrowding of emigrant Chinese on British ships. In 1881 he was presented with a Red Umbrella by the Hsiamen Chinese Chamber of Commerce in recognition of this service to the Chinese people.”
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?
I didn’t, and I’m glad to find out. (Thanks go to Language Log’s Ben Zimmer for the link.)