A sense of loss and also a surge of nostalgia were my first reactions on reading an obituary this week for the man credited with creating mainland China’s first major English-Chinese dictionary in the post-1949 period. It was quite telling that the dictionary compiled here in Shanghai by renowned lexicographer Lu Gusun wasn’t even technically completed until 1991, reflecting China’s conflicting feelings towards the West over the years.
From a much more personal perspective, some of the most enduring memories of my time in China revolve around such Chinese-English dictionaries, which were an integral part of my life when I first arrived here in the 1980s. Such translations were not only useful for getting around in daily life, but were also an occasional source of humor for myself and other foreigners due to their occasionally political overtones.
Nowadays most such politics of translation are thankfully in the past, as are many traditional dictionaries in general. In their place, my most trusted reference has become Google’s translation service, which is much faster and easier to use, and gets updated constantly. That contrasts sharply with an older set of dictionaries gathering dust on my bookshelf.
But more on that shortly.
The obituary that triggered so many strong memories came for a man whose name was probably unknown to most foreigners studying Chinese and Chinese studying English, even though many of us benefitted from his work. Lu Gusun was a well-known lexicographer at Shanghai’s own Fudan University when he was branded an “elitist” in an earlier era, with the result that he was relegated to the then-mundane task of dictionary compiling.
His magnum opus was a Chinese-English dictionary consisting of two volumes, the second only published in 1991, or more than a decade after China officially reopened for business with the rest of the world.
Lu died here in Shanghai at the age of 76, after being hospitalized late last week suffering from a cerebral hemorrhage. The two volumes of his dictionary encompassed a staggering 200,000 entries with more than 16 million words, spread over more than 4,000 pages. I was somewhat saddened that I never got to meet the man, even though our paths crossed at Fudan, where Lu spent his entire career and I have taught for the last six years in the journalism school.
Word of Lu’s death took me back to my first year living in Taiwan in 1986, where a small but thick dictionary edited by famed lexicographer Liang Shih-Chiu quickly became my constant companion during my early years in the region. I still have the dictionary to this date, though it’s quite dirty and dog-eared by now and I’ve probably consulted it only 2 or 3 times in the last six years since moving to Shanghai.
Unlike many dictionaries I’ve seen over the years, Liang’s was somewhat unique in its organization that tried to help the user understand the origins of the thousands of Chinese characters contained within. It also included many older meanings and had listings for a surprising number of obscure characters, making it quite useful when I studied classical Chinese for a few years. Reflecting just how good it is, Liang’s Far East Chinese-English Dictionary is still available on Amazon today.
My other longtime companion over the years is a much smaller, compact red dictionary compiled by Xinhua, which had both English-Chinese and Chinese-English translations, and was easily the most popular reference for both foreigners and Chinese when I first arrived in Beijing in 1987. That particular dictionary was sometimes popular entertainment among foreigners due to some of the political terms and creative translations it contained, though even the more scholarly Liang Shih-Chiu wasn’t exempt from such politics in his dictionary.
Like many things in today’s world, all of those dictionaries have been rapidly overtaken by Internet sites that offer far more flexibility, especially for translations for slang and newer terms that are constantly entering any language. My current favorite is Google Translate, which is frequently updated by actual users like myself, though I’m sure there are many other sites that are equally popular and flexible.
I only use my older dictionaries these days when I stumble onto characters that I don’t know how to pronounce. In those cases, it’s impossible to type the character into my computer using pinyin, and I have to use the much older and painfully slow system of looking up characters using their component parts. And yet despite their growing obsolescence, the aging Far East and Xinhua dictionaries on my shelf will always have a special place in my memories of China, as will my respect for men like Lu and Liang who dedicated such huge amounts of time and passion to compiling these volumes that helped so many of us.