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China and the Chinese _ lectures by Herbert Allen Giles (1845 - 1935) 

Herbert Allen Giles (1845-1935) was the Cambridge University’s second professor of Chinese. He was also a diplomat in China for some time.

“China and the Chinese” was a series of lectures given at Columbia University in 1902 on the occasion of the establishment of a Chinese professorship there. These lectures served as an encouragement to students to go into the systematic study of China, its language and culture. Herbert Giles intended to reduce the fears of Chinese being difficult by using examples to show that it was not actually the case.

Although the Chinese language has changed dramatically since the time of the lectures, especially when China has successively promoted the "National Speech (Guoyu)" and the "Common speech (Putonghua)" during the post Qing Dynasty eras, many of the observations Giles made in these lectures remain quite relevant today. 

The following link leads to an audio version of Giles' book in a free public domain audiobooks library called




In the first lecture on the Chinese language, Herbert Giles actually said that "Colloquial Chinese is a comparatively easy matter." Though he reminded people of choosing which dialect to follow depends on where you are going to visit and stay. However, this problem has gone today, as there has been a more or less unified variety for the majority to share communication, the Common Speech, putonghua, which resolves the problem of having to choose a certain dialect to follow.

Later on when it comes to the discussion of the common worry of the tones and homophones, he said "When closely examined, this great difficulty of many words with but one common sound melts rapidly away, until there is but a fairly small residuum with which the student has to contend. The same difficulty confronts us, to a slighter extent, even in English". He suggested that tones would not be that difficult to master as the contextual clues will easily disambiguate the meaning.

Writing system of Chinese may pose some challenge to learners. But he emphasized, "The written language has one advantage over the colloquial: it is uniformly the same all over China,... just as the Arabic and Roman numerals are understood all over Europe, although pronounced differently by various nations". After a detailed analysis of the composition of Chinese characters, he concluded, "Such is the written language of China, and such indeed is was, already under the dominion of the phonetic system, by which endless new combinations may still be formed, at the earliest point to which history, as distinguished from legend, will carry us, --some eight or nine centuries B.C......The great majority of characters, as I have said, are capable of being easily resolved into the two important parts which I have attempted to describe -- the original phonetic portion, which guides toward pronunciation, and the added indicator, which guides toward the sense."

At the end of the first lecture, he said, "Even the practical student, who desires to learn to read and write Chinese for purely business purposes, ... will find the characters so bewildering, so elusive, as to present almost insuperable difficulties. But under the influence of systematic study, coupled with a fair amount of perserance, these difficulties disappear, and leave the triumphant student amply rewarded for his pains". (bold face added)

You could either listen to it online or download the files to listen at times convenient for you to do so.


by CIRU staff

Last Modified: Thu, 30 Mar 2017 17:19:51 SAST