A Brill Calendar: December 8

The " Wade-Giles" Way

Few scholars’ surnames dovetail in their chosen subject so effectively as those of Wade – Giles.

The coupling ‘Wade-Giles’ embodies a long, scholarly chapter in time: Thomas Wade was born in 1818; and Herbert Giles died in 1935. Wade was elected to become the first professor of Chinese at Cambridge University, in 1888. Giles succeeded him in 1897, some years after Wade had died. Wade was the elder son of an English Army officer and followed in his father’s profession after graduating from Trinity, Cambridge. He was sent to China in 1842. Giles, born December 8, 1845, in Oxford, ‘mirabile dictu’, didn’t see military service, was educated at Charterhouse and became a diplomat in the consular service in China from 1867 until 1892.

The second Cambridge professor of Chinese retained his Chair in sinology until 1932. The two scholarly gentlemen encompass between them half a century of Western learning concerning the ‘Realm of the Middle’. The system of Romanizing the modern Chinese language in its written form originated in the desirability to simplify Chinese writing as a service to Western scholarship. In essence, the Wade-Giles system started as an educational tool. Wade had already died before national script reform began in China in 1913 with the creation of a Phonetic Alphabet based on Chinese characters; with its aim of promoting the Peking dialect.

It is seldom that the alphabet is seen as a conqueror of civilizations, never defeated since the centuries it stumbled into existence, now some four millennia ago. China may further enhance its well-deserved position as the largest nation of the planet in the present century; yet efforts to promote and export its system of writing are hardly considered. There are important linguistic lessons to be learned – and taught – in the foreseeable future.