A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese

My copy of Paul W. Kroll's Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese (Language Log post) has arrived. I'm not expert enough in the field to offer a proper review, but I thought posting a few thoughts might be helpful to folks who are in a similar position to me and still on the fence (i.e., "I have multiple Chinese-Japanese dictionaries covering this stuff; do I really need a new Chinese-English one?")

First thought, just to get it out of the way: This book is reasonably priced. Complaining about academic book prices is a hobbyhorse of mine — one that has deformed into an alarmingly deep U from overuse — but $50 US for a 700-page reference work is a great deal. Brill deserves credit for keeping this book within the reach of actual students.

Second thought: The samples that have been online for a while now are nicely representative of the dictionary as a whole. As you can see, the definitions are clear and succinct, divided up and ordered in ways that constitute intelligible and helpful mnemonic stories of expanding and evolving meaning.

I say "mnemonic stories" because as far as I can tell there's no strict policy of arranging senses within entries in order of emergence, earliest to latest. No doubt in most cases this was the approach taken, if only because that would generally give you the most logical "story", but the entries themselves don't contain much in the way of specific dating at all — just the "(med.)" that identifies senses that arose in the medieval period, which means roughly 200-900 CE in this context.

To give a concrete example, if you were reading some Sima Xiangru, and you were wondering which of the various senses of a given word were current in 150 BCE, which archaic, and which anachronistic, the most help this book can offer in most cases is ruling out the medieval senses.

This isn't meant as a criticism, though — this is all by design. Here's Kroll in the introduction (online here, presumably because the whole book is also available from Pleco):

The magnitude of compiling a dictionary that might rectify or at least improve this situation [the lack of "a Chinese-English dictionary that focuses specifically on premodern texts"] has been a ready deterrent for a long time. The abandonment in 1955 of the Harvard-Yenching Institute project for a comprehensive Chinese-English Dictionary served to depress hopes substantially.1

This is the footnote:

1. Especially with the realization of what would ultimately be required, seeing that the "preliminary print" of a fascicle giving the entry on the single graph zi 子 ran to sixty-eight double-column pages.

And so, Kroll says,

[i]t is of no use if we allow the perfect to be forever the enemy of the good. [...] Hence, the present work which, imperfect as it is, hopes to make a start toward the ultimate dictionary we all desire.

To summarize, this is a dictionary "for practical use in reading and translating," as Kroll puts it. It is not suitable for apparatus-in-Latin hardcore philology, and makes no claims to the contrary.

Moving on, one noteworthy aspect of the book is its focus on "binomes." This is Kroll's term for words like 蜿蜒 ("sliding and slithering") and 逍遥 ("easy and effortless, footloose and fancy-free, free and easy") — "two-syllable words, usually alliterative or rhyming in structure. [...] Binomes have been appropriately characterized as Gestalt constructions, comprising more than the sum of their parts, or as impressifs gesturing towards a certain imagistic effect but without a rigidly fixed semantic core." (Kroll's introduction again.) Apparently a special effort was made to include these, and (as the definitions above suggest) their English translations are carefully crafted to have a similarly evocative feel.

I also found the dictionary's coverage of Buddhist terms to be very satisfying. Proper nouns are outside the scope of the book as a general rule, so you won't find any mention of Bodhidharma or Vimalakīrti under the entries for 達 or 維 respectively. But meanings that fit within a single character are reliably there; for example, the entry for 止 includes the specialist Buddhist sense as a translation of śamatha, and the entry for 與 mentions its role marking the object of the verb in Buddhist texts.

Finally, having the interest in Japan that I do, I appreciate the inclusion of Middle Chinese reconstructions right there in the entry, since they're usually more relevant to me than the Mandarin pronunciation.

All in all, and having given the dictionary a test run through a couple of poems and some sutra text, this is a book I foresee making good use of in future.

Popularity factor: 4



Any news on the pricing or availability of the "online service following soon after print publication"?


Nothing in the book, and I ordered it from Amazon so I'm not on any special Brill mailing lists.

The Pleco version is apparently complete and fully functional (and available on both iOS and Android), and costs about as much as the paperback, but presumably that's a one-off data lump that won't be kept in sync with the online service as the latter (hopefully) expands and improves. (Brendan O'Kane might know more about all this -- he's a Chinese-English translator so he has more skin in the game, and he posted a Pleco screenshot when the book was first released.)


People on the nets have been praising Kroll's elegant language (皎 = "candent") and his jabs at entrenched translations ("…his entry for 蛟 where he specifically admonishes you not to translate it as 'kraken.'" – Pleco's facebook page). Also has a "N.B. not a 'jackal'".


Yes, I love that screenshot! Tom Mazanec wrote an interesting post a few months ago specifically looking forward to seeing Kroll's botanical and zoological rigor in dictionary form. (Seems that Kroll is his MA adviser.)

Aime la vérité, mais pardonne à l'erreur

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