Breaking News in Classical Chinese Lexicography

Kroll dictionaryBrill has recently announced that it will publish A Student’s Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese, compiled by my M.A. advisor and ongoing academic mentor Paul Kroll, who worked with David Knechtges, William Boltz, Antje and Matthias Richter, and others. It’s scheduled to appear in November. It will be, without a doubt, the most important development in Classical Chinese-to-English lexicography since R. H. Mathews’s Chinese-English Dictionary (from 1943).

The reason this will be such a major achievement is because Prof. Kroll is an especially sensitive observer of linguistic change, and therefore will, I’m sure, stratify the meaning of various classical Chinese terms according to time period. (I can say from firsthand experience that he is very emphatic about this sort of thing in his graduate seminars.)

This philological attention to semantic change may not seem like much. The Oxford English Dictionary, and most European-language dictionaries, already do this. But nearly every other Chinese dictionary out there lumps together a character’s usage over 3,000 years in a single entry, with no notes on time. This deliberate ignoring of linguistic development help create a false sense of a timeless, unchanging “traditional China,” a myth widespread among East Asians and Westerners alike.

The other main virtue of this dictionary will be Prof. Kroll’s firm grasp of the nuances of English. Anyone who has read any of his academic works, with their long footnotes, will note immediately his habit of reaching into long-forgotten corners of the English language to find the right translation. I once translated the “Resolving the Problem of Capturing a Qílín” 獲麒麟解 by Hán Yù 韓愈 (768-824) for one of his seminars, and came across this fantastic description of the mythical animal (often called a “Chinese Unicorn”):


Its shape does not belong to a class of things, unlike a horse, ox, dog, pig, [chái], wolf, [mí], or deer. This being so, even if there were a qílín, one couldn’t recognize it to be a qílín.

The two animals I left in brackets, the chái 豺 and mí 麋, are given as simply “wolf” and “elk” in most Chinese-English dictionaries. However, Prof. Kroll informed me that, more precisely, they should be “dhole” – a kind of wild canine native to South and Southeast Asia – and “elaphure” – a now-extinct species of deer native to China’s subtropical regions. Not only are these terms more referentially precise, but they have the benefit of further “foreignizing” one’s translation, reminding one’s reader that Hán Yù did not look for inspiration into our North American wilds, but the premodern forests on the southern edges of the Táng empire.

As you can tell, I am very excited for this dictionary to come out. It will be the crowning achievement of Prof. Kroll’s distinguished career and an invaluable tool for anyone hoping to understand the dynamics of a world built by humans in another time and place.

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