The Oxford Chinese Dictionary is a fresh, modern bridge between two languages that can still seem a world apart.
Chinese were hardly enthusiastic about learning the language of the English barbarians when East India Company ships first turned up on the shores of the Celestial Kingdom. Only in the 18th century did traders begin to pick up a few words, using pamphlets like the one entitled “Those Words of the Devilish Language of Red-Bristled People Commonly Used in Buying and Selling.”
Today, practicing English is practically China’s national pastime, with the number of English students and speakers reckoned at between 200 million and 350 million. And with the release of the Oxford Chinese Dictionary last week, they have a better guide to the devilishly difficult language. Oxford University Press describes it as “the largest, the most up-to-date, the most accurate, and the most authoritative English-Chinese/Chinese-English dictionary ever published.”
But a bilingual dictionary in one volume can hardly be an exhaustive catalogue of every word in two languages. Instead it aims to be accessible to learners and users of both languages, presenting a broad sweep of modern English and Chinese. It’s especially useful for the student of Chinese struggling to keep up with the breakneck development of slang and allusion.
As such, it’s more a compendium of the cultural climate than an official standard-bearer for the language. There are entries for renzishi tuoxie (“flip-flops”), shua zuipizi (to “be all talk and no action”) and zhaguo (to “get excited and angry”). In the entry for san (“three”), one can peruse threes of all kinds: a three-pointer in basketball (sanfenqiu), Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People (sanminzhuyi) and an escort who provides three kinds of services (sanpei)—although exactly which three is left to the reader’s imagination.
There is breadth enough for the novice and depth enough for the specialist. Those who have breakfasted in China may already know that youtiao are deep-fried dough strips but may learn that the word is also used to refer to an untrustworthy person. Likewise with ku; those who know that it means “bitter” may not know the full span of hardship that it can describe: a thankless job (kuchai), mental vexation (kunao), lost appetite during summer (kuxia) and the feigning of injury to win others’ confidence (kurouji).
The new dictionary includes many words that are new not only to the world of Chinese-English dictionaries, but also to the language itself—the lexical footprints of a culture on the move. Fans—and in China there are many, of all sorts—will find the most current ways to call themselves: There is a straight transliteration from English (fensi, the same word for thin rice noodles) but also a more evocative rendering (fashaoyou, which literally means “fever friend”). Hangers-on will learn to keep an ear out for the word zhuixingzu to know when they have crossed the line and are officially groupies.
The Internet, predictably, contributes a jumbled heap of fresh idiom, but some of the new vocabulary represents social change along more established dimensions. China’s nouveaux riches may now be known among their jealous neighbors as “moneybags” (dakuan), “big shots” (dawan) or “bigwigs” (daheng). Graduates who have taken a little too long to leave the nest are said to be “gnawing” on their parents (kenlaozhu). Adulterers who might once have called their paramours concubines (qie) for lack of a lowlier term can now aspire to precision; an ernai is a kept woman of less-official standing.
The Oxford dictionary reaches back in the language’s history, too. China’s many chengyu, or idiomatic phrases derived from traditional fables and classical texts, present a high hurdle for learners. Often arcane and literary, they still pervade everyday conversation.
To convey in Chinese that a situation is paradoxical (zixiang maodun), for instance, is to invoke a story about an arms dealer who oversells his wares. Expressing the need for perseverance (tiechu mocheng zhen) means referring to the story of a man who made a needle by rolling a steel pole in his hands for weeks and weeks. The new dictionary does crackerjack work with these and others. Some experts put the number of chengyu expressions at 5,000, though others settle for no fewer than 20,000. Statistics on the Chinese language, like folk tales, change depending on who’s telling them.
Browsing the new dictionary reinforces a sense of the deep pools from which the Chinese language springs, even at its colloquial cutting-edge. Today’s Chinese, profoundly rooted yet full of novelty, reflects a people who revere tradition but also seek constantly to reinterpret that tradition. The Oxford dictionary is an apt monument to this ambivalence.
Nevertheless, monuments always decay. If it follows the example of the flagship Oxford English Dictionary, the Oxford Chinese Dictionary may in its next edition retreat from the printed page, living exclusively online. It would be a fitting development. The words and phrases of modern Chinese may have at last been captured and recorded. But in Shenzhen’s Internet cafés and Beijing’s rock clubs, the language is still being taken apart and rebuilt.
Mr. Zhong is a Princeton-in-Asia fellow at the Wall Street Journal Asia’s editorial page.
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