A Historical Relic?

I recently ran across the Qing Research Portal, a website which unfortunately has stopped updating. It offers the “ECCP Reader”, an electronic version of Hummel’s Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing Period, but the Windows version is not available, so I can’t say much about it. There is also a small chunk of the text presented in html.

The page has an introduction to ECCP which left me feeling odd:

    For decades ECCP was the first reference for the Qing period for both undergraduates and for researchers. Unfortunately, [the commonly available Caves pirate reprints] were printed on paper of high acidic content, which has now deteriorated so severely that most of these books cannot be used on a frequent basis. A more important factor in the decline of ECCP as a seminal reference work was the fact that its transliteration system, Wade-Giles, fell out of active use after 1979 and is now all but indecipherable to undergraduate readers. There is, finally, the problem that ECCP was never revised or updated, despite many reprintings. As a consequence, the critically important scholarship on the Qing period that appeared after 1943 is not included.

My copy of ECCP is fine, for a 30+ year old book. (It was printed by Ch’eng Wen 成文, 1970.) Dartmouth’s copy might have problems, but surely that’s not going to affect a generation of American students. Lack of post war scholarship is undoubtedly the main problem with ECCP today. But scholarship is not like canned food; there’s no expiration date. And even after you know more than earlier writers did, you still need to know how you got where you are.

But it’s the comment on Wade-Giles romanization that really leaves me wondering. I’ve been grappling with the old China Inland Mission system for the last few months, so I’m painfully aware of how tough outdated transcription systems can be. But the CIM system was not based on the Beijing dialect that became the basis for modern Standard Chinese. It is an abstraction, a conglomeration of features that came from numerous guanhua dialects, including some that still preserve the entering tone, which it diligently marks, without giving you a hint of how it should actually be pronounced. Trying to find a word based on its pronunciation in Mandarin is thus often annoyingly difficult. Not so Wade-Giles, which is a transcription of what is now the standard language of China. Hummel’s use of Wade-Giles is moreover rigorously correct. There are errors, but the percentage is far lower than the average academic publication today.

What’s the story then? No doubt that in the phrase “indecipherable to undergraduate students”, the word undergraduate is very important. But undergraduate students simply have little use for ECCP. It is a research tool for not just graduate students, but anyone who wants to undertake serious scholarly study of the Qing dynasty. How then to understand “the decline of ECCP as a seminal reference work”?

To say that Wade-Giles ‘fell out of use after 1979’ is misleading, to say the least. I used it in my dissertation, defended in 1996. I would probably not use it today, but I certainly object to the suggestion that it would be reasonable, or in the slightest way acceptable, for a graduate student to ignore or dismiss my dissertation because it used Wade-Giles. Similarly, Wade-Giles or no Wade-Giles, ECCP is STILL an essential reference for Western students of the Qing dynasty. If Wade-Giles is indecipherable to American graduate students today, it’s a sad reflection on the instruction they’ve received.

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