February 8, 2004 - Shanghai Daily news: Nepal RPCV Victor Henry Mair completes decade-long challenge of alphabetizing the Great Chinese Dictionary

Peace Corps Online: Directory: China: Peace Corps China : The Peace Corps in China: February 8, 2004 - Shanghai Daily news: Nepal RPCV Victor Henry Mair completes decade-long challenge of alphabetizing the Great Chinese Dictionary

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Nepal RPCV Victor Henry Mair completes decade-long challenge of alphabetizing the Great Chinese Dictionary

Nepal RPCV Victor Henry Mair completes decade-long challenge of alphabetizing the Great Chinese Dictionary

Chinese dictionary ABCs

Shanghai Daily news

Looking up compound Chinese words is a famously complex task, befuddling even natives of the language. Now an American professor has revolutionized the process, putting all the entries in Romanized alphabetical order. Zhao Feifei reports on the decade-long challenges of alphabetizing the Great Chinese Dictionary Compiling a dictionary has been equated with doing prison time: both require infinite patience and a ray of hope in order to persevere.

That goes double for a dictionary in another language.

So it is nothing short of impressive that after 10 years of reediting the 12-volume ``Hanyu Da Cidian,'' or ``Great Chinese Dictionary,'' Victor Henry Mair has just walked free.

The new edition was published last December to critical praise from both Chinese scholars and students of the language. ``As a Sinologist who has to consult the `Hanyu Da Cidian' several times a day, I knew that by streamlining the lookup procedure for words I could save myself endless frustration and many, many hours,'' says Mair, 61, an American who is a professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, the United States.

Previous editions of the ``Great Chinese Dictionary'' use only a pinyin index for individual characters. To look up a compound word, one has to count character strokes, a painstaking, often inaccurate process for both fluent speakers and students. Mair has revolutionized the process by using Romanization to put all of the nearly 350,000 polysyllabic entries in alphabetical order.

``This is the way words are looked up for most languages of the world, including Japanese. It is much faster than any other way of looking up a word in traditional Chinese dictionaries,'' explains Mair, who worked with a team of 20 Chinese experts on the dictionary.

Indeed, renowned linguist Zhou Youguang calls the new dictionary an innovation, making Chinese language and literature more accessible.

A native of Ohio, Mair's interest in China developed as an indirect result of his time spent as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal in 1965.

It was there that he became interested in Buddhism, which led him to the study of Chinese. ``To study Buddhism seriously, you have to learn many languages: Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, and so forth. Chinese became the most important of the languages I studied to learn about Buddhism,'' he says.

Upon his return to the United States, Mair applied for a Woodrow Wilson fellowship in Old English and Middle English literature. But when the committee interviewed him at their headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey, they recommended that he go into Asian Studies to utilize the knowledge that he had acquired firsthand in Nepal. In the fall of 1967, Mair followed their advice, and began a program of Buddhist Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle.

In 1970, at the age of 27, he embarked on a serious program of study in Chinese at Harvard University, from which he would later receive his PhD in Chinese literature.

Mair taught as an associate professor in the department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations and in the Religious Studies Program at Harvard for three years, but in 1979, he moved to the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Since 1997, Mair has also been a concurrent professor in the Department of Chinese at Sichuan University in China and since 2000, a concurrent professor in the Department of Chinese at Peking University.

For the first two decades of his academic career, Mair's special research focus was on the earliest vernacular narratives written in Chinese. Since these manuscripts had been discovered around the beginning of last century in a cave at Dunhuang in Gansu Province, Mair became a frequent visitor there and began to study the languages, literature and cultures of the area.

These activities led to his organization of a large, multidisciplinary research project on the Bronze Age Caucasoid mummies of the Tarim Basin.

This project has tremendous implications for the solution of the problem of the origins of the Indo-European language family as well as for the rise of key features in Chinese civilization. The project has received extraordinary publicity, including articles in Newsweek, The New York Times, Discover, Reader's Digest and Archaeology. Mair has been interviewed about the mummies on dozens of broadcasts worldwide and has appeared in three made-for-television documentaries by NOVA, the Discovery Channel and Scientific American.

He has also written more than 300 book reviews, which he considers one of his most significant services to the field.

Many of Mair's seminal books and articles reveal how China -- unlike the stereotypical perception as a homogeneous, isolationist country -- has always been involved in interaction with other peoples and is itself composed of the diverse and varied elements.

He deems it his mission to continue to do research on and teach about the complexity of Chinese culture and its diversity.

Mair, whose wife is from Shandong Province, has been coming to China since 1981, and has developed a particularly close relationship with the State Language Commission, formerly called the Script Reform Committee. It was as a result of these connections, friends and colleagues in linguistic circles in China that he was able to convince the Shanghai Hanyu Da Cidian Publishing House to allow him to reedit the huge dictionary.

``I told them that I would find qualified people to work on it. That includes all of the compilation, the editing, the computing, and even the typesetting. Naturally, the publishing house was happy to meet someone like me who would take on all of these responsibilities,'' he says.

The back-breaking editing work had to face two major challenges: determining the correct pronunciation for all the entries and technology.

The computer program being used to update the dictionary didn't have fonts large enough to handle all of the approximately 23,000 different characters that occur in the dictionary, and it was not able to manage the contents of the index as a single gigantic file.

But the biggest crisis came last summer, just as the team was about to re-order all the entries into a single alphabetical sort, Mair recounts.

``Our Associate Editor Fang Shizeng, who was in charge of all technical aspects of the project, called me from Beijing almost in tears because he said that the files were so large and the unusual characters were so numerous that it was virtually impossible to finish the task. At that point, all I could do was reassure Mr Fang that I had faith in him and encourage him to seek additional expertise among computer specialists. He did so, and in the end we prevailed,'' Mair says.

``Alphabetic Index to the Hanyu Da Cidian''

Shanghai Hanyu Da Cidian Publishing House

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Story Source: Shanghai Daily news

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Nepal; COS - China; Dictionaries



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