How He Learned Chinese: Lessons from a Pioneering Sinologist


Phebe Gray (徐秀丽)

Asst. Professor, Lee University


This presentation introduces a pioneering Sinologist H.A. Giles in the late 1800s and early 1900s, analyzing his motivation, challenges, methodology, and milestones in learning, and eventually teaching Chinese.  The presenter offers Giles’ story as a case study, creating a profile illustrating the characteristics of a successful Chinese language learner that transcends time and space, providing comparisons and suggestions for today’s Chinese language education.   Incidentally, Giles time coincides with the theme of this year’s conference.  Giles had personal communication with several of the influential figures in the XinHai Revolution era, including Sun Yat-sun and Cai Yuanpei.


H.A. Giles is commonly known his popularized Wade-Giles Romanization system for Chinese language.  After an initial career as a British diplomat for 25 years in China, Giles’ academic career was fulfilled at Cambridge University, where he taught Chinese for another 25 years.  Giles’ achievement resides in his numerous publications on Chinese language and culture, including a monumental Chinese-English dictionary, Chinese Biographical Dictionary, various texts books on learning Chinese, and translations of Chinese literature and philosophy. 

As a Chinese language learner, Giles had much challenge.  There was limited resource; however, Giles devised his method by learning San Zi Jing, along with other curriculum that native Chinese students used, immersing in Chinese culture in a unique way, and achieving proficiency in translation in a relatively short period. 


This presentation investigates presents how Giles overcame the difficulties, and analyzes how and why he was motivated in learning Chinese, given the general historical and social background, as well as Giles’ personal background.  The presenter also explores the lifelong language learning journey that Giles went through, examining the milestones of his intellectual development in understanding Chinese language and culture.


Finally, the presenter offers a profile of a thriving Chinese language learner based on the study of Giles, summarizing the universal characteristics that transcend time and space for successful foreign language learners.  The presenter compares the Chinese language learning experience of Giles’ time with today’s Chinese language education, considering the application of lessons learned for today’s Chinese language teaching and learning.