Wang Li (linguist)
Wang Xiangying 王祥瑛|
10 August 1900
Bobai, Guangxi, China
3 May 1986|
|Other names||Liaoyi (了一)|
|Spouse(s)||Xia Weixia (夏蔚霞)|
|Alma mater||Tsinghua University, University of Paris|
|Influences||Yuan Ren Chao, Liang Qichao, Wang Guowei|
|Discipline||Linguistics of Chinese|
|Institutions||Tsinghua University, Zhongshan University, Lingnan University, Peking University|
Wang Li (Chinese: 王力; /wɑŋ' li:/; 10 August 1900 – 3 May 1986) was a Chinese linguist, educator, translator and poet, described as "the founder of Chinese Linguistics". His work expands a wide range in Chinese Linguistics, including phonology, grammar and lexicography, historical linguistics and dialectal studies. He was also the founder of the first Chinese Linguistics Department at Tsinghua University. He brought the western modern linguistic methodologies back to China and strove for the modernization and reformation of Chinese grammar throughout his whole life. His most famous books include Zhongguo Yinyunxue 中国音韵学 (Chinese Phonology), Zhongguo Wenfa Chutan 中国文法初探 (An Exploratory Study of Chinese Grammar), and Wang Li's Character Dictionary of Classical Chinese 王力古汉语字典.
Wang Li was born to a poor family in Bobai County, Guangxi, China. He first discovered his interest in literature and novels at the age of seven, inspired by one of the four Great Classical Chinese novels Romance of the Three Kingdoms. However, after he graduated from primary school at the age of 14, his family could no longer support his education. As a result, Wang started to educate himself by reading a large number of books. At the age of seventeen, Wang Li also began to tutor his little brother Xiangrui while the family stilled struggled under poverty and could not provide the money for Xiangrui to go to primary school.Wang Li's talent as a tutor brought him several other young children from the county to study with him. Gradually, Wang built a private school at his house. Wang did not adopt the general teaching style employed by other private schools at the time, which emphasized memorization of text over comprehension. Instead, Wang provided explicit explanation of each text by thoroughly analyzing the syntactic and semantic components of the texts. At the age of 21, Wang was invited to one of his students' house for dinner. He accidentally found fourteen boxes of books, ranging from history to astronomy to medicine, accompanied by the authors' footnotes and literature reviews of various works. Wang asked the host of the family whether he could borrow them and the host kindly lent them to him. Later in his life, Wang considered the discovery of the fourteen boxes of books one turning point of his life.
In the same year, Wang was hired by a local school to teach primary school students Chinese. Three years later, he was funded by his colleagues and the Principal of the school to further pursue his studies in Shanghai.
In 1924, Wang enrolled at Shanghai Southern University and subsequently at the University of China. Two years later, he was admitted to the Academy of Chinese Learning at Tsinghua University, where he studied with Yuen Ren Chao, Liang Qichao and Wang Guowei, whose instruction and guidance immensely inspired and influenced Wang in the study of linguistics. Among the thirty-two students that entered Tsinghua University in the same year as Wang, he was the only one that chose to study linguistics with Chao. Wang said that "While Liang encourages innovation, Chao emphasizes practicality, both of which are indispensable to the study of linguistics". Wang wrote in the postscript of his paper on the topic of the grammar of Classical Chinese that two specific sentence structures Fanzhao Sentence (反照句) and Gangmu Sentence (纲目句) are only commonly observed in Chinese and are very rare in western linguistics. Fanzhao Sentence (反照句) occurs when an object or objective phrase is placed at the beginning of the sentence and is replaced by a pronoun later in the sentence. Gangmu Sentence (纲目句) is similar to modern English topicalization.  After reading the paper, Chao suggested that Wang delete the postscript, claiming that he could not assert the grammatical rules of a language before fully acquiring it. Afterwards, Chao's words “It is easier to claim the presence but harder to claim the absence of things" became the motto of Wang's academic career throughout his whole life.
In 1926, under the advice of Chao, Wang went to Paris to further pursue his study of linguistics. He hoped to learn from the western linguistic theories and bring them back to China. Wang supplemented his education by translating French literature into Chinese, and his works were greatly recognized and praised by the editor of the Commercial Press, Ye Shengtao. Ye spoke highly of Wang's translation, commenting that "I cannot comment on faithfulness (to the original work) and expressiveness, but there is no doubt that he is transaltion is filled with elegance and taste."
Five years later, Wang finished his education in France with a doctorate degree in the study of Bobai phonology. He first focused on dialects in Liangguang region, which includes Guangdong and Guangxi in Southern China. Based on his observation and intuition as a first language speaker of the Bobai dialect, Wang presumed that cuōkǒu (撮口, "round mouth"), one of the four traditional ways of classifying syllable finals of Mandarin dialects, does not exist in Liangguang area, as it does not exist in the Bobai dialect. However, Chao pointed out in his letters to Wang that it was wrong for him to overgeneralize the dialectal patterns in a large area with multiple dialects solely based on the linguistic behaviors of one single dialect. Taking Chao's advice, Wang narrowed his research down to the study of the dialect in Bobai county.
Afterwards, Wang went back to China in 1931 and started teaching at Tsinghua University in Beijing, ranked as the top three academic institutions in China. In his spare time, he produced various works of literature including books about Greek and Roman literature and translations of Émile Zola's Nana, Molière's plays and Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal. While Wang taught General Linguistics and Chinese Phonology for two years at Tsinghua University, his several dozen translations of various works became one of the reasons why he was not offered the expected professorship after two years' teaching. In order to compensate for the unbalanced attention he gave to his job at the university, Wang immersed himself in the study of linguistics and wrote An Exploratory Study of Chinese Grammar (中国文法学初探), which earned him the professorship after four years' lecturing at Tsinghua University. In the book, Wang underlines the importance of using the comparative methodologies used in historical linguistics to compare the feature of Chinese and western languages, to build an independent system of Chinese grammar. He considered this work as a "manifesto" that directed his later works and research in Chinese linguistics.
Second Sino-Japanese War
During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), Wang supported himself through a great number of publications, including newspaper columns and essays on a variety of subjects and genres. The hardship of the war did not stop his research in linguistics. By the end of the war, Wang's research had expanded to phonology, morphology, syntax, poetry and dialectal studies, and he began to plan for the future of Chinese linguistics. He said, "as the language of Chinese starts to prosper, Chinese may appear as one of the foreign languages, parallel to English, French, German and Italian in universities across the world. By the time it happens, is there a Chinese dictionary as good as the Oxford Dictionary, or a formal Chinese grammar system as advanced as the Essentials of English Grammar of Jespersen?" 
During the war, Wang also wrote a book called 龙虫并雕斋琐语 (Trivial Talk of Dragon and Worm Carving), a collection of prose and essays he wrote in Kunming, Southern China. In traditional Chinese craftwork, the technique of carving the worm is elementary and uncomplicated, while the carving of dragon requires meticulousness and preciseness. Wang metaphorically used the phrase “carve the worm” to refer to the stories he wrote about the common life, including personal anecdotes and his ruminations, parallel to his other eminent and well-known "carve the dragon" works. The collection of essays are less academically rigid but profound and reflective, which deeply influenced the people during the hardship of the wartime. Wang's anecdotes and essays were once criticized by Wen Yiduo, a famous Chinese poet, for their vulgarity and bad taste，which in Wang's opinion, were a genuine reflection of people's lives. In one of Wang's essays Salaries, he pointed out that the word salaries "薪(firewood)水(water)" originally refers to the money to buy firewood and water---the money needed for sustenance. However, Wang derided the miserly payback to the labor from the Chinese government by saying that with the salaries being so low, 薪水 should be renamed as 茶(tea)水(water) or 风(wind)水(water), as the only thing people could buy with the scarce amount of money is tea or wind. Such stories resonated with those who suffered during the wartime and those who worked and lived at the bottom of the society.
After the war, Wang started to teach at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangdong in 1946 and founded the first Linguistics Department among Chinese universities. Wang himself designed the course syllabi and content for most of the courses. He integrated his research into teaching and used his own research as teaching materials. He believed that "students should not be taught through books bought by the teacher but through books written by the teacher". Many of his research works and notes were used as the textbooks and were directly sent to be published right after the courses ended.
As the aftermath of the war drifted away, the Chinese government began to switch its prioritization from war efforts into developing literacy rates, implemented through a series of policy in language reform. By the time the State Commission on Language Reform was founded (1954), the number of students in the Linguistics Department increased rapidly and the department was merged into the Chinese Department at Peking University in Beijing, China. By then, Wang served as the department chair of the Department of Chinese Language Studies at Peking University, and was also a member of the Advisory Board of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and State Commission on Language Reform.  He was actively engaged in the institution and transmission of pinyin (the romanization system of Mandarin Chinese pronunciation) and putonghua (Modern Standard Mandarin). Wang insisted that pinyin should be represented in the form of Latin alphabet, and Pinyin should be taught to students in the first year of school. 
While Wang was devoted to promoting the transmission and advancement of the language of Chinese and its application, he continued his research in morphology, semantics, rhetoric, lexicography and experimental phonology, and the inheritance of traditional Chinese linguistics. Wang then started the study of Classical Chinese, believing that "in order to catch up with the world's advanced study in the science of language, one has to perform historical analysis on the linguistic phenomena and its development patterns."  Per request of the Ministry of Education of China's objective of rehabilitating college students' abilities to read Classical Chinese and promoting the transmission of traditional Chinese literature, Wang took the responsibility and started to compile the book Classical Chinese. He included selections of classical Chinese literature and commonly used words and phrases, combining theory and practical usage as the method of instruction.
In 1957, Wang finished writing the book Hanyu Shigao 漢語史稿 A sketch of the history of the Chinese language. The three volumes of the book respectively demonstrates the historical development of Chinese phonology, grammar and lexicon, and illustrates the progress of transformation from classical Chinese to modern Chinese.
Wang's academic career was severely hindered during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). He was publicly humiliated and was sentenced to hard labour from 1966 to 1971, experiencing enormous devastation and depression.  While he was under suppression and imprisonment, he continued his study. During daytime at labour, he reflected and expanded on the texts and materials he memorized and wrote down his thoughts at night. When the Cultural Revolution ended, Wang Li had finished writing two books on classical Chinese poetry, the Classic of Poetry and Chu Ci.
After the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, Wang was determined to work harder to compensate for the six years he had lost due to the political upheaval. He was invited to give lectures at different universities and conferences, and responded to letters of inquiry of different areas including writing, Pinyin learning and foreign language acquisition.  Wang put together a large amount of his works into books, including The General Principle of Classical Chinese, The History of Chinese Phonology, and The Dictionary of Paronyms. He also started to revise the A Draft History of the Chinese Language at the age of 80, and expanded his original work A Draft History of the Chinese Language into History of Chinese Phonology, History of Chinese syntax and History of Chinese Lexicography. At the age of 84, he started to compile a dictionary for Ancient Chinese language, writing thousands of characters everyday, regardless of his deteriorated vision and other health conditions. In order to minimize the cataract's hindrance, he bought many magnifiers, switching from one to the other so that he could continue reading and writing, until he was no longer able to work. 
Wang died at the age of 86. Although he was not able to finish the ideal dictionary, his students collaborated and finished the dictionary, and named it The Wang Li Character Dictionary of Ancient Chinese, in memory of the great Chinese linguist Wang Li. 
In 1990, three years after Wang died, the Wang Li Academic Forum was held in Beijing. Scholars and linguists from different countries came and paid respect to the great linguist Wang Li. In the same year, the book Wang Li Xian Sheng Ji Nian Lun Wen 王力先生纪念论文 (Festschrift of Wang Li) was published.
Wang pointed out in his book Zhong Guo Yu Yan Xue Shi 中国语言学史 (History of Chinese Linguistics) that in the past, Chinese scholars mistakenly regarded philology as linguistics and overly emphasized on exploring the literature instead of the language itself. He decisively claimed that there is a difference between philology and linguistics, while the former relies on the investigation of previous literature and a language's historical development, the latter studies the language itself and generates systematic and scientific linguistics theories. Wang's distinction of philology and linguistics was largely questioned by many scholars; Xu Guozhang, a famous Chinese linguist specializing in English especially disagreed with Wang and claimed that a developed linguistic system did exist in traditional Chinese literature, such as Liu Shu 六书 (Six books), a book on the structure and use of Hanzi, the Chinese character.
- Hanyu Shilüxue 漢語詩律學 [The study of the metrical rules of Chinese poetry] (1958)
- Gudai Hanyu 古代漢語 [Ancient Chinese] (1962, chief editor)
- Hanyu Shigao 漢語史稿 [A sketch of the history of the Chinese language] (1980)
- Tongyuan Zidian 同源字典 [A dictionary of word families] (1997)
- Wang Li Guhanyu Zidian 王力古漢語字典 [Wang Li's character dictionary of ancient Chinese] (2000, completed posthumously by colleagues)
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- Wang Li; 王力 [主編 (1976-01-01). Gu han yu tong lun. 香港: 中外出版社.
- Wang Li; 王力 (1985-01-01). Han yu yu yin shi. 北京: 中國社會科學出版社.
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- (in Chinese) Biography and bibliography