Mathews' - A much-maligned Chinese-English dictionary

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Mark Yong
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Joined: Fri Apr 29, 2005 3:52 pm

Mathews' - A much-maligned Chinese-English dictionary

Post by Mark Yong » Thu May 05, 2005 6:08 am

I read a few reviews on the classic "Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary" (compiled by R.H. Mathews at the turn of the 20th century) on, and have to comment that this dictionary deserves much more credit than it is currently getting.

As far as vocabulary for a Chinese-English dictionary is concerned, Mathews is second to none - with the possible exception of the Far East Chinese-English Dictionary. Where else can you get close to 7,800 Chinese characters, including their alternative/archaic forms where appropriate?

In all fairness, I would say that Mathews and Far East were both written during different eras, and would have a very different target audience today. The preface in Far East clearly states that all word definitions are for MODERN usage. Mathews, written much earlier, contains a rich selection of word usages gleaned from the Classics as well as more recent usages. It even includes words found in the Southern dialects, and explicitly points these out.

Two other unique features I like are:
1. Putting similar-looking words side-by-side in the entries, to caution the reader about mixing them up.
2. The appendix on characters having obscure radicals (not everyone can identify the radicals of such words easily, so this is very helpful).

The one grouse most readers have is the Wades-Giles phonetic system used in Mathews. In all fairness, our current pinyin system did not yet exist during Mathews' time, and anyway the Wades-Giles system is still used in Taiwan today. For me, I personally search for words via the radical index at the back, so the phonetic classification is of little consequence for me.

Mathews' has been handsomely reprinted and is in circulation in a neat black hardcover binding. When my late grandfather's decades-old copy finally disintegrated last year, I did not hesitate to purchase a new one via
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Post by ong » Mon Jul 17, 2006 12:24 pm

kevin maynard
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Joined: Wed Aug 30, 2006 3:12 pm

Mathews Dictionary

Post by kevin maynard » Wed Aug 30, 2006 3:19 pm

Let's hear it for Mathews. Those who malign it have missed the point entirely. It's still the best Chinese-English dictionary if you're interested in the classical language, and lack sufficient fluency to use a Chinese-Chinese dictionary. Who would ever dream of using it for the modern language? But Chinese civilization is well over three thousand years old. Mathews, almost uniquely, can handle that grand historical sweep. (Though I too wish that Mathews gave us some indication of which phrases are 'classical' and which ones 'modern'. This is quite a serious shortcoming.)

However, only the 'Grand Ricci' beats it hands down in terms of range and depth and accuracy, and that's Chinese into French (though an English translation is apparently under consideration). Also, the Ricci is about ten times more expensive (not to mention how hard it is to find) and consists of seven whopping great volumes. (Mathews can be carried in a day-bag.) Finally, the Ricci predominantly uses Wade-Giles too, though it 'translates' into pinyin (rather grudgingly) beside each entry. But what the heck! Wade-Giles was the main method of transcribing Chinese into the roman alphabet for eight or nine decades, and it still has its diehard adherents. So many scholarly books about Chinese literature, art and history still employ it. One has to come to terms with it sooner or later, if Chinese culture is what you're interested in (and not just commerce or tourism). It doesn't take long to understand how it works.

I've been using Mathews for six years, and I've come to love its quirks and quiddities more and more. I particularly like the way it groups sub-entries by 'phonetics', so that one can discover sub-families of characters, all sharing the same or a similar sound. I also enjoy some of its more recondite definitions (for example, when Mathews is describing some of the dafter Chinese mythological creatures). Is there any other Chinese-English dictionary that one can sometimes browse through for its sheer entertainment value? With all its limitations (no dictionary is perfect) it's got enough of a personality to become a much-loved friend: Mathews himself must have been quite a character (a sort of Doctor Johnson of the sinological confraternity).