Saturday, June 09, 2012


Learning Chinese and Japanese

Ivan Morris, "The Genius of Arthur Waley," in Madly Singing in the Mountains: An Appreciation and Anthology of Arthur Waley (New York: Walker and Company, 1970), pp. 67-87 (at 68-70, footnote omitted):
His education at Rugby and at King's College, where he was one of the talented group of men who studied at Cambridge shortly before the First World War, gave him a thorough training in the classics, a training that can be of the greatest use to the Orientalist and that is becoming increasingly rare among younger specialists in the field. When asked a few years ago how he had become so proficient in Chinese without any help from a teacher, he said that anyone with a good classical education could learn Chinese by himself without difficulty.


To teach oneself Chinese or Japanese is no mean feat even with today's plethora of dictionaries, grammars, teaching aids, and language records. Half a century ago it was a fantastic achievement. Yet within a few years, while working as an Assistant Keeper in the British Museum, Waley had mastered both Chinese and Japanese so efficiently that already by 1919, when he was thirty, he had published five volumes of translated poems, four from classical Chinese and one from classical Japanese. In his Introduction to Japanese Poetry (1919) he points out that the poems can be rightly enjoyed only in the original; then he reassuringly adds '...since the classical language has an easy grammar and limited vocabulary, a few months should suffice for the mastering of it'.


Despite his gift for languages Waley never made any serious effort to learn spoken Chinese or Japanese, and when he met visitors from the Far East he often had to communicate with them by writing Chinese characters on slips of paper. The current pedagogic theory that it is impossible to read a language properly without 'oral and aural comprehension' hardly fits Arthur Waley, who was virtually inarticulate in Chinese and Japanese.

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