IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |East Asia


22-24 June 1998
Paris, France

For the third time after Zurich 1994 and Beijing 1996, the International Symposium on Ancient Chinese Grammar was held on June 22-24 this year in Paris. Almost fifty speakers from China, Taiwan, Japan, the United States, Canada, France, Norway, Germany, and Switzerland gave their papers in the Amphitéâtre Stourdzé of the Ministry of Higher Education and Research, where the conference was jointly organized by the Centre de Recherches Linguistiques sur l'Asie Orientale of the C.N.R.S. and the University of Oslo.

By Wolfgang Behr

The meeting started as a small workshop-like event in Zurich four years ago, with the intention of bridging the gap between Chinese and Western scholars working in the field of Ancient Chinese grammar. It then quickly developed into a full-fledged conference with several hundred participants in Beijing and now seems to have reached a preliminary and always precarious balance between the acceptance of a large variety of presentations and participants on the one hand, and wishes for more intensive and unhurried exchanges on the other.

The heading 'Ancient Chinese' was understood in a fairly broad sense, so that the topics of presentations, albeit roughly concentrating on the five hundred years before the unification of China by the First Emperor of Qin (221 BC), addressed an overall time-frame spanning from the earliest inscriptions on oracle bones during the late second millenium BC to the very end of the pre-modern period. Several of the papers dealing with syntax and/or semantics, traced the development of verbal complement constructions from Ancient throughout Medieval Chinese, the origin of classifiers and measure words, the evolution of passive constructions, as well as various aspects of pronoun systems in Archaic, Classical, and late Medieval Chinese.
The increasing use of inscriptional source materials, uncorrupted by the history of transmissions, omissions, and editions, is certainly one of the most gratifying developments in the study of Ancient Chinese grammar during recent years. It allows for a fresh and sometimes rather surprising perspective on topics otherwise reputed to be dead, such as the syntax of attribution in Archaic Chinese, which was argued by Anne Yue-Hashimoto of the University of Washington to display a 'Head + Modifier'-pattern, rather reminiscent of Tibeto-Burman languages, in its oldest stages. A panel focusing on the history and theory of Chinese writing and its first explicit classification in the Shuowen jiezi, reflected the continued European interest in a topic outside the core of what is usually perceived as Chinese linguistics by scholars from the People's Republic of China and Taiwan. The fairly novel concern with the study of conceptual categories, semantic fields of synonyms and antonyms in Ancient Chinese on the other hand, would seem to indicate a certain steering away from more traditional lines of inquiry, certainly enhanced by the increased availability of computerized text-corpora facilitating fine-grained semantic classifications. A similar broadening of its research focus characterizes the field of phonology, represented by two papers at this symposium, in which attention was directed more towards interfaces with morphology and syntax, than towards the reconstruction of the Old Chinese phoneme system per se.
Commemorating the centenary of the publication of the first grammar of Ancient Chinese, this symposium sought to evoke the spirit of the author Ma Jianzhong (1845-1900) and his striving for a true amalgamation of Chinese indigenous philology and Western grammatical concepts. The organizing committee at the Centre de Recherches Linguistiques sur l'Asie Orientale, facing the tough job of hosting an international conference at a time when the French capital was besieged by legions of soccer fans flocking in for the World Championships from all over the world, is to be congratulated for the creation of a very pleasant atmosphere of scientific exchange in a smoothly scheduled, exciting programme.
During recent years, communication between Asian, European, and American scholars of Chinese linguistics, despite its still rather perfunctory nature, sometimes seems to be even more intensive than that within Europe itself. Acknowledging this problem, an important side-event of the conference was a preparatory meeting for the establishment of the European Association of Chinese Linguistics, which will be open to all interested scholars working in Europe, regardless of their respective theoretical frameworks or periods of specialization. The Association will be dedicated to the co-ordination of research projects, sources, and the overall enhancement of communications in Europe at a time when the splendid isolation of strictly national research endeavours has ceased to be a scientific option.

Dr Wolfgang Behr was an IIAS research fellow from January to November 1998 and has now taken up a position at the Faculty of East Asian Studies, University of Bochum, Germany.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |East Asia