About this site

Why have this site?

This site grew out of my own need to gain some familiarity with Chinese art terms despite my lack of real knowledge of the Chinese language. When I started working at the Chan Library of the Institute of Fine Arts (NYU), there was no one on-site with the knowledge to give any sustantial support to our professors and students in Chinese art. And since I have an interest in the Chinese language, I decided that it would be interesting, as well as useful, to do what I could to fill the gaps.

Fortunately for me, I had studied some Chinese as an undergraduate, which made it easier to gain a foothold. However, college was a long, long time ago, and I am by no means comfortable with my skills in the language. So I started to compile a list of Chinese terms that would help me to understand the titles of the books I encountered. Some of the terms come from titles, some from dictionaries, some from the text of English-language scholarly works. After a time, even though I still couldn't read a lot of Chinese, if a student came to me with something like 中國陶瓷全集, I knew that it had to do with China (中國) and ceramics (陶瓷), which is a lot better than not understanding it at all!

I had the advantage, however, that I know how to use a Chinese dictionary. Most people who aren't familiar with Chinese won't know how, and to be honest, the learning curve is quite steep. So I thought it might be nice to provide a database of Chinese art terms, with characters, romanization, and an English translation in an easy-use form for people who need this information, but don't have the luxury to learn about the language first. So I made this site.

What is this site, anyway? And what isn't it?

This site is meant to be an easy-to-use resource for people who are interested in finding out about Chinese art terms. It allows users to enter searches using a variety of inputs, depending on what information they have available to them. So, for example, you can search by an English term, by pinyin, or by characters (either simplified or traditional). If all goes well, you should then get information with all of those for the term. See Getting Started for more information on how to search.

This site isn't a language learning site. Trust me, you don't want to learn Chinese from me. And trust me again, you won't. There's nothing here about grammar; there are no lessons on Chinese sentence patterns. In fact, there aren't any lessons, at all. You won't learn the tones of the characters here, or the etymology, either. You'll only learn the standard Mandarin pronunciation (without tones), and not Cantonese, or any other dialect.

This site isn't a replacement for technical dictionaries of art terms. It's really a starting point, or a quick help to get an understanding of terms and a little guidance on where to go next. You won't find detailed definitions here, but enough information to know what the term means. So, for example, if you were to search for "戈" in A Glossary of Chinese Art and Archaeology by S. Howard Hansford, you would read the following:
ko, dagger-axe. The principal and distinctive weapon of the Shang-Yin and Chou dynasties. It consisted essentially of a pointed blade, 8 or 9 inches long, with both edges sharpened. It was attached transversely to a wooden shaft, which either passed through a socket in the bronze, or was slotted to receive the butt end of the blade, the whole being held in position by a wedge, and in some cases a thong. Figs. 44, 46, 46, 48. A later development of the primitive ko had a blade widening into a base or stem which was perforated on the side adjacent to the shaft to provide for more secure thonging. Fig. 49.
On the other hand, if you search for "戈" on this site, you'll get:
Pinyin:
ge
Wade-Giles:
ko
English:
Dagger-ax
Obviously, these are quite different! If you're wondering why the Chinese character is repeated above, read on.

So why use this site at all?

While this site won't take the place of the many great scholarly resources available to you, it will help you get the most out of them. Let's take our example of "戈" again. If you were to run across that character with the pinyin transliteration "ge", without knowing what it meant, and you consulted the Hansford book, you'd be hard-pressed to find it. The reason is that the Hansford volume is arranged thematically, with an index to the Wade-Giles romanization of the terms. However, if you took the character, or the pinyin, and searched this site, you'd learn the English meaning, as well as the Wade-Giles spelling. After that, you'd know you could either look in the "weapons" section, or check the index.

Additionally, let's say you run across "画漆" and want to know what it means. If you were to look in some resources, you wouldn't find it at all, not in this form, at least. That's because the characters in this example are from the simplified character set. So you look it up here, and this is what you see:
画漆
畫漆
Pinyin:
huaqi
Wade-Giles:
hua ch`i
English:
Painted lacquer
Notice that the first Chinese character in each row above is different from the one above or below it. This is because the characters on the top are the same simplifed ones as above, while the characters on the bottom are in the traditional character set. The second character in each row is the same as the other because, as with "戈" above, most characters are the same in both character sets. When they're different, though, they can be really different!

If you would like to suggest some terms, or have any suggestions on how to make the site better, please send me an email.

Email: hughesm@errrata.org

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