Chinese Law Prof Blog

Editor: Donald C. Clarke
George Washington University Law School

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Citation of Chinese sources in English

Here's something that's been bugging me for a long time; I'm finally writing about it because I came across instances of it three times in the last two days. What am I talking about? The practice of citing Chinese-language sources in English-language writing using only an English translation of the source, such that there is no way to find the original Chinese source. Why is this bad? Because it forgets a very important purpose of citation: to allow the interested reader to track down your sources herself and verify that they say what you say they say. It's like spelling out your experimental method in a science paper so as to allow others to attempt to reproduce your results. When you don't allow the reader to find your source, a citation is merely an acknowledgment that you found the language in question somewhere else or an unverifiable claim that you found the fact in question somewhere else. It says to the reader, "Hey, trust me!"

In one case the offending author supplied only the English-language title of the article, but also supplied a URL. Not bad, but not satisfactory. URLs go bad and web sites disappear. What we need is the Chinese title of the article because if it's publicly available on one Chinese web site, it's probably publicly available on many others. Knowing the Chinese title allows us to find it easily through Google or Baidu.

In another case, the UN's Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, in his report on China, actually invites us in footnote 27 to "see" the Study of the Prevention of and Counter Measures for The Extortion of Confessions by Torture of the Legal Studies Association (The Task Group On The Prevention of the Use of Torture in Interrogation), March 2005. Without knowing the Chinese title of this work, how are we supposed to find it, let alone see it?

It's no excuse to say that it takes too much space to include Chinese titles; why not just have no footnotes at all, if space is the problem? If citations are going to be used, they have to serve their purpose. Otherwise it's just a waste of space. Authors and editors, when citing a source, please ask yourself: could an interested reader competent in the field and with access to the internet and inter-library loan facilities find this source with the information you've provided?

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Hi Don,

I wonder what you think of pinyin transliteration? Is that sufficient in your experience? It is in mine, but I want a second opinion for a book I'm editing.

Mike Dowdle

Posted by: Mike Dowdle | May 28, 2008 11:28:38 AM

In my experience pinyin transliteration is usually sufficient. I don't want to make unreasonable demands or require that everyone be a China expert. I just want writers and publishers to make a good-faith effort to let the reader find the work in question.

That said, I think the argument for using characters instead of pinyin is getting stronger. First of all, characters provide more information than pinyin - if the pinyin represents an ordinary word, a competent Chinese speaker can figure out the characters, but that's not the case if the pinyin represents a personal name or uncommon place name. Second, the technological argument against characters is by now pretty much obsolete. It used to be a pain for writers and publishers to insert characters into English-language documents. Now it's easy (although regrettably my favorite word processing application, WordPerfect, still doesn't do Chinese characters in any simple way).

People who don't speak Chinese will, of course, not be able to understand the Chinese character references at all, but then they wouldn't be able to understand the pinyin references, either. The only loss, I think, will be to non-Chinese speakers who want to cite indirectly a Chinese reference contained in someone else's article. (I.e., X cites to Chinese document Y in support of proposition Z, and I want to state the same proposition Z but can't read Chinese, so I say, "See Y, cited in X" or "See X (citing Y)." This is a genuine cost. One solution, of course, is to make sure that all citations in characters are accompanied either by pinyin or by an English translation.

Posted by: Don Clarke | May 28, 2008 9:47:22 PM

I agree that characters are best and pinyin is a strong second, but I am not particularly thrilled with the guidance from the Bluebook regarding foreign citations. Do you have a favorite foreign citation guide? I've heard of several in the works.

Posted by: Maggie Lewis | Jun 3, 2008 9:40:02 AM

Just to elaborate on this thread. I have another question with regard to characters vs. pinyin. In a paper I am presently drafting I am including pinyin transliterations for terms that have been translated into English in the text, would it be better to use characters here as well?


Posted by: Otto Malmgren | Jun 18, 2008 11:00:38 PM

Otto, I think it's hard to say in the abstract without knowing more about your audience, where it will appear, typesetting abilities of the printer, etc. The message I would really like to convey is that we should think about the needs of the reader in making these decisions, and not just follow the habits of the era before it was easy to insert Chinese characters into documents. I think that by and large pinyin and characters are equally useless to the non-Chinese-speaking reader, whereas characters are much more useful than pinyin to the Chinese-speaking reader. Therefore, I favor characters in general. But there might always be special cases where pinyin was preferable.

Posted by: Don Clarke | Jun 19, 2008 3:41:06 AM

Thanks, Don! Yes, I do agree that the use of characters would be preferable regardless of audience (although I know there are a lot of pinyin readers out there that don't necessarily read characters, but that would be interested in the terms for their spoken Chinese). It is especially with regard to the reader that I am asking. I'm always a bit frustrated when translated terms are used alone without the Chinese term, or title as in your above example from the Special Rapporteur on Torture's report, and I would think it is only the polite thing to do for the reader to include specific terms or titles, as well as proper cites. But I am worried that English-language publishers are not able to print characters. I remember not too long ago that I had to assist in making a bitmap format (like a picture) character for a publication because the publisher would not be able to print a true-type or unicode font.

Posted by: Otto Malmgren | Jun 22, 2008 8:43:11 PM

I absolutely agree with you, this is a huge problem. The absolutely worst is articles that only have translated versions, there is not even anything to tell you that the original is not in English (The Journal of Higher Education in China could be an English language journal - but it isn't, how are we to know though?). Pinyin is better, but still not ideal. And especially with the atrocious preference in APA for only using the autors initials. If I see a person cited as 李生桥, I might say "Oh, that's the person whose paper I was reading the other day", but if I see a reference to "Li, X.", it's quite useless.

I struggled with this when I was writing my MA thesis about China, and I did quite a bit of research (weird that nobody have really addressed this problem). I finally found that Chicago allowed me to include both the characters, the pinyin and the English translation, which to me was ideal. I wrote about this solution here:

I used this in my MA thesis, which is available for download from here: This practice also served me well when I had the thesis translated to Chinese (I will release it on that blog in a few days) - I could just take out the pinyin and English, and I had a Chinese source list.

Thank you for raising this issue. We should try to push for these practices to change. In regular journals that do not specialize in China, we will probably have to settle for Pinyin, but never only English, and ideally the full name rather than just initials. But in journals and monographs dealing specifically with China, written by sinologists, I think we should expect characters as well!

Stian / 侯爽

Posted by: Stian Håklev | Mar 25, 2011 3:55:37 PM

I am an English-speaking U.S. citizen teaching an academic writing course at a university in China. By the end of the term, my students are expected to write research papers of 2500 words or more on a humanities topic. Of course, their papers are to be written in English. But, many are using Chinese sources and even quoting the sources. I've been scouring the MLA trying to find out how they should do this. MLA makes all this reference to "the reader" (aka me), and adapting one's paper to the reader's abilities, etc. So, do I tell these students to use pinyin, or Chinese characters, or both? Some of the students will go to English-speaking countries for graduate school. I want to prepare them in the best way possible. Knowing full well that their reader (I, in this case) won't be able to understand any of the Chinese words (Pinyin or otherwise), how should I advise them? Any help would be much appreciated. Thank you.


Posted by: Sarah | May 25, 2012 10:55:45 PM

Sarah, did you look at Stian's comment above? Check out his links - no need to reinvent this wheel. The basic principle is to supply enough information to allow a reader who understands the language of the original to find it using the internet or a library. (For Chinese stuff, I would cite a URL whenever possible, since few readers will have ready access to a library that has the source in it.) It's also helpful to supply enough information to allow a reader who doesn't understand the language in question to know what kind of source you're citing and what it purports to be about. I don't agree with the idea that the writer needs to care only about one reader (you) if you're trying to give them some useful training. Just remember the purpose of citation and you won't go far wrong. The problem comes when people forget the purpose and resort to formalism.

Posted by: Don Clarke | May 26, 2012 8:49:04 AM

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