New Phonetic Character

10 December 2012

We have a very large collection of Chinese Protestant missionary publications, consisting largely, but not entirely, of the Chinese books exhibited at two of the great nineteenth-century international exhibitions: the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia (these books probably reached us through the agency of Alexander Wylie), and the International Health Exhibition of 1884 in London. So far, I have identified over 1,200 different editions, with many duplicate copies, and I reckon that we have at least one hundred more.

Putting the cart before the horse (because this corpus of materials demands a much bigger introduction), and at the risk of discrediting an immensely important resource, I will describe one small part of it, which although interesting and rare, is an intellectual and bibliographical dead end.

MacGillivray’s Century of Protestant missions in China (1807-1907) records (p.317):

“In 1852, Rev. and Mrs. T.P. Crawford and Dr. G.W. Burton re-inforced the [Southern Baptist Central China] Mission [in Shanghai], and early in 1853, Rev. and Mrs. A.B. Cabaniss arrived, but went back to America in 1860.”

and a footnote adds:

“Mr. Crawford invented a new phonetic character for Chinese, and at least four books were printed in it in Shanghai Dialect. Those interested can see the system in the Chinese Recorder, March, 1888.”

There indeed, Tarleton Perry Crawford explains his creation in an article entitled A system of phonetic symbols for writing the dialects of China (Chinese Recorder 19:3, 1888, 101-110), and gives the reason for it:

“The huge idiosophic characters have reached the limit of their capacity, and are rapidly sinking under the burden with which they are freighted … the common characters being already complete and crystalized around the thought of the past, and therefore unable to meet the requirements of the age, must inevitably be superseded by the living dialects of the land, as was the case in Europe. Chinese hieroglyphics, like their Egyptian predecessors, are doomed to the tomb and the antiquary.”

Needless to say, this is not quite what happened. While the Chinese script continues to flourish, the forgotten remains of Crawford’s efforts survive perhaps only in the form of a few publications in the Bodleian (all from the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition) and one or two elsewhere. It is strange that when writing in 1888, more than twenty years after he had invented the script, and with only some half dozen books having been published in it, Crawford should continue to argue that his system might have a future.

Here are my records for the books, perhaps the most egregious examples of my cataloguing so far. I have used the table in Sinica 1625 to transcribe them, but am not confident that the transcriptions are correct.


s00102 s00104

[Shanghai], [1855]
線裝1冊(20, 2頁) ; 16.6公分
By T P Crawford
Explanation of New Phonetic Character for writing Shanghai dialect
Sinica 2073

The imprint is derived from Wylie (Memorials, 214).


s00113 s00114

zen oh kyung / kah nyang nyang ting
ya su ih ty’ien pah pah ng zeh lah nyien [1856]
線裝1冊(3, 1, 71頁) ; 16.1公分
In Shanghai dialect written in New Phonetic Character
Chinese characters for title, author, and date are 「善惡經」, 「郟娘娘」 (Mrs A B Cabaniss), and 「耶穌一千八百五十六年」
Sinica 1280


s00188 s00189

hi so bu ku pi fong / ka e bi fun yi
ya su ih ty’ien pah pah ng zeh lah nyien [1856]
線裝1冊(2, 4, 72頁) ; 16.2公分
In Shanghai dialect, written in New Phonetic Character
Chinese characters for title, author, and date are 「伊娑菩個比方」, 「郟愛比」 (A B Cabaniss), and 「耶穌一千八百五十六年」
Sinica 1284

Aesop’s fables. There is a copy of this edition in the National Library of Australia, and it has been digitised. This copy has an English title-page which is lacking in the Bodleian copy. Someone has penned the title 「伊娑菩喩言」 on the front cover, and this title has worked its way into numerous web pages. However, plausible as it is, this title cannot be the equivalent of the New Phonetic Script syllables ku pi fong, which I had been unable to figure out until the blogger P’i-kou pointed out in his extensive and well-informed comment that ku is the Shanghai pronunciation of ke 個, which in Shanghai dialect can correspond to the genitive zhi 之 in classical Chinese or de 的 in Mandarin, in addition to its use as a measure-noun (exemplified in the title of work 8 below).


s00105 s00106

sung kyung tsih loh. di nyi pung
ya su ih ty’ien pah pah ng zeh ts’i nyien [1857]
線裝1冊(93頁) ; 16.5公分
By T P Crawford
In Shanghai dialect, written in New Phonetic Character
Chinese characters for title and date are 「聖經記略. 第二本」 and 「耶穌一千八百五十七年」
Sinica 1265/1

sung kyung tsih loh. di sun pung
ya su ih ty’ien pah pah ng zeh pah nyien [1858]
線裝1冊(74頁) ; 16.5公分
By T P Crawford
Chinese characters for title and date are 「聖經記略. 第三本」 and 「耶穌一千八百五十八年」
In Shanghai dialect, written in New Phonetic Character
Sinica 1265/2

The two works above are not properly recorded by Wylie, whether in his Memorials or his list of the works exhibited in Philadelphia (which appears as an anonymous appendix to the official catalogue of Chinese exhibits). Memorials describe only one volume, “Bible Stories. 93 leaves. Shanghae. 1857” (pp.214-215) , and the Philadelphia list has “Line upon line … 2 vols. …176 leaves … 1857” (no.849, p.33).

There is no conflict in the title, as the “Bible Stories” could well be those told by Favell Lee Mortimer in her Line upon line of 1837, which is still in print as a classic devotional manual. (Her Peep of day, or, a series of the earliest religious instruction the infant mind is capable of receiving of 1836 was also much used by the missionaries – we have twelve different Chinese editions of it in the collection, in several different dialects).

But Wylie does not seem to have known (perhaps because he did not trouble to figure out what the New Phonetic characters said) is that the volume he describes in his Memorials is only the second; the two in the Philadelphia Exhibition are the second and third; the first seems to be lost.


s00999 s00043

s01000 s00044

tsan sung sz
yan fung kyeu nyien [1859]
線裝1冊(3, 23頁) ; 21.3公分
By A B Cabaniss
In Shanghai dialect written in New Phonetic Character
Chinese characters for title and date are 「讚神詩」 and 「咸豐九年」
Sinica 1583

A hymnbook, which according to Wylie (Memorials, 220) contains 21 hymns and 3 doxologies translated by members of the mission and others. A version of the same text in Chinese characters (but still in Shanghai dialect) was published the following year, a sign, perhaps, that the system was not catching on as readily as envisaged. The Library also has a copy of this edition (Sinica 1264). The above illustrations show the two versions side by side.


s00100 s00101

Dialect of Shanghai, China
[Shanghai], [1861?]
線裝1冊(8頁) ; 22.5公分
By B Jenkins
Contains two lists, “Phonetic characters and Roman equivalents” and “Roman syllables and phonetics”
Sinica 1625

Wylie refers to some more publications in New Phonetic Character of which we do not have copies, but which I will list to round the matter off; the romanisations are as given by him (I have constructed those above from Jenkins’ lists):

“Vung keen loh. Scientific Manual. 15 leaves. Shanghae, 1856″. (Under Crawford, Memorials, 214).

San kuh siau tsia. Three School Girls. 25 leaves. Shanghae, 1856″. (Under Mrs. Crawford, Memorials, 215).

Loo ka zen foh yung zu. Luke’s Gospel. 106 leaves. Shanghae, 1859″. (Under Cabaniss, Memorials, 220).

This is a New Phonetic Character transcription of Cleveland Keith’s translation of St Luke’s Gospel into Shanghai dialect. According to Spillet’s catalogue of the Bible Society collection (Chinese scriptures, 1975), Keith’s translation was first published in Chinese characters in 1856, then in New Phonetic Character by Cabaniss in 1859, and finally in romanisation in 1860. The Bible Society collection (now in Cambridge University Library) has copies of all three editions.

6 Responses to “New Phonetic Character”

  1. Frédéric Grosshans Says:

    The “Chinese Reporter” article is avalable online :

  2. P'i-kou Says:

    This is what I get after trying to transliterate Æsop’s title page using the Sinica 1625 romanisation:

    yá sú ih ts’ien pah páh ng. zeh luh nyen
    hi só bú kuh pi. fong
    kah é. pi. fan yiuh “dáng tsung. dong dsong .pan

    Some remarks:
    – Several contrasts shown in this transcription are lost in contemporary Shanghainese: the -ien and -an finals, some vowels in the entering tone.
    – Unlike Mandarin or Cantonese, Shanghainese has voiced (actually ‘breathy’ or ‘slack voiced’) stops. That ‘b’ in 菩 sounds roughly like an English ‘b’, while the ‘p’ in 比 sounds like in Mandarin (pinyin ‘b’).

    – The final ‘h’ is a glottal stop – a ‘swallowed t’. That is how all so-called ‘entering tone’ syllables end in Shanghainese.
    – The acutes in the romanisation seem to represent vowel length: all open syllables in the S. 1625 chart have an acute (unless already freighted with the burden of another diacritic), while in the entering tone we have an acuted-acuteless contrast. As far as I know, modern Shanghainese doesn’t contrast vowel length and e.g. ‘eight’ and ‘hundred’ (‘pah’ and ‘páh’) sound the same in citation form.
    – I’m not sure what those to the left or right of some syllables are exactly doing, but it must be some tonal contrast. Most of the time, the tone of a Shanghainese syllable is determined by the initial and final, but for the ambiguous cases you do need some type of tone mark and that’s what I think the dots are there for. Both 愛 and 比 can be assumed to be tone-ambiguous and are indeed ‘dotted’. So I’m taking the dots to mean ‘low tone’, but they seem to appear in other places where they aren’t called for.
    – What are those ‘quotation marks’ next to the first syllable of the ‘publishing house’? Another mystery presumably revealed deeper into S. 1625 I suppose.
    – Shanghainese has been merging entering tone vowel phonemes. Currently there are three or four contrasting vowels, but the New Phonetic Character shows six different qualities (and I’m ignoring the acutes). Apparently those distinctions were already unstable at the time: Æsop’s date has ‘ten’
    written as ‘zeh’; S. 1583 gives it as ‘zah’.

    As for the translation of ‘fables’: we know that the fourth syllable in the title is actually ‘kuh’, with a glottal stop; now a Shanghainese particle, often written 個, sounds approximately like that and behaves, other than as a measure word, like Mandarin 的 “‘s”. In modern Shanghainese this 個 actually has, if at all, a voiced initial, but:
    – the title of Three School Girls, number eight in your list, clearly contains a 個 that is indeed transcribed kuh;
    – the digitised Æsop has several occurrences of kuh following a proper noun, which suggests it does mean “‘s”.

    So we have Æsop’s and we have two syllables left to spell Fables. The first of them sounds the same as 比 ‘pi’ in Cabaniss’ name; then the second one must surely be 方, given that we can be rather cavalier about vowel contrasts. And indeed some googling yields this
    seemingly confirming the title.

    Then the next problem is what seems to be the name of the publishing house. If we again imagine an old contrast between nasal vowels, the last three syllables in Phonetic Character are compatible with the 堂藏板 in S. 1583. The two previous syllables (perhaps Mandarin táng zhǒng? □忠? ) should then be the name of a Baptist church in Shanghai.

    This could be the title page in ‘huge idiosophic characters’, with two missing:

    郟愛比翻譯 □□堂藏板

    which in modern Shanghainese (rather broadly transcribed) would read

    yā su yɪʔ tɕ’i paʔ paʔ ŋ zɘʔ loʔ ɲi
    ɦi su bu (g)ɘʔ pi fâ
    kaʔ ɛ pi fɛ yɪʔ (dɑ̃ tsõ?) dɑ̃ zɑ̃ pɛ

    (macron used for tonal disambiguation).

    Finally – with apologies for the very long comment – Sinica 1583 was printed in 1860, if you look at the Idiosophy, or in 1659 mung. ts’ien (□前?) according to the New Character. Different ways of counting years (starting from zero or one), or different starting dates for the year?

    So many questions!

    • Thanks for this excellent information, from which I’ve learned a lot. I’m particularly pleased that you’ve solved the problem of the title of Aesop’s fables.

  3. I’m sorry to be so late in replying to this question. Do you still want the images? David.

    • Frédéric Grosshans Says:

      I would be interested (and, I guess, other readers of this blog post would be too)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: