Chengyu: 不二法門 / “The One and Only Way”



bù èr fǎmén

Literal meaning: “[The] Dharma Door of Non-duality”

Idiomatic meaning: “the one and only way”

The original Buddhist meaning is very different from the common vernacular meaning today. “Non-duality” refers to the Middle Path of Buddhism, which threads between two extremes. This particular chengyu is derived from the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra, and the following passage illustrates the non-duality of existence and non-existence.


The False Etymology of “Mandarin” = 滿大人


In a discussion on the nature of race and ethnicity in late imperial China, the role of the “Manchu” ethnicity came up. The highly heterogenous nature of Hong Taiji’s creation of ethnicity has been exhaustively enumerated elsewhere, and wasn’t the source of my confusion. In our discussion, a fellow student brought up the idea that the Manchus occupied such a unique role in the late imperial history of China that even the very language of the region was named after them. Not the Manchu language, mind you – but the variety of Sinitic we call “Mandarin” today.


My esteemed classmate proceeded to narrate the etymology she (and several others in the class from the Greater China region) had heard: When Europeans first made contact with Chinese people, they mistook the phrase “Master Man[chu]” (滿大人 Mǎn dàrén) to be the language Chinese spoke, hence the English term “Mandarin” to refer to the language most northern Chinese speak. It seems to be a pretty common folk etymology.

In short:

Mandarin mǎn dàrén → English mandarin

This seemed off to me. Firstly, the first Europeans in Ming China were not English. Secondly, I had always thought Mandarin was simply a translation of 官話 Guānhuà, “officials’ speech”. Was I right?

As it turns out, it was an erroneous folk etymology. The OED charts the evolution/borrowing of the word mandarin as:

Sanskrit mantrī → Malay menteri → Portuguese mandarim → English mandarin

Furthermore, the term Mandarin was used to refer to the speech of the officials very early on: Dominican Francisco Varo’s text Arte de la lengua Mandarina “The Arts of the Mandarin Language” was published in 1703. As for the term’s usage as “official”, even today, officials are called mentri in Malaysia. “Prime minister” is perdana menteri while the heads of the states’ executive branches are called menteri besar (“first minister”) or menteri ketua (“chief minister”).

Chengyu: 鍥而不捨 / “Perseverance”



qiè ér bù shě

Literal meaning: “To carve without giving up.”

Idiomatic meaning: To persevere, to stick with it.

This is an excerpt from a longer sentence in the Xunzi:

“If one carves and gives up, even rotten wood will be uncarvable. If one carves without giving up, even metal and stone can be engraved.”

On “Ancient China”

I was reading The Cambridge History of Ancient China yesterday for an independent reading seminar and stumbled upon this golden quote from Princeton’s own Robert Bagley (unfortunately, I did not get to take any classes with him while I was there):

“No student of fifth-century Athenian culture would be content to describe it as an early stage in the rise of Byzantine civilization, but this is exactly the sort of backward view that shapes the study of China before the Zhou period.”

There’s a pervasive preoccupation with defining what “ancient China” is; indeed, it’s a preoccupation that is arguably misleading. Perhaps we believe the Xia and Shang dynasties are the progenitors of “Chinese” civilization simply because Sima Qian said so. And given that he lived centuries after their putative existence, why should his determination be the final word on the matter?

Anti-Chinese Rhetoric, Late 1800s

“[Chinese] places could and should be filled with worthier immigrants — Europeans, who would take the oath of allegiance to the country, work both for themselves and for the commonwealth, fraternize with us, and, finally, become a part of us. All things considered, I cannot perceive what more right or business these semi-barbarians have in California than flocks of blackbirds have in a wheat field; for, as the birds carry of the wheat without leaving any thing of value behind, so do the Confucians gather the gold, and take it away with them to China, without compensation to us who opened the way to it.” * Hinton Rowan Helper (1829-1909)

(Funny thing, given that Helper was a noted abolitionist. The number of times I’ve had to remind people today – just because one was opposed to slavery did not mean one did not harbor prejudicial views.)

No, Chinese Characters Are Not Ancestors of the Alphabet


In 1861, the scientist and mathematician Pliny Earle Chase proposed that the Chinese script was quite possibly “indications of alphabetic genesis”; that is, the ancient Greek and Latin alphabets was modeled after Chinese characters. Here’s a page from his work above indicating his suggestions (notably that 單 led to delta Δ, 旦 to theta Θ, and 切 to t.

Of course today we know that this hypothesis is utterly ridiculous – however, Chase’s work predated the identification of oracle bone script later in the 19th century. If you’d like to read some bad linguistics (and have access to JSTOR), however, you can check his original article “Chinese and Indo-European Roots and Analogues” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society here.