Chinese history stretches back more than 4,000 years to the Xia Dynasty (夏朝) of 2070~1600 BCE. However, it was not until the 11th century BCE that any form of serious translation activities were undertaken—what might be deemed the first of four waves of knowledge and cultural exchange with the rest of the world.

Beginning with Buddhism

During the Zhou Dynasty (周朝) from roughly 1122 to 256 BCE, the vernacular of China was 上古汉语 or “Archaic Chinese.” The very earliest writings recorded in this language were inscriptions on bronze artifacts, including poems and historical accounts as well as portions of the I-Ching (易经) or “Book of Changes.” At this time, Chinese monks conversant in both Buddhist doctrines and Sanskrit began translating the classics written by Indian and Central Asian Buddhists, producing scripts that would have a permanent influence on religion, philosophy and social life in China.

The keen interest of monastic translators in the spiritual pursuits of other cultures would continue well into the next millennium and the Tang Dynasty (唐朝) of 618~907 AD, when the common language was 中古汉语 or “Middle Chinese.” Among the most prominent of all translators of that era was Xuanzang (玄奘), who was born in 602 in what is now Henan Province. As a boy, he took to reading religious books, from the Chinese classics to the writings of ancient sages, before entering the Buddhist monkhood when he was 13 years old.

In the course of his studies leading to ordination at age 20, Xuanzang became concerned about how incomplete and misinterpreted were the Buddhist scriptures that had reached China. In 629, the young monk set off for India to discover for himself the true nature of the original texts. Seventeen years later, he returned with a train of pack animals bearing the many documents he had collected. The traveler then set up a school for interpreting the Buddhist scrolls and, with the aid of assistants, he translated into Chinese such a volume of Indian holy books that they would measure 84 times as long as the Bible. Scholars today still refer to Xuanzang as “perhaps the best-known translator in the world.”

Contact with the West

Italian explorers such as Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and Marco Polo journeyed to the Far East during the 13th century, creating significant interest in Asian trade and culture. But it was not until the Ming Dynasty (明朝) of 1368~1644 that the second great wave of translation got under way in China, especially after the Spanish priest St. Francis Xavier arrived and subsequently died on the Chinese island of Shangchuan in 1552.

Xavier’s evangelical example as a founding member of the Society of Jesus inspired the church to pursue a mission on the Chinese mainland, starting in 1563 with a semi-permanent settlement of Portuguese Jesuits in the area now known as Macau. However, they soon found that if their message was to be understood, it would have to be translated into Chinese. As a solution, the St. Paul Jesuit College of Macau was established in 1578 to produce a generation of young Chinese scholars. Among the first trained was an Italian named Matteo Ricci (1552~1610). In 1584, he would translate the first Jesuit Latin book into Chinese, entitled 天主實錄 or “The True Account of God.”

On the other hand, the Jesuits realized that getting the attention of influential Chinese authorities would require more than religious tenets, so they set about offering scholarly and scientific assistance to the imperial court as well. Ricci and other missionaries translated books on Western astronomy, hydraulics and math into Chinese, including Euclid’s Elements. In the 16th and 17th centuries, no group other than the Jesuits played a more significant role in transmitting knowledge and culture between China and the West.

The Third Wave

Unlike the first two waves of Chinese translation spurred on by religion, the third was set in motion at gunpoint. The 1842 signing of the Treaty of Nanking marked the end of three years of conflict known as the First Opium War; Great Britain and Ireland had defeated the Qing Dynasty (清朝), which was founded in 1644, thus forcing China to open its long closed markets to trade. The Treaty also ceded the “Crown Colony of Hong Kong” to the British Queen.

An unintended result of this new diplomatic relationship was a boom in translation. Chinese citizens previously isolated from foreign contact suddenly wanted to know everything there was to know about their new trading partners. Of special interest were works related not only to social and military science, international law and foreign relations but also to literature. Chinese artistic and cultural life gradually began to embrace the kind of world culture found in the West and Japan.

One of the most famous Chinese translators of this period was 严复 or “Yan Fu” (1854-1921), who learned English at the Naval Academy in Greenwich, England. This scholar was responsible for first introducing Charles Darwin’s concepts of “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” into China. Among his most celebrated works were Chinese versions of Thomas Huxley’s “Evolution and Ethics,” Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” and Herbert Spencer’s “Study of Sociology.”

Throughout this period of transition, the Qing government held on, continuing to rule until the Republic of China was formed in 1912. Of great importance during its last 50 years, the Qing imperial court replaced Nanjing Mandarin (南京普通话) with Beijing Mandarin (北京普通话), setting the stage for a single national language. Although non-Mandarin speakers in southern China would continue to use various regional dialects for everyday life, the court’s endorsement of Beijing Mandarin created a standard that all could follow in the future.

The Modern Era

The fourth and current wave of Chinese translation activity got its start in the 1950s, following the aftermath of World War II and the slow return to stability in East Asia. This wave was interrupted briefly by a trough during the outbreak of the so-called “Cultural Revolution” in the PRC, but momentum resumed in the late 1970s as commerce and economic development became top priorities throughout the region.

In 1952, a movement began in Beijing to simplify and standardize written Chinese characters. The goal was to aid in the spread of Chinese literacy by making the ideograms easier to read and write as well as fewer in number. Today, simplified characters (简化字) are the norm not only in the PRC but also in Singapore, while traditional characters are still used in the Republic of China (Taiwan), Hong Kong and Macau plus many well-established communities of overseas Chinese immigrants.

The focus of Chinese translation in the current era encompasses almost all fields of endeavor—from the “hard” side of documentation for business, technology and industry to the “soft” offerings of fiction, music and cinema. Nevertheless, translation into Chinese from other languages continues to present an array of difficult and intriguing challenges. This is especially true of translations from English, given the huge differences found in the two languages and the dissimilarities of the cultures and societies in which they are used.