Canadian doctor and missionary Omar Kilborn's Chinese Lessons for First Year Students in West China is quite likely the oldest (and perhaps only) textbook on Sichuan dialect written by a Westerner. Published in 1917, the textbook's 32 chapters focus on aspects of daily life: cooking, shopping, cleaning, and other household duties, with step-by-step guidance for coolies, servants, and cooks. With entire chapters dedicated to phrases to instruct servants on the proper method of cooking eggs or carrying the lantern, the text is unintentionally comic at times and might lead the reader to consider Kilborn an extreme pedantic. At the same time, these chapters shed light on which situations Kilborn found himself in over and over again as a highly educated, upper-class expat in the late 1800s and early 1900s who dealt with uneducated people on a daily basis.
The book also reveals something of the mindset of a man who spent most of his life in the wild west of China, sent there, literally, on a mission: There is not a single chapter to guide a language learner through a conversation among equals, or to describe places, landscapes, or people. All people fall into hierarchical categories, and most in lower statuses, and all phrases are calls for executing ordered tasks. With its selection of commands, clarifications, and confirmations, it reads more like an instruction manual for electronic devices (or organic robots). "There is no caste in China, but there are classes, and we shall make it easier for ourselves and for the Chinese if we frankly recognize some of these things, and order our language accordingly," notes Kilborn in the "Hiring a Cook" chapter. "A good servant is often spoiled by treating him as though he were a literary man, or by using a designation that is too high for him." In neighboring Russia, Lenin was calling for a socialist revolution.
At the time the book was published, much of Chengdu's city core was within the river demarcations—Wenshu Temple to the north, the location of the TV Tower the northeastern limit, the site of the Sofitel and Jinjiang Hotels to the south, and Qingyang Gong to the west. The palace sat at present-day Tianfu Square. Despite the compact city size, the maze of alleys that zigzagged around the city made getting lost no difficult feat.
The purchase of any good or service, even the most basic, was never hassle-free, if the phrases and explanations in the book are any indication. "It is quite proper in China to ask prices in at least three shops, in order to form a judgment as to the real price," Kilborn remarks. When the servant would report back on the price Kilborn would give explicit instruction as to quantity and quality—and, it seems, never received quite what he requested. Firewood would be mixed with stones, or, after delivery, the coolies would sneak some of the purchased firewood back. The same applied to exchanging foreign currency into Chinese money, which, at the time, came in strings and strings of small-denomination bills that had to be counted, a tedious, time-consuming process ("the cash shop proprietor ... trusts to lack of time and patience on the part of his customer for counting the long strings of thousands of small cash; and his confidence is usually well placed, when he is dealing with foreigners," notes Kilborn). Often the weight of the "small cash" was too heavy for one servant to carry, so two would have to do the job.
But Kilborn's biggest preoccupation seemed to be hygiene, an unsurprising concern for a man of medicine in a city as densely populated as Chengdu that lacked a sewer system and, until he and his wife established one, a hospital. The book's last words: "Absolutely everything must be kept clean."
The Kilborn Style
Kilborn's book was written long before Mandarin was popularized as the official language of China and regional linguistic variations were much more pronounced than they are today. Even within provinces—and cities, pronunciation could vary heavily; Kilborn describes the character 没 (méi in Pinyin) as "pass[ing] through all shades of mu2, mo2, and me2."
So it doesn't surprise that he advises newcomers to first and foremost focus on studying the speaking and hearing of Chinese as opposed to writing: "The sounds must be learned from the lips of a Chinese, or of many Chinese, because we find that not all pronounce the same words alike. And so it comes to pass in time that we must use our own judgement, aided by our experience and by our dictionaries, in deciding which sound of a character we shall adopt." And then he offers a suggestion that seems to have been passed down through the generations of Western students of the Chinese language right to modern day: Listen and repeat, listen and repeat, for then "you will stand a chance of learning to speak Chinese as the Chinese do. Any other way of learning tones simply gives you the chance of getting a good mark in answer to an examination question."
A diligent student of Chinese himself, Kilborn reminds the learner to look up every single character and memorize the combination of writing, meaning, and tone. "Never be satisfied with ability to give sound and meaning only; uncertainty of tone alone is ample warrant for turning the character up in the dictionary." Of course, at that time, looking up a character meant doing it the hard way.
"Hiring a Cleaner" chapter (p. 58)
Are you willing to do this kind of work?
dje4 dzung1 ho2 lu4 ni3 ken3 bu2 ken3 dzu4?
This kind work you willing not willing do?
Who would be unwilling to do it!
la3 yiu3 bu2 ken3 dzu4
Where are those (who would be) unwilling to do (such work)!
This exclamatory sentence expresses the utter absence of any possible unwillingness.
Whatever you tell me to do I will do.
si1 mu3 han3 dzu4 sha4 dz3, dziu4 dzu4 sha4 dz3.
Mrs. call do what, then do what.
Mrs. Yang, how much do you want per month?
Yang2 Sao3, yao4 hao3 do1 tsien2 i2 go4 yue2?
Yang Mrs., want how much money one month?
As you please about the pay, and I shall be satisfied.
sui2 bien4 si1 mu3 ge1 tsien2, dziu4 shi4 lo2.
Follow convenience Mrs. give money, then all right.
"Buying a Cow" chapter (p. 285)
Do you know a good cow?
Yes, I can distinguish a good cow.
Good; you may go into the country to look for one.
It is of first importance to see that the cow's udder is large.
Her teats also should be long and large.
When you have been in China too long
Kilborn complains several times about the "inexcusable" use of Chinese words by foreigners speaking English: "water jar; which is a perfectly good English word, entirely suitable to apply to the vessel so much used in China. ... I once heard a good missionary, upon whom this habit had become fixed, argue that 'gong' was a real English word for jar!" He calls the word 晒 (shài in Pinyin), "a very handy word" but adds "this is no good reason why it should be incorporated into one's English vocabulary, even to the inclusion of 'shai-ed' and 'shai-ing.' There are however a "few Chinese words which we may be forgiven for incorporating into our English because of the lack of any reasonable equivalent." His example? 铺盖 (pūgài in Pinyin), a word that means, in essence, bedcover.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 60 ("old school"). The full text of "Chinese Lessons for First Year Students in West China" can be downloaded in PDF format at archive.org
1. When sweeping, you should press down on the broom.
2. Do not cause the dust to fly up.
3. The dust should not rise up in a cloud.
4. Sweep the dust into a heap.
5. Bring the dust pan.
6. Take the dust up in the dust-pan.
7. Carry it outside and empty it.
8. Put the broom and dust-pan carefully away.