China / Society

Xinhua Dictionary chronicles China's changes

(Xinhua) Updated: 2016-05-11 18:38

BEIJING -- In China, there is a book that is as popular as the Bible in the West, and its popularity has persisted for decades.

Last month, the Guinness World Records recognized the Xinhua Dictionary, published by China's Commercial Press, as the "most popular dictionary" and the "best-selling regularly updated book."

Since its first edition came out in 1953, the dictionary had sold 567 million copies globally as of last July.

It was the first dictionary written in Mandarin Chinese, as opposed to the Classical Chinese widely used before the May Fourth Movement in 1919. Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, 11 editions of the dictionary have been published. Most, if not all, Chinese people use the reference book in primary school when they start learning Chinese characters.

"Where there are Chinese books, there is the Xinhua Dictionary," said Yu Guilin, director of the Chinese language center of the Commercial Press.


The dictionary was first compiled to standardize Mandarin Chinese and aimed to eliminate illiteracy in China. "It has many pictures so people can easily understand," Yu said.
Through rapid economic growth and drastic social change, the dictionary has been revised every five to seven years, he added.

Revision is not easy. In the edition from 1971, when China was in a fanatic drive to eliminate old ways of thinking, customs and traditions, compilers were not sure if words like "your majesty," "monk" and "eunuch" should be retained.

Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier at the time, told editors that the words should be kept. "A dictionary is a reference book," he said. "Our people need to know history. Historical things should be introduced to them faithfully."

Outdated expressions have been removed, such as "commune" and the "General Line of the Party" -- terms used mainly in the 1960s and 1970s to refer to directives.

New characters and words were added in each revision. Yu said that in the dictionary published in the 1950s there were 8,000 entries, while by the 11th edition the number had risen to 13,000.

Internet buzz words have been also included, such as the suffix "-gate" to denote scandal, as in "Watergate," and "slave," which is defined as "someone who has to work hard to pay off a loan."

For these new terms, editors sometimes have to rack their brains to give a precise explanation. Yu remembers that in 1998, the new character "ju," a kind of hair treatment, was added to the dictionary.

But editors had no idea how to define it correctly. "An editor, Jia Caizhu, visited a hairdresser twice and tried the treatment before they could describe the process properly," Yu said.

Now, on page 254 of the dictionary, the character is defined something like this: "A treatment for hair care and dye by applying cream to the hair, before heating with hot air. The cream is washed off after the hair cools."

As awareness about animal protection has grown, some entries have also changed. Explanations like "the meat is edible" were deleted from entries about certain animals, while editors added information about their protected status.


Readers sometimes give suggestions for revisions as well.

"We have a motto: give all people a chance to compile the dictionary," Yu said.

As education has improved over the decades, fewer pictures have appeared in the dictionary, but several still remain, including one of a lotus root.

Compilers once received a letter from a reader named Peng Yun, who said he was from a village in East China's Jiangxi province. He questioned the picture of lotus root in the 1998 edition of the dictionary.

"Many of us grow lotus in our hometown," he wrote. "After observing for more than ten years, I have never seen three stems from one joint of a root. I have also consulted some older people who agree with me."

An editor went to a pond to check the reader's claim, and the picture was changed for the next edition.

The dictionary was originally a paperback, then switched to a leather binding and, finally, to a hard cover, but its price has always been low.

Some sources claim that to ensure the dictionary is affordable for everyone, its price was set to that of a half kilogram of pork. Yu said he had heard this story, and though the prices are similar, he could not confirm that this was anything other than a coincidence.

At a bookstore next to the Commercial Press, an 11th edition printed in 2015 sells for 19.9 yuan (about $3 dollars), while half a kilogram of pork on Walmart's online market is 18 yuan.

The dictionary has bilingual versions for Mongolian, Korean, Uygur, English and Japanese, and a mobile phone version is being developed.

"The dictionary has influenced generations of Chinese," Yu said, adding that there are plans to establish a museum about the book's history. "Times are changing. So long as people are thirsty for knowledge, Xinhua Dictionary will always be edited, updated and published."

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