Herbert Giles

Herbert Giles
Herbert Giles.jpg
Herbert Allen Giles

8 December 1845
Oxford, England[1]
Died13 February 1935(1935-02-13) (aged 89)
Cambridge, England
Known forWade–Giles romanisation
AwardsOrder of Chia-Ho
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of Cambridge
Chinese name
Wade–GilesChai2 Li3-ssŭ1
Hanyu PinyinZhái Lǐsī

Herbert Allen Giles (/lz/, 8 December 1845 – 13 February 1935) was a British diplomat and sinologist who was the professor of Chinese at the University of Cambridge [2][3] for 35 years. Giles was educated at Charterhouse School before becoming a British diplomat in China. He modified a Mandarin Chinese romanisation system established by Thomas Wade, resulting in the widely known Wade–Giles Chinese romanisation system. Among his many works were translations of the Analects of Confucius, the Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching), the Chuang Tzu, and, in 1892, the widely published A Chinese-English Dictionary.


Herbert A. Giles was the fourth son of John Allen Giles (1808–1884), an Anglican clergyman. After studying at Charterhouse, Herbert became a British diplomat to Qing China, serving from 1867 to 1892. He also spent several years (1885–1888) at Fort Santo Domingo in Tamsui, northern Taiwan. Giles’ great grandson, Giles Pickford, stated in an address at the opening of the Fort San Domingo Museum – 8 November 2005, that his great grandfather, Herbert A Giles, was Her Britannic Majesty's Consul in Tamsui, Fort San Domingo from 1885 until 1891. Prior to that time, in 1869, Giles was based at Kaoshiung.[4] He was the father of Bertram, Valentine, Lancelot, Edith, Mable, and Lionel Giles. In 1897 Herbert Giles became only the second professor of Chinese language appointed at the University of Cambridge, succeeding Thomas Wade.[5] At the time of his appointment, there were no other sinologists at Cambridge. Giles was therefore free to spend most of his time among the ancient Chinese texts earlier donated by Wade, publishing what he chose to translate from his eclectic reading in Chinese literature.[6] Giles published over sixty books, lectures, pamphlets, journal articles, book reviews, and newspaper articles. During his long life he completed a comprehensive Chinese-English Dictionary which took over fifteen years to compile and became a standard reference for many years. Giles also published the first history of Chinese literature and art, which also became a reference work. Some of his translations have stood the test of time and are still among the best available. Giles was not afraid to be controversial and outspoken on numerous topics. To quote his great grandson, "Most of his enemies were people whose work he had criticised. Such people included E H Parker, a sinologist at Manchester University; Sir Walter Hillier a sinologist from London; and Sir Thomas Wade, Minister to China (1870-76 and 1880-82) and therefore Giles’s superior in the Consular Service. Wade was later Professor of Chinese at the University of Cambridge (1888-95). Giles was to succeed him in this position in 1897." Giles was also outspoken on the work of Christian Missionaries and British traders because of the overcrowding of Chinese emigrants on British ships. Yet as Charles Aylmer wrote, in his Memoirs of H. A. Giles, "Notwithstanding his reputation for abrasiveness, he would speak to anyone in the street from the Vice-Chancellor to a crossing-sweeper and was remembered by acquaintances as a man of great personal charm. "[7][8] Giles wrote some of his works in conjunction with his son, Dr. Lionel Giles, also an expert on China, who was employed as the Deputy Keeper of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts at the British Museum.[9]

His later works include a history of the Chinese Pictorial Art in 1905[10][11] and his 1914 Hibbert Lectures on Confucianism which was published in 1915 by Williams and Norgate.[12] He dedicated the third edition of Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (1916) to his seven grandchildren, but at the end of his life was on speaking terms with only one of his surviving children. An ardent agnostic, he was also an enthusiastic freemason. He never became a Fellow at one of the constituent colleges of the University of Cambridge, despite being a university professor for 35 years. Dr. Giles was married twice. His first wife was Miss Catherine Maria Fenn and his second wife was Miss Elise Williamina Edersheim, who died in 1921. On her death, Giles wrote, "In all those 38 years not a syllable came from my pen which was not examined by her and approved before publication.” Elise was herself an author, her best known work being China Coast Tales, which she wrote during her time in Tamsui (1885-1888) and which she published under the pseudonym Lise Boehm. On 4 July 1922, the Royal Asiatic Society awarded Giles their Triennial Gold Medal. His friend L. C. Hopkins, was reported to say the following. “If he were asked to formulate in a sentence the special mark and merit of Professor Giles’s lifelong labours, he would say that beyond all other living scholars he had humanised Chinese studies. He had by his writings made more readers know more things about China, things that were material, things that were vital – he had diffused a better and a truer understanding of Chinese intellect, its capabilities and achievements, than any other scholar." Giles finally retired in 1932, and died at Cambridge on February 13th, 1935, aged 89.[13]


Giles received the Prix Julien award from the French Academy in 1897 for his Chinese Biographical Dictionary.[14] Generally considered unreliable among modern academics,[15] Endymion Wilkinson described it as:

full of inaccuracies and the selection leaves much to be desired. Between one third and a half of the dates are wrong because Giles supposed that if somebody is recorded as having died in 1200 aged 63 he or she must have been born in 1137 (in most cases 1138 would have been a better guess).[16]

He also ran afoul of the Chinese scholar Gu Hongming, who declared

Dr. Giles' Chinese biographical dictionary, it must be admitted, is a work of immense labour. But here again Dr. Giles shows an utter lack of the most ordinary judgment. In such a work, one would expect to find notices only of really notable men.

Nor did Gu appreciate Giles' Chinese-English Dictionary describing it as

... in no sense a dictionary at all. It is merely a collection of Chinese phrases and sentences, translated by Dr. Giles without any attempt at selection, arrangement, order or method," and "decidedly of less value than even the old dictionary of Dr. Williams."[17]

. A recent book on Chinese lexicography says Giles' dictionary has "special significance and interest" and "enjoys pride of place in the history of Chinese bilingual dictionaries as the authoritative source for the Wade-Giles system of Romanization." (Yong and Peng 2008: 387).

The English sinologist and historian Endymion Wilkinson (2013: 85) says Giles' dictionary is "still interesting as a repository of late Qing documentary Chinese, although there is little or no indication of the citations, mainly from the Kangxi zidian)." (Wilkinson 2013: 85) In 1917, Giles funded an award, the Prix Giles, in the amount of eight hundred francs. Administered by the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, it is given every two years to a French person who has written a work about China, Japan, or East Asia, in general.[18]

Diplomatic postings

  • British Vice Consul at Pagoda Island, Mawei (1880–1883)
  • British Vice Consul at Shanghai (1883–1885)
  • British Consul at Tamsui (1885–1891)
  • British Consul at Ningpo (1891–1893)


List of awards and honours:[19]

Written works



  1. ^ "Herbert Allen GILES (1845–1935)" Archived 16 January 2014 at the Wayback Machine on the Cambridge University Library website
  2. ^ Author:Herbert Allen Giles  – via Wikisource.
  3. ^ H. A. Gi. (1911). "Vol 6/Table of contributors" . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  4. ^ Presentation Notes held at the Australian National University;https://anulib.anu.edu.au/files/guidance/address-by-giles-pickford-text.pdf
  5. ^ "Giles, Herbert Allen (GLS932HA)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  6. ^ Aylmer, Charles, East Asian History 13–14, 1997, pp. 1–7; Sterckx, Roel, In the Fields of Shennong: An inaugural lecture delivered before the University of Cambridge on 30 September 2008 to mark the establishment of the Joseph Needham Professorship of Chinese History, Science and Civilization. Cambridge: Needham Research Institute, 2008.
  7. ^ Presentation Notes held at the Australian National University;https://anulib.anu.edu.au/files/guidance/address-by-giles-pickford-text.pdf
  8. ^ Aylmer, Charles, East Asian History 13–14, 1997, pp. 1–7; Sterckx, Roel, In the Fields of Shennong: An inaugural lecture delivered before the University of Cambridge on 30 September 2008 to mark the establishment of the Joseph Needham Professorship of Chinese History, Science and Civilization. Cambridge: Needham Research Institute, 2008.
  9. ^ New York Times, February 14, 1935,"H.A.Giles is Dead; Chinese Scholar
  10. ^ "An Introduction to the History of Chinese Pictorial Art by Herbert A. Giles". The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs. 7 (29): 405. August 1905. JSTOR 856445.
  11. ^ Chavannes, Ed. (1905). "An Introduction to the History of Chinese Pictorial Art by H. A. Giles". T'oung Pao. Second Series. 6 (2): 251. JSTOR 4525813.
  12. ^ Giles, Herbert A. (January 1916). "Confucianism and Its Rivals". The Journal of Race Development. 6 (3): 350. doi:10.2307/29738158. hdl:2027/umn.319510017968044. JSTOR 29738158. S2CID 152532282.
  13. ^ Presentation Notes held at the Australian National University;https://anulib.anu.edu.au/files/guidance/address-by-giles-pickford-text.pdf
  14. ^ Schlegel, G. (1897). "古今姓氏族譜, A Chinese Biographical Dictionary by Herbert A. Giles". T'oung Pao. 8 (4): 438–441. JSTOR 4525305.
  15. ^ Kennedy, George A. (July–September 1950). "Dates in Giles' Biographical Dictionary". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 70 (3): 188–189. doi:10.2307/596269. JSTOR 596269.
  16. ^ Endymion Wilkinson (2000). Chinese History: A Manual. Harvard University Asia Center. p. 157. ISBN 978-0-674-00249-4.
  17. ^ "A Great Sinologue," in The Spirit of the Chinese People Wikisource
  18. ^ Comptes rendus des séances de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 61ᵉ année, N. 1, 1917. p. 20
  19. ^ Ryan, Janette. "Giles, Herbert Allen (1845–1935)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004 ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/33401. Accessed 29 August 2016.


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