Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland

Robert Morrison and the Phonology of Mid-Qing Mandarin


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Robert Morrison (1782–1834; Chinese name: Ma[caron] Li[caron]xùn) was the London Missionary Society's first representative in China and is generally viewed as the father of Protestant missionary work there. Modern scholarly interest in him has in the main focused on his role as a Bible translator (see, for example, Zetzsche 1999, especially Chapter 2). As part of his missionary activities, Morrison studied both written and spoken Chinese; and these researches yielded grammars of both Mandarin (i.e. Guanhuà “the language of the mandarins or officials”; Morrison, 1815) and Cantonese (1815: appendix, pp. 259–280), plus a major dictionary of written Chinese (1815–1823) and a smaller lexicon of Cantonese (1828). In order to transcribe spoken Chinese, Morrison developed romanisations for both Mandarin and Cantonese. These orthographic systems shed light on the pronunciation of the underlying languages as they were spoken two hundred years ago. The purpose of the present paper is to examine Morrison's romanisation of Mandarin for clues about the pronunciation of early nineteenth-century standard Chinese.