Chinese Romanization Systems vs. Chinese Materials Users

Shixing WEN
Associate University Librarian
Florida Gulf Coast University
Fort Myers, FL 33908-4500

Chinese Materials Users

When we are talking about users of Chinese materials, who do we really have in mind?

Let's first define Chinese users in a global setting: they are users who 1) are Chinese by origin; and 2) Chinese scholars of all nationalities.

The same categorization method is applicable to Chinese materials users in North America.

Romanization Systems

Second, what Chinese romanization system(s) do they use? Wade-Giles had its golden days. But it has done its historical function. It is archaic now, for it is no longer taught in formal education in mainland China or Taiwan or in America or Europe.

What are the people who are really using Wade-Giles now in North America? Chinese catalogers! But they are not the most important users of Chinese materials that libraries should strive to provide services to.

In mainland China, students have been learning pinyin since late 1950s. In nowaday America, pinyin is the norm to teach Chinese in higher education. SAT has included pinyin, not Wade-Giles, in its test for Chinese. In Taiwan, students learn Chinese with the help of zhuyin zima, not Wade-Giles.

Both zhuyin and pinyin represent the exact pronunciation of the standard Chinese characters while Wade-Giles does not. The only difference between zhuyin and pinyin is the symbols used to represent the standard Chinese pronunciation: zhuyin uses radicals while pinyin uses Roman letters. Last year, Taiwan has released a Romanized form of zhuyin. It is referred to as the second form of zhuyin. It uses Roman letters instead of radicals. In essence, it is almost exactly like pinyin, with exception to a few variants.

Why won't people in Taiwan use Wade-Giles to teach students Chinese? Obviously, as Wade-Giles does not represent the exact standard Chinese pronunciation, it won't work.

In America schools, both zhuyin and pinyin are taught. In American institutions of higher education, pinyin is the norm.

What conclusion can we draw now?

Although there are still some people that use Wade-Giles, the majority of users are accessing, and will be increasingly so, Chinese materials via pinyin searching in our library catalogs.

Obstacles for Pinyin Conversion

Then, why should our Chinese cataloging in North America continue to use the archaic Wade-Giles? Why is it so hard to convert to the popular pinyin system, the system that most users are and will be using?

One reason for those against the pinyin conversion is that we've already had so many Chinese records in Wade-Giles. We need to look at this issue from the historical perspective: No matter how many Chinese records we have now, far much more will be created in future. Now that we have decided that pinyin is better than Wade-Giles, why should we continue to use Wade-Giles? Please look ahead, not behind.

Another reason for those against the pinyin conversion is that it is a political issue. To my mind, it was out of political considerations that LC selected Wade-Giles before. It is not a political issue at this time for LC to decide to convert to pinyin. Whichever system represents better the standard Chinese pronunciation should be used for cataloging Chinese materials. There is no politics here. I hope that people won't use the political issue to blackmail others. Whoever asserts that the pinyin conversion is a political issue, please put forward your points. Please back up your points with facts.

Still another reason for those against the pinyin conversion is that in a few years, Chinese characters can be input into our catalog by vocal dictation. On the one hand, it is too optimistic for technology. At one time, some "far-sighted" chancellor in California decided not to build a library in his new campus, for he believed that users could access all the materials they need for their study or research on the Internet. What's the reality? That campus has a library now! On the other hand, voice-input technology won't help us to solve the innate Wade-Giles problems. Even if we could input Chinese characters into all applicable variable fields, how do we expect library users to search for them in an online catalog? By Chinese characters? That is, speaking to a terminal in Chinese and let the computer search the matching record(s)? Please don't fantasize the voice-input technology now. We'll see how technology advances will benefit us in Chinese cataloging. But don't count the chicken before they are hatched.

Still another reason of those against the pinyin conversion is that CEAL has not formed its official stance yet on this issue. To my mind, whatever CEAL may conclude for its investigation on the pinyin conversion, LC does not have to adopt CEAL's recommendation. For historical reasons, many Chinese catalogers have learned Wade-Giles a hard way on the job. They don't want to switch to another system, even though it is better. And some Chinese catalogers even have an innate dislike for anything invented in mainland China. It is understandable. But their personal preferences should not be taken into consideration in this issue. Just like choosing a jury, anyone who has a tendency should not sit on the jury.


My advice to LC is that Chinese catalogers are not necessarily true representatives of Chinese materials users. Look at the base of Chinese users in America and/or worldwide. Look at which Romanization system that represents the Chinese language better. Look at the global resources sharing. And go ahead with your own conclusion.

This article was originally posted on cala listserv on May 8, 1997.
Copyright © 1997 Shixing Wen.
Submitted to CLIEJ on 17 June 1997.