Herbert Giles

Herbert Giles
Born Herbert Allen Giles
8 December 1845
Oxford, England[1]
Died 13 February 1935(1935-02-13) (aged 89)
Cambridge, England
Nationality British
Institutions University of Cambridge
Known for Wade–Giles romanisation
Notable awards Order of Chia-Ho
Chinese name
Chinese 翟理斯

Herbert Allen Giles (8 December 1845  13 February 1935) was a British diplomat and sinologist who was the professor of Chinese at Cambridge University 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. 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.[2] 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.[3]

His later works include a history of the Chinese Pictorial Art in 1905[4][5] and his 1914 Hibbert Lectures on Confucianism which was published in 1915 by Williams and Norgate (de).[6] 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. He finally retired in 1932, and died in his ninetieth year.


Giles received the Prix Julien award from the French Academy in 1897 for his Chinese Biographical Dictionary.[7] Generally considered unreliable among modern academics,[8] 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).[9]

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' great 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."[10]

Diplomatic postings


List of awards and honours:[11]

Written works



  1. "Herbert Allen GILES (1845–1935)" on the Cambridge University Library website
  2. "Giles, Herbert Allen (GLS932HA)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  3. 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.
  4. "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.
  5. 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.
  6. Giles, Herbert A. (January 1916). "Confucianism and Its Rivals". The Journal of Race Development. 6 (3): 350. doi:10.2307/29738158. JSTOR 29738158.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Endymion Wilkinson (2000). Chinese History: A Manual. Harvard University Asia Center. p. 157. ISBN 978-0-674-00249-4.
  10. "A Great Sinologue," in The Spirit of the Chinese People Wikisource
  11. 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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