Wang Li (linguist)

For the politician, see Wang Li (politician).
Wang Li
Born (1900-08-10)August 10, 1900
Bobai, Guangxi, China
Died May 3, 1986(1986-05-03) (aged 85)
Beijing, China
Occupation linguist
Chinese name
Chinese 王力
Birth name
Chinese 祥瑛
Courtesy name
Chinese 了一

Wang Li (1900–1986) was a Chinese linguist. Many considered him to be the founder of modern Chinese linguistics.


Of Hakka ancestry from Tingzhou, Longyan, Fujian, Wang was born into a poor but educated family in Bobai County, Guangxi Province. He was largely self-taught before entering the Tsinghua University in 1927. There he was taught by Yuen Ren Chao and Liang Qichao, among others. Encouraged by Chao, he went to Paris to study linguistics in 1927. There he devoted himself to the study of phonology, and attended the class in theoretical linguistics given by Joseph Vendryes. He earned his PhD from the University of Paris with experiments on the tones of the Bobai dialect, following the line of Liu Bannong.

To eke out a living, he translated works of French literature into Chinese during his stint in Paris. He would translate more after his return to China, including the plays of Molière, and a version of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal in classical Chinese verse.

He returned to China in 1932, and began his academic career. Before the Second Sino-Japanese War, he taught in the Tsinghua University. From 1939 to 1940, he studied in the École française d'Extrême-Orient in Vietnam, learning the Vietnamese language, which aided his study of historical Chinese phonology. In 1946, he began to teach in the Zhongshan University. One of his students there was Michael Halliday. In 1948, he switched to the Lingnan University. He taught in the Peking University from 1954 until his death in 1986.

Humorously rephrasing the name of a famous classical treatise (The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons), he called his study "Study where both dragons and worms are carved" (龍蟲並雕齋), which indicates the fact that he, as a prolific writer, produced highly technical theses as well as popular textbooks and essays. His important works include:


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