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PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 May, 2006, 12:00am

AFTER THE communist triumph on the mainland in 1949, a group of exiled Jesuit priests in Shanghai boarded a south-bound train. In their baggage was more than 40 years' study of the Chinese language. That material travelled with them through Hong Kong and Macau, before landing in Taiwan, where it formed the core of an ambitious project to produce an encyclopaedic Chinese lexicon.

The result of that work, a seven-volume Chinese-French tome known as the Grand Ricci Dictionary, has now made its way back to Hong Kong. This time, however, it came via DHL and its spokesperson isn't a priest but a banker, Claude Haberer of BNP Paribas. 'It's a unique project,' says Haberer, chairman of the Association Ricci, which arranged for a display about the epic endeavour as part of the Le French May festival. 'Putting on this exhibition of so much effort really touches people.'

It's rare for a dictionary to stir emotions, but the Grand Ricci is an exceptional work. It's the largest Chinese lexicon in any western language (Russia and Japan have larger versions). The 9,000-page work features more than 300,000 entries and explains Chinese characters dating back 3,000 years. Initiated in 1952, the project endured the deaths of many of its creators, funds running out and the tech revolution before finally going into print in December 2001. All the scholars involved, such as Father Yves Camus, feel awe and pride in the project.

'I've learned a lot, and forgotten more than half of it,' says Camus, 74, who worked on the dictionary for more than a decade. 'I got a sense of the immensity of the Chinese world and cultural background. It's a matter of broad knowledge - organised and factored, geographically or historically.'

The roots of the dictionary stretch back to 1583, when Matteo Ricci was posted to Macau. The Jesuit priest mastered the Chinese language and developed a deep understanding of the culture, then persuaded Emperor Wanli to allow him to settle in Beijing, where he began translating western works into Chinese and helped introduce Chinese to Europe. It marked the start of a cultural dialogue that continued long after his death in 1610.

One of Ricci's intentions was to share his religious beliefs with the Chinese, and he converted some high-ranking officials to Catholicism. But although it's inspired by his work, the Grand Ricci dictionary isn't about religion, says Father Benoit Vermander, head of the Ricci Institute in Taipei, who's been involved with the dictionary since 1996. Rather, it's driven by what the knowledge might contribute to cross-cultural understanding.

'Chinese culture is shaped first through the richness and the long history of its language,' he says. 'Taking seriously the way a character has appeared, at which point in history, the special meanings it takes in different texts ... reveals a lot about the way Chinese see and experience the world.'

In the 1800s, the Jesuits set up a centre in Shanghai to study the language, history and culture of China. Those efforts produced some 200 books of definitions, proverbs, and linguistic analysis. Although they were driven out of the mainland in 1949, a Hungarian priest, Eugene Zsamar, was determined to continue that mission. Arriving in Macau, he began a project in 1952 to create dictionaries of Chinese in French, Latin, English, Hungarian and Spanish. The operation moved to Taiwan later that year, and has been based there since.

Whereas compiling the definitions from previous work was relatively easy, says Vermander, revising the entries for accuracy wasn't. 'Editing ended up being the hardest part because it's when they had to make the final choices on the text.'

By the late 50s, the Jesuit fathers were beginning to lose heart. Not only was the task proving more difficult than they'd anticipated, many priests were being drawn into active missionary work.

Another blow was the death, in 1964, of Father Thomas Carroll, an American priest whose expertise in archaeology and lexicography had been crucial to their work. With him died the idea of an English version of the dictionary.

But the establishment of the Ricci Institute in Taipei, with a branch in Paris, provided a formal structure to oversee the task, and the Jesuits began hiring French sinologists to help move things along.

By 1976, 24 years after they began, the Jesuits printed two small Chinese-French and Chinese-Spanish dictionaries. The former remains the best-selling work of its kind, says Vermander, and helped boost morale and funds for the project.

The advent of the tech age in the 80s made clear to the Jesuits the need to computerise their database, says Camus, who headed the conversion. This brought new challenges, including finding software that could handle the complex entries. 'Nothing worked,' Camus says. He solved the problem by adapting software designed for chemistry - with help from sinologists, linguists and IT experts.

The operation also began to tap private sector support, from BNP Paribas and France's national power company, EDF. In 1999, the Jesuits released a concise Grand Ricci Dictionary, comprising 13,390 Chinese characters, but this couldn't bring in enough revenue for them to produce the full version. Although the work had been completed, they didn't have the money to make the final push into print.

Haberer, a scholar of Chinese language in his spare time, heard that their funds had run dry. 'I thought, 'We've got to do something',' he says. Working with his contacts, Haberer raised US$150,000 to print the giant work. In December 2001, 3,000 copies of the collected Grand Ricci rolled off the press, half of which have since been sold to universities and scholars around the world.

For an indication of the enormity of the Ricci dictionary, take the word fu, which means 'to turn'. The entry begins with the original oracular script of the word, derived from bones about 3,000 years ago. It then traces the word as it appeared in the Bronze Age. That's followed by a list of the classic works in which it appeared and its meaning as it evolved over time. The section concludes with the contemporary version of the word, with its meanings and synonyms - and long list of compound words that include fu.

Multiply this by 300,000, and you realise why the dictionary took 54 years and up to US$10 million to complete, says Haberer. The data covers close to 200 branches of knowledge, from literature to medicine and religion. Although it's available only in French, the Jesuits hope to release it in English and other languages.

The dictionary database is constantly expanding and evolving. For one, the original Chinese character transliterations were produced in the Wade-Giles system. But with increasingly common usage of the mainland's pinyin system, the institute is keen to release a pin- yin version on CD-Rom in a few years. The scholars have since completed a dictionary of Chinese plants, and plan to produce another on Chinese traditional medicine.

Camus also dreams of releasing a 'wiki' version of the dictionary, to be uploaded on the internet in an open format that would allow Chinese speakers and linguists to tweak the definitions. This would keep it in accord with the original aims of the project, he says, because the knowledge 'is not a matter of ownership - this is meant to be spread around'.

Although the Ricci Institute hopes the dictionary operation can be self-supporting, Haberer and Camus insist it has nothing to do with money. In taking the exhibition to Beijing and Shanghai for the Year of France last year, Haberer was able to see the dictionary presented in a country that had been hostile to Jesuits for years.

'I would lie if I said it wasn't a little moving to see a life-size portrait of Matteo Ricci featured in front of the Shanghai Municipal Library,' he says. 'It was the first time since 1949 there were that many priests in China to pay tribute to its language and culture.'

400 Years of Cultural Exchanges between China and Europe: The History of the Grand Ricci Dictionary, 9am-8pm, daily, HK City Hall, 1/F Exhibition Room, Edinburgh Place, Central, free. Ends May 27