From the Grand Ricci to the Ricci Dictionary of Chinese Law

The Ricci Dictionary of Chinese Law includes approximately 24,000 Chinese terms used by Chinese and foreign lawyers in continental China, which are presented in simplified character forms, transcribed into pinyin and translated into French and English. It has been prepared under the guidance of the Association Ricci du grand dictionnaire de la langue chinoise, which was established in 1987 in Paris to ensure the promotion and development of the Grand Ricci.1

The Grand Ricci is the most important bilingual dictionary of Chinese and a European language to date. It contains 13,500 unique characters and more than 300,000 Chinese terms and expressions, translated into French. The dictionary is named after Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), the famous Italian Jesuit, who arrived in China in the 16th century and authored the first Chinese–Portuguese dictionary. The Grand Ricci is the fruit of more than 50 years of work, initiated by a team of French Jesuits in the early 1950s and pursued by several dozen sinologists and specialists in the 200 branches of knowledge into which the entries of the Grand Ricci are sorted.

The Ricci Dictionary of Chinese Law was launched in 2005 by the Ricci Association in order to complete and enrich the Grand Ricci database by integrating recently developed legal terms employed in continental China. The preparation of the Ricci Dictionary of Chinese Law extended over a period of ten years (2006–2016) and required the mobilization of a team of French and Chinese attorneys and lawyers, as well as American, Canadian, English, and Australian contributors. About 40 foreign and Chinese lawyers participated in this work to various degrees depending on their availability and areas of competence.

A Wide Spectrum of Terms

The Ricci Dictionary of Chinese Law aims to provide a working tool for translators of Chinese legal documents, as well as researchers, academics, students, attorneys, and lawyers who have an interest in Chinese law. By providing translations of Chinese terms, it will be a useful resource for joint legal projects involving China and foreign countries, and it will also foster a better understanding of the cultural framework of Chinese law.

It should be highlighted that the terms defined in this work are not exclusively legal, as contemporary Chinese law is inseparable from the administrative and political organization of the People’s Republic of China. The terms included here sometimes go beyond the strict limits of Chinese law, in order to accommodate the existence of concepts or terms that, although not employed in Chinese regulations, are found in Chinese-language legal writings, for example to designate foreign legal concepts or institutions. We have also chosen to include “keystone” words, which can be found in legal terms but do not themselves have a legal meaning.

Method and Categorization

Preparatory work for the dictionary began with the extraction of legal, commercial, and financial terms from the Grand Ricci database. The initial set of terms has been augmented, over the years, with contemporary terms mainly drawn from the laws and regulations published in continental China since the early 1980s, as well as from Chinese legal works and Chinese–Chinese or Chinese–English legal dictionaries or general lexicons. A list of the key works referred to in the course of preparing this book follows this introduction.

The systematic use of internet search engines has made it possible to confirm the relevance of the terms included in the dictionary2 and has considerably enriched lexicographic work by enabling the verification of the context of use of certain terms; sometimes it has led to the discovery of new uses of an existing term.

To confirm the relevance and translation of the terms included in the dictionary, each entry has been the subject of successive revisions by lawyers who are native speakers of French, Chinese, and English.

Terms were categorized based on 20 branches of Chinese law: administrative law, civil law (including private-law relationships between legal persons), commercial law, banking and financial law, international trade law, insurance law, constitutional law, company law, intellectual property law, environmental law, maritime law, labor law, criminal law, procedural law, tax law, international private law, international public law, Chinese or foreign institutions, jurisprudence, and ancient Chinese law. These branches, while based on customary categories in civil law countries, aim to reflect the specificities of Chinese law.

When a term can be categorized under several branches of law, it will generally appear without being assigned to a specific branch. Following the rules used for the Grand Ricci, when a term may be translated in several ways, each translation is listed separately and, if applicable, categorized into a branch of law.

Where relevant, distinctive uses of a term in Taiwan or Hong Kong (where legal vocabulary may differ from that of continental China) are mentioned.

Particularities of the Chinese Legal System and Terminology

Chinese legal terms are inseparable from the legal, political, and social culture that created them and must therefore be read and interpreted in their context.

In this respect, we note the relative scarcity of contemporary legal terms constructed from purely Chinese concepts. The vast majority of Chinese legal vocabulary has indeed been developed out of concepts or terms alien to China that were transcribed into Chinese characters beginning in the 19th century. As in other scientific disciplines, this process involved a detour through Japan, as the first Chinese students or academics transcribed into Chinese characters German, French, or English words already translated into Japanese. Important legal concepts from European countries have been translated into Chinese by creating new terms using Chinese characters, or through literal translation, and the resulting characters or terms often do not reveal their underlying cultural background.

In parallel, China’s modernization efforts led European lawyers, including German and French lawyers, to participate in various projects for drafting codes of modern Chinese law in the first half of the 20th century. Finally, since the early 1980s, Chinese law has been influenced by multiple sources, none of which is predominant: international treaties, US law (through the numerous Chinese lawyers trained in the United States), and English law (through the Hong Kong legal system). This diversity of influences, along with the will of Chinese authorities to explore different legal systems in order to construct a normative framework that would best fit their situation, can be a source of ambiguity.

The choice was made to avoid the use of, in relation to translations, common English or French terms that would “transport” into a Western legal system Chinese terms that have a slightly different meaning. Instead, when necessary, a literal translation with additional explanations is provided.

At a time when China is expanding its influence to other continents, we hope that Chinese and foreign lawyers will be able to continue this lexicographical enterprise by adding new terms, by increasing the precision of explanations of terms used in contexts where the Chinese legal vocabulary is not entirely stabilized, or even by correcting any imprecise translations that were not detected during our numerous reviews.

1 The Grand dictionnaire Ricci de la langue chinoise, or Grand Ricci, was copublished in 2001 by the Paris and Taipei Ricci Institutes and Desclée de Brouwer. The print edition (ISBN 2-220-04667-2) comprises six volumes and one additional volume of appendices. The Grand Ricci is available online as part of Brill’s China Reference Shelf, and also as additional content for the Pleco application for mobile devices.
2 Existing lexicographic works contain a number of terms that do not appear to be used in the corpus of documents publicly available through search engines (and are only attested in other lexicographic texts).