Lionel Giles

Lionel Giles bigraphy, stories - Translators

Lionel Giles : biography

29 December 1875 – 22 January 1958

Lionel Giles (29 December 1875 – 22 January 1958) was a Victorian scholar and translator. Lionel Giles served as assistant curator at the British Museum and Keeper of the Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books. Lionel Giles is most notable for his 1910 translation of The Art of War by Sun Tzu and The Analects of Confucius.

Giles was the son of British diplomat and sinologist, Herbert Giles.


The prodigious translations of Lionel Giles include the books of: Sun Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Lao Tzu, Mencius, and Confucius.

  • The Art of War (1910), originally published as The Art of War: The Oldest Military Treatise in the World
  • The Analects of Confucius (1910), also known as the Analects or The Sayings of ConfuciusJohn Minford, Classical Chinese Literature: An Anthology of Translations, Columbia University Press, 2000 ISBN 0-231-09677-1
  • The Sayings of Lao Tzu and Taoist Teachings (1912), now known as the Tao Te ChingLionel Giles and Herbert Giles, Tao: The Way, ELPN Press, 2007 ISBN 1-934255-13-0
  • The Book of Mencius (1942), originally published as Wisdom of the EastMeaning in The Book of Mencius
  • The Life of Ch’iu Chin and The Lament On the Lady of the Ch’in
  • The Liexian Zhuan (1948), also known as Biographies of ImmortalsHerbert Giles, Frederic Balfour, Lionel Giles, Biographies of Immortals: Legends of China, ELPN Press, 2010 ISBN 1-934255-30-0

Early life

Giles was born at Sutton, the fourth son of Herbert Giles and his first wife Catherine Fenn. Educated privately in Belgium (Liège), Austria (Feldkirch), and Scotland (Aberdeen), Giles studied Classics at Wadham College, Oxford, graduating B.A. in 1899.John Minford, Sinology, Old and New Forbes, Andrew ; Henley, David (2012).’Lionel Giles’ in: The Illustrated Art of War: Sun Tzu. Chiang Mai: Cognoscenti Books. ASIN: B00B91XX8U

The Art of War

The 1910 Giles translation of The Art of War succeeded British officer Everard Ferguson Calthrop’s 1905 and 1908 translations, and refuted large portions of Calthrop’s work. In the Introduction, Giles writes: It is not merely a question of downright blunders, from which none can hope to be wholly exempt. Omissions were frequent; hard passages were willfully distorted or slurred over. Such offenses are less pardonable. They would not be tolerated in any edition of a Latin or Greek classic, and a similar standard of honesty ought to be insisted upon in translations from Chinese.Lionel Giles, The Art of War by Sun Tzu – Classic Collector’s Edition, ELPN Press, 2009 ISBN 1-934255-15-7


Lionel Giles used the Wade-Giles romanization method of translation, pioneered by his father, Herbert Giles. Like many Victorian-era sinologists, he was primarily interested in Chinese literature, which Victorians approached as a branch of classics. Victorian sinologists contributed greatly to problems of textual transmission of the classics. The following quote shows Giles’ attitude to the problem identifying the authors of ancient works like the Lieh Tzu, the Chuang Tzu and the Tao Te Ching: The extent of the actual mischief done by this "Burning of the Books" has been greatly exaggerated. Still, the mere attempt at such a holocaust gave a fine chance to the scholars of the later Han dynasty (A.D. 25-221), who seem to have enjoyed nothing so much as forging, if not the whole, at any rate portions, of the works of ancient authors. Some one even produced a treatise under the name of Lieh Tzu, a philosopher mentioned by Chuang Tzu, not seeing that the individual in question was a creation of Chuang Tzu’s brain!Lionel Giles, tr. Taoist Teachings from the Book of Lieh-Tzŭ. London: Wisdom of the East. 1912

Continuing to produce translations of Chinese classics well into the later part of his life, he was quoted by John Minford as having confessed to a friend that he was a "Taoist at heart, and I can well believe it, since he was fond of a quiet life, and was free of that extreme form of combative scholarship which seems to be the hall mark of most Sinologists."