Victor H. Mair

American sinologist and linguist (born 1943)

Victor H. Mair (born March 25, 1943) is a philologist specializing in Sinitic and Indo-European languages, and holds the position of Professor of Chinese Language and Literature in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, United States. Among other accomplishments, Professor Mair has edited the standard Columbia History of Chinese Literature and the Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature.


  • As a working Sinologist, each time I look up a word in my Webster's or Kenkyusha's I experience a sharp pang of deprivation. Having slaved over Chinese dictionaries arranged in every imaginable order(by K'ang-hsi radical, left-top radical, bottom-right radical, left-right split, total stroke count, shape of successive stroke, four-corner, three corner, two-corner, Kuei-hsieh, ts'ang-chieh, telegraphic code, rhyme tables, phonetic keys, and so on ad nauseam), I have become deeply envious of specialists in those languages, such as Japanese, Indonesian, Hindi, Persian, Russian, Turkish, Korean, Vietnamese, and so forth, which possess alphabetically arranged dictionaries.
    • The Need for an Alphabetically Arranged General Usage Dictionary of Mandarin Chinese (February 1986).
  • On July 4 1983, I met with officials of the Committee for the Reform of the Written Language in Peking. They informed me that they were working on another revision of their word list and that they would consider making an alphabetized dictionary based on it. Their eyes lit up when I told them I would gladly pay a small fortune for such a reference tool. An alphabetically ordered dictionary would certainly be worth such a sum because of the huge amount of time it would save in my research. Naturally, I hope that the Chinese will be able to produce this type of dictionary at a cost that will make it widely available.
    • The Need for an Alphabetically Arranged General Usage Dictionary of Mandarin Chinese (February 1986).
  • If only there were a lexicographer of Liang Shih-ch'iu's ability who also had the perspicuity to arrange his dictionary by sound rather than radical! … No wonder most of us are so sour and gray by the time we reach fifty! The amount of time consumed and the spirit expended in this sort of meaningless, not to mention destructive, type of activity is beyond calculation.
    • The Need for an Alphabetically Arranged General Usage Dictionary of Mandarin Chinese (February 1986).
  • There is a widespread public misperception, particularly among the New Age sector, that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of elements that signify “danger” and “opportunity.” I first encountered this curious specimen of alleged oriental wisdom about ten years ago at an altitude of 35,000 feet sitting next to an American executive. … While it is true that wēijī does indeed mean “crisis” and that the wēi syllable of wēijī does convey the notion of “danger,” the jī syllable of wēijī most definitely does not signify “opportunity.” … The jī of wēijī, in fact, means something like “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).” Thus, a wēijī is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry. A wēijī indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary.
  • There may be instances in world history where a dominant or highly influential elite who were few in number were nonetheless able to impose their language on a subject population. (I suspect that could have happened where the conquered population was also small in number and ravaged by war, disease, and the like. But then, would they have survived at all?). North India, Pakistan and Afghanistan 3500 years ago have been suggested as examples of such a scenario, with a relatively small number of Aryan warriors supposedly being able to impose Indic languages upon the native population. In light of the above discussion, I find this to be an unconvincing explanation of how IE languages entered the subcontinent. The fact that a significant portion of the population in these countries possesses blue eyes, fair skin, and brown or even blond hair (where the environment makes these traits which are more suited to northern latitudes disadvantageous from the standpoint of survival) would seem to indicate that sizeable numbers if IE speakers actually did intrude upon the subcontinent and have left not only their linguistic but their genetic imprint upon it as well.
    • Victor Mair, pp. 14-15 in Mair, Victor; 1998; ‘Priorities’; pg. 4-41 in The Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Peoples of Eastern Central Asia, vol. I (ed. Victor Mair); The Institute for the Study of Man, Washington D.C. (in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania Museum Publications, Philadelphia); 1998 (Journal of the Indo-European Studies Monograph No. 26 (also quoted in Vigil, 'Thus Spake Professor Michael Witzel A Harvard University Case Study in Prejudice?' (2006))

Quotes about Mair

  • Victor has always cast his nets widely, and he could routinely amaze us with observations far afield from the Chinese text we were reading in class. Today people often attempt to simulate this cosmopolitanism under the rubric of interdisciplinary study, but for Victor, it was quite untrendy: he simply had an insatiable appetite for knowledge and pushing boundaries. Indeed, border-crossing has been our mentor's dominant mode of scholarship, a mode that has constantly interrogated where those very borders are both geographically and categorically. Though never sporting fashionable jargon, Victor has always taken on phenomena and issues that engage aspects of multiculturalism, hybridity, alterity, and the subaltern, while remarkably grounding his work in painstaking philological analysis. Victor demonstrates the success of philology, often dismissed as a nineteenth-century holdover, for investigating twenty-first-century concerns.
    • Daniel Boucher, Neil Schmid, and Tansen Sen, in "The Scholarly Contributions of Professor Victor H. Mair : A Retrospective Survey", Asia Major 3.6:1-12 (2006).
  • Mair claims to be interested, for a variety of noble reasons, in “the search for the Indo-Europeans and their homeland”; but it is clear that a “search” of any kind is as far from his intentions as possible, since his answer (South Russia) is already determined (although he does let out that his greater personal preference would have been to locate the core of the homeland “in Southern Germany, northern Austria, and the western part of what is now the Czech Republic”, ie. in Hitler’s home-grounds), and all those who advocate any other solution automatically fall, in his opinion, in the same category as “kooks and crazies who attribute the rise of Indo-Europeans to extra-territorial visitations”!
    • Shrikant Talgeri, The Rigveda, A Historical Analysis, 2000. Quoting Mair, V. : The Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Peoples of Eastern Asia, Volume II edited by Victor H. Mair, The Institute for the Study of Man (in collaboration with) The University of Pennsylvania Museum Publications, 1998 (Journal of Indo-European Studies, Monograph no. twentysix in two volumes).
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