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Setting up Pleco for support in reading classical medical literature


Nov. 12, 2018. This post is written in response to countless questions I have received over the years and based on my experience of teaching beginning, intermediate, and advanced students in reading Chinese medical literature from the “classical” period (which I take to also include most Tang dynasty texts).

Preliminary Notes

  1. Most of my students want to focus on the medical classics that predate the Song, so that is my focus here. By the time you get to the Song period, writers move further and further away from the textual ideals presented by the literary “classics” (Lunyu 論語, Zhuangzi 莊子, Laozi Daodejing 老子道德經, Shijing 詩經, Yijing 易經, etc.) and of course the Huangdi neijing 黃帝內經. For writers like Sun Simiao 孫思邈 and Chao Yuanfang 巢元方, the setup I recommend still works well, in my experience.

  2. Most importantly, please keep in mind that literary Chinese, especially from the classical period, is a completely different animal from modern spoken and written Chinese. This is a fact that even many modern Chinese, who may not have received solid instruction in the classics themselves in their education, like to forget sometimes. Modern Chinese medical literature is peppered with classical quotations that are often taken out of context or misunderstood. To read and translate Chinese literature from 2000 years ago accurately, it is absolutely essential that you receive some instruction in grammar and also training in the cultural context etc. The new online translation tools and software like Pleco and Wenlin are FANTASTIC tools and have completely changed the way I work and teach, but please keep in mind that they are no substitute for real instruction in this subject. The problem with teaching yourself, as in any specialized complex subject, is that you often are not even aware of your shortcomings and mistakes because there is no teacher or community to point them out to you. Read the introduction by Michael Fuller to his textbook “An Introduction to Literary Chinese” to get a sense of what I am talking about or try and work your way through the first few chapters of Archie Barnes’ “Chinese Through Poetry” or Michael Pulleyblank’s “Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar.” The lack of appreciation for and training in the complexities of reading classical Chinese is a real problem in our community that leads to many avoidable errors that can have life-threatening consequences for your patients. Please be careful with your translations!

  3. Pleco is a free software that is primarily intended for MODERN CHINESE, so it requires some tweaking and the installation of paid add-on dictionaries to make it work with ancient texts. Without these tweaks, it can be very misleading and give you answers that make zero sense or worse, are just plain wrong. The most important thing to understand about Pleco is that you need to IGNORE THE MODERN DICTIONARIES that it comes preinstalled with. Related to this, you have to LOOK UP INDIVIDUAL CHARACTERS, not compounds. Pleco automatically will recognize compounds. Classical Chinese, for the most part, functions in such a way that a single character means a single word. Rare exceptions (like pangguang 膀胱 for urinary bladder) are easy to spot.

All that said, let us get to work and let me help you set up Pleco. I use an ancient ipad that I use for nothing but Pleco. I am a Luddite at heart and not very good with technology, so if somebody wants to expand or contribute to this post with screenshots etc, please get in touch with me or just post them in the comments.

Installing Pleco

  • The basic software is free and works on any smartphone or tablet. At the bare minimum, you need to install the following three add-ons:

    • Pleco Basic Bundle: This give you OCR (optical character recognition, which I don’t find very useful but which might work better on a phone, especially for beginning students who don’t know how to draw Chinese characters properly, plus it’s great if you find yourself in China and don’t know any CHinese), Flashcards and Stroke Order Diagrams (features that my beginning students really like), and most importantly for me, the Document Reader. This features allows you to look up not only individual characters or phrases by copying and pasting them into the dictionary but to open whole digital files of texts INSIDE Pleco. If your file is saved in the right format (more on this below), this is essential for looking up individual characters because it allows you to limit the search parameters to that.

    • The “Student’s Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese”! This is absolutely essential!

    • Wiseman Chinese Medical Terms (which is a free add-on dictionary) and ideally also the paid version of Wiseman’s “Practical Dictionary of Chinese Medicine.” Whether you are a fan of Wiseman’s terminology or not, having a dictionary of technical medical terms is essential when you are reading technical medical literature.

  • In addition, I would recommend these resources to more advanced students:

    • the “Grand Ricci,” a Chinese-French dictionary with 310,000 entries (!!!) and almost worth it to learn French just to be able to use it.

    • The Hanyu Dacidian, which any sinologist should be well familiar with. An incredible resource if you are able to read Chinese-Chinese dictionaries and SO SO SO easy to use here! Ah, eternal gratitude to the developers of Pleco to incorporate this resource!

    • Depending on the texts and periods you are going to be dealing with, the “Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms” because it’s free and interesting and helpful for later literature.

  • Next we have to rearrange the dictionaries, which is absolutely essential, so please do not skip this step!

    • Go to SETTING down a ways in the left side menu.

    • Scroll down to MANAGE DICTIONARIES.

    • Click REORDER and then move the dictionaries around by moving the three lines to the right of each title.

    • Here comes the key to this whole process: MOVE “SCM” to the top and all the modern preinstalled dictionaries to the bottom. Now, depending on what you purchased, I have mine arranged in this order: SCM >> GR (Grand Ricci) >> HDC (Hanyu Dacidian) >> CMT (Wiseman’s CM terms C-E) >> PD (PDCM C-E, Practical Dictionary of CM) >> GRH (Histoire Ricci) >> BUD (Buddhist Terms) and then anything else, which I consistently ignore. If there were a way to delete the modern dictionaries, I would make my students do that.

    • Click DONE.

  • Now we have to prepare our digital file that we want to work with, so that we can import it and open it in the Pleco Document Reader in such a way that we can unlock all the features. I prepare the file on my computer because that is my main tool of choice.

    • Copy and paste a text from a website or otherwise prepare your file as a WORD document.

    • Save this document as a PLAIN TEXT file (.txt). I save it straight to Dropbox (see below). You will see a box pop up called “File Conversion” where you have to make some selections. For “text encoding” choose OTHER ENCODING and then highlight UNICODE (UTF-8)

    • Click OK.

  • To open the file in Pleco on the phone or tablet, I personally move it to Dropbox and then from there simply open it in Pleco. I am sure there are other ways that might work better for you. To do this through Dropbox, open your Dropbox application, click on the three dots to the right of the file name and choose “EXPORT” and then hit “COPY TO PLECO”. That’s it!

  • Now go back to Pleco, scroll down on the left to the READER and open the file. Congratulations! YOU ARE DONE! (:

  • PLEASE BE CAUTIOUS: As you start working with your text, you will see that Pleco sometimes recognizes two characters as a compound by highlighting them in blue, surrounded by two dots on the top left and bottom right, giving you the translation of this compound rather than the individual characters. Please do not be sloppy, unless it is an obvious medical term, and move one of the dots towards the other until you are able to look the characters up individually. This is why you want to save the file in TXT with the formatting as outlined above. If you open it as a WORD or PDF or other document, Pleco will not let you look up individual characters. Hopefully they will fix this issue at some point. It is due to the fact that it is primarily a software for reading contemporary Chinese literature.


Sabine Wilms5 Comments