Китайская лингвистика и синология
Chinese Linguistics and Sinology



Tan Aoshuang was born on November 21, 1931, in Shanghai. Her father – Tan Shoureng – came from Sichuan. He belonged to the second generation of Chinese students who studied abroad and went to medical school in Germany, where he married Maria Heuser, a teacher; they returned to China together in 1927. In the former capital of Nanjing he set up a private practice, which turned to be a great success, since the country lacked doctors with European education.

The mother of Tan Aoshuang (she adopted a Chinese name - Tan Mali) taught German at three universities, including the Whampoa Military Academy.

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Tan Aoshuang spent her early life in luxury, the family was rich and had their own house in Nanjing. Aoshuan was the second child; her elder sister, Tan Xuemei, the future professor of Sorbonne and a well-known Chinese litterateur, was born the year before; and in 1934 her brother was born – Tam Shilin, the future professor at Jinan University, who published the full compilation of poems of Tao Yuanming with an English translation. The children had fine toys (their German grandfather, a prominent railroad engineer in Kassel, sent them a whole doll house!) and the family enjoyed weekends in the country.


This paradise ended abruptly in 1937. The family adventurously evacuated to Chongqing, the children were bereft of their toys (the doll house stayed in Nanjing), the mother lost her job, and only one servant remained, a Sichuan nanny who was adored by the kids. They settled in the country, where their father had a small practice. The picturesque vicinity of Chongqing, surrounded by mountains, with the ancient Wenfengta pagoda, became the land of Tan Aoshuang’s childhood. There she was educated in both the Chinese (her father and she herself later understood the need of the Chinese education) and the English schools, she climbed trees, ran with her mixed-blood friends around the neighborhood (it was a long way to the school). Mother gave her a German education as well (the kids even published a home magazine, Die Bunte Welt).

It wasn’t without a touch of romance, either – the loving father had an affair with a nurse, the godmother of Tan Xuemei, a woman of rough destiny, who later committed suicide beside the Wenfengta pagoda. Her story served as a basis for a dime novel by her friend 白沙哀, who wrote about the evil deeds of foreigners (about a devious doctor, who had a foreign wife and even conserved the heroine’s finger in alcohol to cry over it). The novel was widely distributed, the kids became a laughing stock, the father lost a part of his small  practice (subsequently, the affair popped up in the Sichuan press).


By 1942 the the family fell apart completely. The mother took the children to Shanghai and sent the girls to an English secondary school of the catholic monastic order of the Holy Heart. There, the classes were given in Chinese and English languages, in a strict discipline, kids were fed poorly. Tan Mali had to work as a nurse, in 1949 she found herself in a German hospital in Qingdao (where, in 1936, their family had rested). For the summer she took the girls along, and they had a lot of fun. But Tan Aoshuang knew she had to study, and, in autumn, all alone, in an upside-down country – she went to Shanghai and asked  the Mother Superior (an Englishwoman) to let her end the education for free (for they had no money, she took along American chocolate for sale). Mother Superior (we had an honor to visit her grave) allowed it. Meanwhile, Aoshuan’s father left to Hong Kong, where he played a certain role in the left wing of Koumintang, presented as one of the stars on the Chinese flag.

In 1950 Tan Aoshuang entered to the department of journalism (she dreamed of becoming a journalist) at the Yenching University (a Harvard university partner), headed by the American ambassador. Shortly, the ambassador was removed and the university was merged with the Peking University 北京大學, giving it the  scenic campus 燕京大學, and the department of journalism was combined with the department of philology. There, in a fascinating building, which afterwards became the philological department, was a dormitory, where Tan Aoshuang lived with other students, and she kept some bonds for a lifetime. She helped her mother to find a job in the university, where she taught German until her last days and became one of the authors of a normative textbook of German language (her father lived in Beijing with his new family as well). For some time, Tan Aoshuang was living with her mother, who became a university professor, her elder sister and younger brother, who was already born in Sichuan (the eldest brother was studying in Сanton (Guangzhou) and thereafter suffered a great deal during the cultural revolution). Since she was a child, Tan Aoshuang enjoyed sport and she continued doing gymnastics and diving at the university, winning medals in competitions. In 1953 she became the first champion of PRC in diving. She refused, however, to become a professional sportswoman.

After she had graduated from the philological department she worked in an agency which was involved in propaganda among the Overseas Chinese (I happen to have a brochure in Russian about Beihai park with one of her very first publications). Then a new romance took place, concerning not her father but herself. That is how she ended up in Russia.

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It’s a long story. In a city of Ivanovo, there was an orphanage for children of important Chinese communists. There lived Li Tete, who met a Russian student Isaev from Tula at the Moscow Energy Institute. They got married and moved to China in the beginning of the 1950s. Their common friend, Shen Linju, also an orphan, was learning Chinese at the Peking University. V. I. Isaev was always visiting him, so he met Tan Aoshuang. Eventually, after lots of adventures and ordeals, they got married (here I pay tribute to the parents of Li Tete – to the Chinese intelligence chief Li Fuchun, and to the women’s movement leader Cai Chang, who might have ground Tan Aoshuang to dust). In 1956, V. I. Isaev left his two boys in China and returned home with a baby.

Thus, Tan Aoshuang went straight to the Russian village near Tula. The only way to move to Moscow was to work. Tan Aoshuang got a place in the public broadcaster, which provided flats to its employees. She received an employment record (profession, translator-journalist) with the record of her first job, a translator of the 2nd category, on  27.08.1957. In order to get the job she diligently translated a trial text in Russian, which she had never studied before. It was the first test of her capacity, which determined her future. (She was occupied with journalism as well – she reported live about the student festival, Gagarin’s welcome in Moscow, later she covered events of the 1991 Soviet coup d'état attempt – she was among those who defended the Government House – in Taiwanese press and on Moscow radio). In 1961 she became a translator of the 1st category, in 1962 – of the highest category. This provided her with the necessary money (her husband became disabled because of a brain tumor, and in 1959 her daughter Marina was born, who subsequently became a sinologist and a Chinese music expert).


In the end, Tan Aoshuang worked primarily as a stylist-editor, by editing Chinese texts, already translated by native speakers. Since she made sense of every kind of work, she began to wonder why all these texts sounded so bad in Chinese.  Without a modern linguistic education, she entered the most complex sphere of contrastive linguistics and linguistic semantics.

From the very beginning, she was looking toward scientific work, and tried to enroll to IAAC as a researcher of dialectology (since she was proficient in Sichuan, Shanghainese  and Cantonese dialects along with the normative language), but the attempts were unsuccessful. Consequently, without hesitation she started to work at MSU (D. N. Voskresensky had assisted her in it) as it was planned to introduce the Shanghai dialect into the programme.

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Since September 1966 to 1988 she remained a senior teacher of the Department of Chinese Philology at the IAAC, defending the experimental phonetic dissertation in Cantonese tones in 1972 under the direction of M.K. Rumyantsev (later she also studied Chinese historical phonology). This study was highly appreciated by V .V. Ivanov and it allowed her to be included in the list of linguists in the Encyclopaedic Linguistic Dictionary of 1990.

By this time her husband had gone completely blind, and because of his jealousy, which was completely groundless, he developed sudden bursts of anger that affected the children. Psychiatrists considered that the only possible way to preserve his mental health was the termination of relations with his wife. And then we entered into romantic relationship and it turned out that I in fact took the wife away from a blind husband. But in fact, we just found each other and got married, despite the horrible troubles with my ex-wife (we had a child of 5) and at work (Tan Aoshuang was a foreign citizen).

Since the 1966/1967 school year and until her disability in 2010, Tan Aoshuang taught Chinese, and later taught courses in functional syntax and linguistic culturology. In 2000, she received the academic rank of professor at Moscow State University.

In 1983 her textbook of modern spoken language was published which the entire country learned from and which was highly praised in the PRC (dialogues from it were later included in materials for HSK preparation).

This textbook contained interpretations written at the level of modern linguistic semantics. At that time modern semantic ideas were still just emerging in Russian science, and the Logical Analysis of Language group had recently been created under the guidance of N.D. Arutyunova. At the same time, Tan Aoshuang published, in the Moscow State University Bulletin, articles on universal/generalised communicative categories, in which she actually proposed a description language already developed in the theory of speech acts. And when she made a report at the meeting of the seminar of N. D. Arutyunova, on the recommendation of V.Ya. Porkhomovsky, she was accepted with open arms (she was even asked to read the report a second time in order for it to be better understod) and became one of her favourite students. It was the article written on the basis this report (before starting work in the group!) that was included in the collection of the group's best works (1988-1995).

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In 1995, she defended her doctoral thesis at the Faculty of Philology of the Moscow State University, which she published in 2002 as the monograph “The Problems of Hidden Grammar. The syntax, semantics and pragmatics of the language of the isolating system” in the Studia Philologica series, which in fact was a fairly complete modern grammar of the Chinese language. This monograph was awarded the Lomonosov Prize of the Moscow State University in 2008. She combined her works on cultural linguistics in the collection “The Chinese Picture of the World. Language, culture, mentality", published in two editions in the Minor Series of the same publishing house in two editions.

Tan Aoshuang participated in the conferences of the World Association of Chinese Language Teachers, of various European associations, she had contacts with all outstanding Chinese linguists, especially Xing Fui, and she was on the editorial staff of his magazine 學報, positioned as an alternative to 中國 語文. She lectured at Amherst College, corresponded and communicated with leading American linguists in the field of linguistic semantics.

For the rest of her life, she worked on improving the methods of teaching Chinese, seeing in this process the verification of her grammatical concept. The grammatical postulates of her theoretical works formed the basis of the “Chinese Textbook. The new practical course ”, which, like the monograph, is still waiting for its proper evaluation. Unfortunately, the ideas it is based on are not embodied even in the best new textbooks of the Chinese Language. She was a permanent board member of the World Association of Chinese Language Teachers, a founder and Chairperson of the Board of the Russian Association of Chinese Language Teachers.

At the end of her life, Tan Aoshuang had problems with cerebral blood circulation. But she tried to learn to the end. Already completely sick and having left her job, she regularly went to the linguistic seminars of Y. D. Apresian at the Institute for Information Transmission Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences. She died on February 15, 2017. She reflected her life story in her memoirs published in Taiwan in 2012.

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Photo gallery of Tan Aoshuang

With Chinese commentary