Huayi yiyu is a general term from the late Ming 明 (1368-1644) and early Qing 清 (1644-1911) period as a designation of multi-language dictionaries for officials confronted with one or more languages of the multi-ethnic empire and with foreign languages.
The first interpreters institute (huitongguan 會同館) was established in 1276 as subordinated to the Ministry of Rites (libu 禮部). It was responsible for the oral communication with 18 foreign countries (Korea, Japan, Liuqiu/Ryūkyū, Annam, Cochin, Thailand, Cambodia, Jawa, Sumatera, Malacca, the Mongols, the Hui Muslims, the Jurchens, the Uyghurs, Tibet, the Tanguts, Myanmar, Arabians or Persians Huihui 回回, and the Miao tribes in the southwest).
The translators institute (siyiguan 四夷館, lit. "institute of the [languages] of the barbarians of the four [cardinal directions]") was part of the Hanlin Academy 翰林院 and was opened in 1407. It was responsible for the written communication with 8 nations (Mongols, Jurchens, Tibet, India, the Hui Muslims, southwestern tribes, i.e. the Miao, Kuča, and Myanmar), mainly in the west. In 1511 it was staffed with 800 persons. In 1579, a Thailand section (Xuanluoguan 暹羅館), was opened.
The Qing government renamed the translators institute to siyiguan 四譯館 and closed the Mongol and Jurchen sections because Mongolian and Jurchen, i. e. Manchu, were the national languages, and not considered as foreign. The translators institute was melted with the interpreters institute in 1748 and obtained the combined name of Huitong siyi guan 會同四譯館. It was responsible for 10 languages and was divided into two sections, the western section caring for Uygurian, the language of Kuča, Tibetan and Indian, the eastern section for Thai, Burmese, Miao and the Southeast Asian languages.
Virtually all huayi yiyu glossaries are manuscripts and were never printed. The arrangement of the various glossaries is very different. A very common pattern for part of the glossaries was that the words were arranged according to themes, and not according to a phonetic or other linguistic order. There were between 11 and 20 themes. The average number of words recorded ranges between 500 and 900. The foreign words were presented in the original script (laiwen 來文), transcribed with Chinese characters (Hanzi zhuyin 漢字注音), and then translated. Some languages, which do not have a native script, are written in a foreign script. The language of the Sulu Islands, for example, is written in Arabian script.
In 1930, the Japanese scholar Ishida Mikinosuke 石田干之助 (1891-1974) defined three different types of huayi yiyu glossaries. The most important type is that of the Huayi yiyu written by the Mongolian academician Huo Yuanjie 火原潔 in 1382. It is the only Mongolian dictionary known.
The second type are books compiled by officials of the Ming translators institute. The surviving specimen are spread in many different countries.
The third type are 13 glossaries compiled by the interpreters institute, at least according to the French sinologist Henri Maspéro (1883-1945). The forewords to these books have been written by the late Ming-period officials Mao Ruizheng 茅瑞徵 (c. 1600, author of Dongyi kaolüe 東夷考略) and Zhu Zhifan 朱之蕃 (d. 1624). These glossaries are also very hard to find inside China and contain only transcriptions but no words in original script.
A fourth type of huayi yiyu dictionaries were 42 books which the French sinologist Paul Pelliot (1878-1945) in 1931 discovered in the Imperial Palace Library. Among these books, a Lolo 倮倮 glossary can be found, nine dictionaries for the languages of the native tribes of western Sichuan, three glossaries for the languages of native tribes of Guangxi (from the prefectures Taiping 太平, Qingyuan 庆远 and Zhen'an 镇安), partially written in the Vietnamese Chữ nôm script 字喃, five glossaries of Western languages (French, German, Italian, Latin, and Portuguese), as well as one glossary in the language of the country of "[Ying]gieli" [英]咭唎國, i.e. England.
From the aspect of language, the huayi yiyu books can be divided into two types. The first type contains words written in original script, the second type only a transcription with Chinese characters. The first type is of great importance for the reconstruction of the Chinese language during the early modern age. Examples for the second type are earlier dictionaries for Korean or the language of the Ryūkyū Islands. For the language of Thailand, two versions exist, namely a manuscript from the Ming period, written by a Chinese who did not make a difference between the sounds [l] and [r], and a much better version from the imperial palace, the Xianluo fanshu 暹羅番書 from the Qing period.
A modern publication of the huayi yiyu books is obstructed by many problems. For a great part of the dictionaries, the date of compilation is not clear. For some languages, several dictionaries exist, whose origin is not known. In China, there are also some glossaries surely not compiled by the two institutions. There are not a few writing errors in the texts, and for many entries, it is very difficult to explain the origin of the words and the actual meaning.
There has, nevertheless, been done a lot of research on the huayi yiyu books, expecially those of the translators institute. Such studies are Wang Zongzai's 王宗載 (jinshi degree 1562) Siyiguan kao 四夷館考, Lü Weiqi's 呂維祺 (1587-1641) Siyiguan ze 四譯館則, and Jiang Fan's 江蘩 (fl. 1680) Siyiguan kao 四譯館考.
Modern scholars making research on the dictionaries are Xiang Da 向達, Wang Zhongmin 王重民, Friedrich Hirth, Walter Fuchs, Jean-Gabriel Devéria, Léonard Aurousseau, Paul Pelliot, and the Japanese scholars Kanda Kiichirō 神田喜一郎, Ishida Mikinosuke and Nishida Tatsuo 西田竜雄.
The most popular huayi yiyu glossary is that of Huo Yuanji, who was a Mongolian official of the Hanlin Academy during the early Ming period. The book was submitted to the throne in 1389. His Huayi yiyu provides a Chinese transcription to Mongolian words. The arrangement of the words corresponds to the categories of the dictionary Menggu yiyu 蒙古譯語, but is more detailed than in the latter. The book is very selective and does not provide a wide-ranged vocabulary.
It is not recorded in the Siku quanshu 四庫全書, but only listed among the books viewed during the compilation process of the Siku quanshu. The Huayi yiyu is included in the surviving part of the Yongle dadian 永樂大典, and has been made part of the series Xuxiu siku quanshu 續修四庫全書.