Sunday, March 1, 2009

If you ever wanted to know when first misuse of Chinese character ever started in Western culture, I may just have the answer for you.

from: Nam See Kim
date: Fri, Feb 27, 2009 at 2:24 AM
subject: the history of misuse of chinese characters

Hello Tian,

My name is Nam-See Kim, Korean, studying in Germany.

In Cultural studies of Humboldt University Berlin I wrote my doctoral thesis about the western reception of Chinese characters since 16th century. I find your blog very interesting.

I would like to send you some images which show how long is the history of "misuse of Chinese characters in western culture".

The first Image of "Chinese characters" comes from the Book by Martino Martini, "Sinicae historiae decas prima" in 1658, page 23.

The second from the book of Bernardino de Escalante in 1577, where the so called "Chinese characters" introduced for the first time to Western world.

The third image is the most famous from "China Illustrata" by Athanasius Kircher in 1667.


Nam-See Kim


  1. As I'm sure Dr. Kim knows, these are not entirely "misuses": some of them come from fanciful forms in popular Chinese encyclopedias of the time, and while Martini's characters were heavily distorted (probably by the printer, not by him), some do have origins in real characters. Knud Lundbæk has written about this in an article and a book (both rather hard to find):

    Lundbæk, "Imaginary Ancient Chinese Characters," China Mission Studies (1550–1800) Bulletin 5 (1983): 5-22

    Lundbæk, The Traditional History of the Chinese Script from a Seventeenth Century Jesuit Manuscript (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1988).

    I've also addressed some of this material in article, "Old Scripts, New Actors: European Encounters with Chinese Writing, 1550-1700" in East Asian Science, Technology and Medicine 26 (2007).
    The gist of it is that Europeans relied on indigenous Chinese understandings of and sources about Chinese characters. They sometimes used sources that were popular at the time, like cheap and widely-available "household encyclopedias," which have lots of weird stuff in them, from recipes for aphrodisiacs to gambling games to strange characters like these. Of course the Europeans got some of it quite wrong on their own, and it was only made worse when people in Europe tried to copy what they received from China.

  2. @Nam See Kim: What's the title of your thesis?

  3. I cannot blame these guys much, after all they were living in a time when everyone had little contact with the outside World and they were almost first people in their countries to have a contact with that distant culture (after a long time, let's say) Except for the second guy whom it's uncomprehensible where actually he did see those characters, the first and the third diagrams are so-so OK when describing character origins (some Japanese and even Chinese sources refer to diagrams like those when talking about the histories of the characters)

  4. Hello Prof. Bruce Rusk,
    I am very glad to know you here.

    Yes, the book of Lundbaek is one of the important sources about european encounters with chinese character, so that I citied it in my thesis. Though there are some more books treating this topic, as you surely know.

    David E. Mungello, Curious Land. Jesuit Accommodation and the Origin of Sinology (Stuttgart 1985).

    Rüdiger Schreyer, The European discovery of Chinese (1550-1615) or The mystery of Chinese unveiled (Amsterdam 1992).

    Unfortunately, I could not read your article, but i will do it as soon as possible.

    I would also be cautious to say the term "misuse". But it could be legitimate in some sense, when we consider the stream of european discourses in 17th century, in which the chinese character were "analyzed" in terms of Christian revelation. What for example the Jesuit Missionary Joachim Bouvet in 17 the century did, do the nowdays western Christian as well. See the popular Book of C.H. Kang & Ethel R. Nelson, The Discovery of Genesis. How the Truths of Genesis were found hidden in the Chinese Languages (1979).

    Hello Martin,

    My thesis is not yet published, because i have it finished before two months. And i wrote it in German. The german title is :

    Grammatologie der Schrift des Fremden. Eine kulturwissenschaftliche Untersuchung wetlicher Rezeption chinesischer Schrift unter dem Aspekt des Fremdverstehens.

  5. I dunno about all you smarty-pants people commenting, but I can't wait to get that cute, angry cloud with talons (which apparently is a dragon?) tattooed on myself right away.