Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins of Sinology

By D. E. Mungello | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
PROTO-SINOLOGY AND THE SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY EUROPEAN SEARCH FOR A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE

1. INTRODUCTION

The European search for a lingua universalis (universal language) belongs, to a large extent, to the realm of proto-sinology. With the books based on missionary sources containing information about the Chinese and their culture, Europeans now had the ingredients for assimilating China into European culture. Some of the assimilation was done by missionaries even as they were conveying information about China. For example, Martini was not only informing Europeans of the basic facts of Chinese history, but also was adapting the European historical framework to accept it through a shift from the Vulgate to the Septuagint-based Biblical chronology. But for this information about China to be assimilated to European culture in a broader and deeper way, it would be necessary for Europeans with only pedestrian knowledge of China to be stimulated to incorporate China into their non-sinological research. This is precisely what happened in the search for a universal language.

The proto-sino logical involvement of savants such as Francis Bacon, John Webb, Kircher, Andreas Müller, Christian Mentzel and Gottfried Leibniz with integrating the Chinese language into the search for a universal language confirms the degree to which China was assimilated into a primary current of seventeenth-century European intellectual history. But because these investigators were sinological amateurs with information about China inadequate to supply their sophisticated linguistic theories, much of what they concluded strikes us today as ridiculous. The difficulty of sorting out the substantive from the ludicrous is particularly apparent in one intellectual by-product of the search for a universal language, namely, the attempt focused at Berlin to develop a Clavis Sinica (Key to Chinese) which would simplify and expedite the learning of the Chinese language. While it is relatively easy to dismiss Müller and Mentzel as idiosyncratic mentalities, it is less easy to dismiss the intense interest in the Clavis Sinica by eminent and brilliant figures of the age such as Leibniz and Adam Kochanski.

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