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Reading and Writing

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Reading and Writing

Seventeenth century scholars were obsessed with the idea of a universal language that would permit all peoples to communicate with each other. They were especially interested in a language based on philosophical principles which could represent the true essence of things and ideas, rather than simply use arbitrary sounds and meanings. With its conspicuous pictographic elements (largely misunderstood at the time), the Chinese writing system was thought by many to be just such a language. In 1605 Francis Bacon described it as having “Characters Real, which express neither letters nor words in gross, but Things or Notions.”

Athanasius Kircher. China illustrata. [Amsterdam: Jan Jansson, 1667]. Courtesy of Timothy Billings.

Based on the misconception that the characters were essentially hieroglyphic, many European scholars believed that they might contain ancient truths and mysteries.  (Kircher even argued that Chinese and Egyptian were related.)  The monkey reading a page in the engraving above is not a mockery, but rather an emblem for the Latin proverb Ars simia naturae or “Art, the Ape of Nature,” which suggests that Chinese is capable of mimicking or “aping” nature in its true form.  The characters depicted in the background, Shang fang 上方, mean “Celestial Realm” (literally, “place above”), reinforcing the idea of a hieroglyphic script capturing the essence of heavenly truths or concepts. 


Most accounts of China also mention that printed books had existed since the Tang dynasty (618-907), centuries before Gutenberg’s printing press (ca. 1440), although some in Europe responded with disbelief.  A crucial distinction is that carved woodblocks were used instead of movable type, but Matteo Ricci observed that this was better suited to Chinese characters, and that artisans worked so swiftly that carving a block took no more time than European typesetters in composing pages and correcting proofs.  They could print up to 1,500 pages a day.


Despite this fascination with Chinese characters, the earliest descriptions of Chinese writing in this period were reported by Europeans who had not learned the language. They frequently stressed the great number of characters, their universal comprehensibility among speakers of mutually unintelligible dialects, and the literacy and studiousness of the Chinese.  The notion that Chinese is a monosyllabic language appears in the first accounts, although most “words” actually consist of two or more characters.  With the publication of Matteo Ricci’s journals in 1615, Europeans first learned about the tonal structure of the language and about the difference between the classical literary idiom and the spoken form.


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Athanasius Kircher. Prodromus coptus sive Aegyptiacus. Rome, 1636

John Wilkins. An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language. London, 1668

Juan González de Mendoza. Historia de las cosas notables de la China. English. London, 1588

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