Essays on the Chinese Language (1889)/1

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The number of human beings who at present speak the Chinese language in one or other of its many varying forms cannot rightly be set down as much less than 400,000,000. For even if we regard the population of China proper, as given by some Western writers, to be greatly overrated, yet when we add to it those of Chinese origin who, living outside of the Eighteen Provinces, still speak a dialect of their native language, we have a sum which is perhaps even above the total just given. And the number of those who use the written language of China is much greater, for the latter is to a large extent the literary and official medium of record and communication in several countries beyond China, each of which has at the same time its own colloquial idiom.

Now for a very long period the Chinese language, written and spoken, has for the inhabitants of Eastern and South-Eastern Asia, so far as it was known to them and used by them, embodied all that was highest and most desirable in civilisation. The rules for private and public life, the social and political institutions of China, handed down from age to age, surviving dynastic overthrows and popular convulsions, have exercised a great and lasting influence not only on the people which lived in the fostering shade of the Son of Heaven, but also on the tribes and nations not blessed to dwell within the circle of his potent virtue but beyond the limits of the Flowery Land. In its own sphere, which is not a small one, the Chinese nation has done much, though not unmixed good. In the history of the world, however, it has not played a great or very conspicuous part, nor has it wrought for mankind the noble works of other nations. But we must also bear in mind that we know the history of the world only as told by Western authors. Still, the language and literature of China can never among people remote from that country arouse any enthusiastic interest such as that with which some of the Semitic and Indo-European languages have been studied by western scholars, especially within a recent period.

It cannot be maintained, however, that the language and literature of China have failed to excite the curiosity and attract the attention of Western students. Nor should we expect it to be otherwise, at least as to the language, when we think on its nature and the way in which it is written, so unlike all that we are familiar with in other languages. As Geiger truly observes, no one who aims at obtaining an insight into what mankind actually is can omit to take notice of the Chinese language, partly on account of the enormous territory over which it extends, partly because of its typical peculiarity, and partly because it is a literary language of the first rank, having original intellectual monuments from before the eighth century B.C.[1] Yet it was not until about the end of the sixteenth century that important and authentic information about China and its language began to be acquired by European scholars, and the works written by these show how the language puzzled and enchanted them. One of its great charms for them at first seems to have been found in its written characters. These we find described as "Characters Real, which express neither letters nor words in gross, but Things or Notions; insomuch as countries and provinces, which understand not one another's language, can nevertheless read one another's writings, because the characters are accepted more generally than the languages do extend; and therefore they have a vast multitude of characters, as many, I suppose, as radical words."[2] Afterwards, the qualities of the language, such as its richness, terseness, and simplicity, became subjects of discussion, and various and conflicting theories arose about its origin, kindred, and history. For a long time, however, little was done to bring it practically within the knowledge of Western scholars. But within the last fifty or sixty years the relations of China with European nations have undergone great changes, and one result of these changes has been that the study of the language and literature of the country has been taken up and pursued, almost with enthusiasm in some cases, by European students. Hence we find that within this period the production of Manuals for learning Chinese, Grammars, Dictionaries, Translations of Chinese books, and other works of a miscellaneous character on the language and literature, by European scholars, has increased very quickly. Of these books, many have been compiled to meet practical wants, and not a few, being merely mechanical reproductions of others, have little value for the student. But the Science of Language has lately taken up Chinese, and men trained in that Science have tried to fix the place and worth of Chinese among the languages of the world. Consequently, new and more liberal ways of studying it have begun to be followed, and already there are good results and hopeful prospects.

Hitherto our Western scholars who have discussed this language have held about it varying and often conflicting opinions. These opinions differ according to the point of view from which the subject was contemplated by the investigators, and according to their learning and the influence of their prejudices. They vary in value, some being the result of careful research skilfully conducted, and others being only theories with little or no attempt at verification. We have now to make a short and summary review of some of these opinions and judgments, and in doing so it will be convenient to arrange them in three classes. The first comprises those which concern the origin and kindred of the Chinese language; the second those which have regard to its formal structure and character; and the third class contains some of the judgments on the language as to its material contents, its capacity to express the thoughts and feelings of the people. This arrangement, it will be seen, corresponds somewhat, but not precisely, to the three systems of classifying languages, the genealogical, the morphological, and that which proceeds according to the general value of languages when compared among themselves as instruments of expression.[3]

Beginning, then, with Western theories as to the origin and family relationship of Chinese, we find them to contain many and widely-differing opinions. Some great authorities have even harshly ousted this language from the great clan of human tongues, and left it a lonely, kinless stranger on the cold heights of isolation. Thus it was the opinion of the celebrated Golius, "a man of divine candour and a thorough Orientalist if ever there was such," that "the Chinese language was not derived from the old speech of mortals, but was constructed by the skill and genius of some philosopher"—"invented all at once by some clever man to establish oral intercourse among the many different nations who inhabited that great country which we call China." It seems strange to us now that a man like Leibniz should have given his assent to so wayward a fancy, and perpetuated it in one of his best philosophical works. Within our own time, also, the eloquent and accomplished Farrar has refused Chinese all family relationship, saying that it "differs from other languages as much as if it were spoken by the inhabitants of another planet." He puts it in the miscellaneous gathering of languages "(perhaps a thousand) which are not Aryan, and not Semitic, and which have not yet been grouped together by mutual affinities." To these languages he applies the "excellent, easy, and perfectly unobjectionable terms" "Sporadic, i.e., scattered, and Allophylian, i.e., spoken by other different tribes of the human family."[4]

Very few, however, have clung to the heresy of the special creation of Chinese, though many have held it to be a language by itself without parent and without offspring. In direct opposition to such opinions is the theory which makes Chinese to have been the primeval tongue, the first language, — that in which Adam and Eve talked with the Lord God and the Serpent and to each other as they walked among the trees in the Garden of Eden — and so the fore-mother of all other languages. One of the earliest and best known supporters of this theory was John Webb, an Englishman who lived at the period of the Restoration. His little book on this subject is full of rare and curious learning, persuasive reasoning, and odd fancies, and he shows a thorough knowledge of the best works on China up to his time. Martinius, Kircher, Semedo, Mendoza, Trigault, are largely quoted by him, and he seems to have gained from them a very fair insight into the nature of the Chinese language.

Webb thinks it possible that Noah may have migrated with his family to China and there built his ark, of which modern junks are but "degraded copies." He also says that "it may be very much presumed that Noah himself, both before and after the flood, lived in China." He thinks the Chinese language as it exists, written and spoken, came directly from Noah's son Shem, or the children of the latter. Whether their ancestor had settled in China or had not, they had at least moved eastwards in time to avoid the confusion of tongues, and so Chinese escaped the misfortune of being made a "confounded language." Edkins also, it will be remembered, thinks the first Chinese had gone eastward before there was any Babel. But this learned Sinologist adopts the heresy which makes Ham the ancestor of the Chinese, a heresy which Kircher and others once held, as will be seen, but Webb completely refuted. In the course of his treatise, Webb argues that Chinese has all the requisite characteristics of the primitive tongue, which are these — Antiquity, Simplicity, Generality, Modesty of Expression, Utility, and Brevity, "to which by some is added Consent of Authors." The "plain and meek" language of Adam was transmitted to his posterity down to Noah and thence through Shem to the original Chinese. The written characters even may have been taught by one of the antediluvian patriarchs, for, not to mention earlier treatises, did not Enoch, the seventh from Adam, leave a work on Astronomy, which the Queen of Sheba possessed, and of which one so late as Tertullian "had seen and read some whole pages ?" The book was written in letters "significative and hieroglyphical," and no one will deny that this description may apply to the Chinese characters, and these have an antediluvian antiquity and are, as Kircher has it, "hieroglyphicorum in omnibus æmuli," in all respects rivals of hieroglyphics. As a clinching argument Webb writes, "And as if all things conspired to prove this the Primitive Tongue, we may observe how forceably Nature struggles to demonstrate so much. The very first expression we make of life, at the very instant minute of our births, is, as was touched on before, by uttering the Chinique word Ya. Which is not only the first, but indeed the sole and only expression that Mankind from Nature can justly lay claim unto." [5]

Many others have supposed that the Chinese people and language had their origin in the neighbourhood of that old country with the soothing name Mesopotamia. That the first speakers of the language also were the offspring of Shem seemed very probable. They had apparently a knowledge of arts and sciences beyond other tribes of the time, and was it likely that Noah would be partial to Ham, the son who was "a reprobate," "peu respectueux et maudit dans sa posterité?" Kircher, indeed, thinks that Ham conducted his colonies out of Egypt into Bactria through Persia. From Bactria they may have passed into China, "the utmost nation of the habitable world, together also with the first elements of Letters, which from their father Cham, and Mercurius Trismegistus, Counsellor of his son Misraim, and first inventor of hieroglyphicks, they had though rudely learned."[6]

But this opinion is regarded as heterodox, and, as has been stated, it has been refuted by Webb. As to the other son of Noah, Japhet, he was doubtless taught by his father all that Shem was taught. But Japhet, or at least his children, evidently lost the knowledge thus communicated, as witness their long use of stone and flint tools and their slow return to more skilful appliances. But the children of Shem, including the primæval Chinese, were shrewd and wise, and never lost what they had learned. Here we see a very early instance of that practical sagacity which has never forsaken the Chinese. For when the first fathers of the race, urged by the resistless promptings of fate, left their home to go Eastward, whether before or after the "unaccomplishable work" which Nimrod's race began was abrubtly stopt, they carried away with them their "shovels, pickaxes, and trowels." They took also a small collection of Primitive Roots and the books which they had received from their fathers written in characters which their descendants have ever since retained. These are facts which satisfactorily explain the almost total absence of stone and flint tools from the archæological antiquities of the country, and the very primitive character of the language spoken and written.[7]

Most of the early Jesuit and other Roman Catholic missionaries in China and their disciples at home seem to have held this doctrine of the Shemitic origin of Chinese, though they could not agree as to which of Shem's descendants was the actual immediate progenitor. Thus there was scarcely enough proof, some maintained, to identify Yao T'ang, the first great Chinese Emperor, with Joktan, the great grand-son of Shem. Some, as has been seen, have held that Ham was the father of all such as speak Chinese, and others have deemed them to be the offspring of Japhet. Several authors have seen a relationship between the language of China and that of ancient Egypt. The first and greatest advocate of the theory that the original Chinese were a colony from Egypt was De Guignes. He boldly entitled his treatise on the subject, "Memoire dans lequel on prouve que les Chinois sont une Colonie Egyptienne;" but he supported his hypothesis largely with word-resemblances of an artifical character. Scholars and Sinologists have held that Chinese and Hebrew are related, the latter having been regarded by some of them as the parent language of the world. Many, also, have believed that Chinese is one of the seventy or seventy-two tongues produced by as many angels when these were sent to stop the building of the impious tower in the plain of Shinar.[8]

Dr. Edkins has tried to prove the "connection of Chinese and Hebrew" and of Chinese and other ancient languages. These, he thinks, had a common origin "in the Mesopotamian and Armenian region," a region to which distance of time and space lends great enchantment. According to Dr. Edkins, the first Chinese "were probably Hamites;" but the Chinese language, "like Mongol and Turkish, belongs to the Japhetic stock;" and yet "the ancient Hebrew and the ancient Chinese were probably dialects of a still more venerable mother speech which was truly antediluvian and began with Adam." So Chinese has an "antiquity of type" beyond other languages, for "being itself of the first descent from the primeval mother of human speech, we can trace in it no later elements."[9]

Marshman, whose defects of learning are somewhat compensated by his cautious and conscientious spirit, could not find proof enough to satisfy him of an original connection between either Hebrew or Sanskrit and Chinese. He left the question undecided, though he would perhaps have liked to see an affinity established between this language and that of India.[10]

Dr. Chalmers, in his study on the Origin of the Chinese, includes language in his attempt "to trace the connection of the Chinese with Western Nations." He takes 300 Chinese words and compares these with words of like meanings in Hebrew, Sanskrit, Greek, Arabic, Tibetan, and other languages. His opinion as to the affinities of the Chinese language is conditional, as the following sentence shows—"If the Chinese came into this land, from the original home of the human race, by the direct route, over the passes about Hindu-Cush, and through Tibet, and if, as is highly probable, they kept up communication from the earliest times immediately with a Tibetan nation — and through them with civilised peoples more remote — we ought to seek among the Himalayan languages, including Burmese and Siamese, rather than among the Tungusic or Mongolic classes, for affinities with the Chinese." And the conclusion to which Dr. Chalmers comes on the subject is simply that "The people and the civilisation of China are derived from the West, and only some important inventions belong to the race."[11]

Dr. Edkins dreamt of a universal kinship of languages, in which Chinese was the oldest living relative. In his dream, along with other hard tasks he tried to work, he endeavoured to prove an affinity between the roots — or so-called roots — of Chinese and those of the Aryan languages. This task was afterwards undertaken in earnest by a distinguished Dutch Sinologist, Gustave Schlegel. In the treatise of this latter we have the first scholarly and methodical attempt to compare Chinese words with those of the Aryan languages. Taking, for example, Pott's view that a resemblance between the verbs and pronouns of the two languages proves a "unité de race antérieure" he gives examples which he thinks proves this unity between the Chinese and the Aryan languages.[12]

As to the monosyllabic languages to the west of China, it seems to be generally admitted that Chinese is related to them as mother, or at least as elder sister. Logan, however, says: "On the evidence of language we may conclude that the present more western, or monosyllabic tribes, or their prototypes, were in existence when Chinese civilisation arose. Insuperable difficulties oppose the hypothesis of their having been derived from any of the languages of China after the dawn of its civilization." Yet from other passages in Logan's treatise, one would, perhaps, be justified in inferring that he regarded Chinese as related to some, at least, of the living monosyllabic tongues to which he here refers. Marshman, also, says of the Anam, Laos, Siam, and other dialects: "They spring from the Chinese, however much they may have been affected by any foreign mixture, and in that language we may expect to find the origin of that simplicity of construction, which excludes every kind of inflection. From that of its descendants, therefore, the genius of the Chinese language may be easily inferred." Schott, Whitney, and others have given utterance to opinions of a similar nature. And in 1878 the learned Sinologist, Professor G. von der Gabelenz, read a short but suggestive paper before the Oriental Congress in Florence. The aim of the paper was to raise the question of the possibility of proving a genealogical affinity between the dialects of China and the languages of Tibet, Assam, and the Transgangetic Peninsula. The writer's opinion evidently was that such an affinity existed and could be proved; and we are led to expect more light on the subject from labours in which he was then engaged. It must be admitted that the information accessible even now is neither sufficient nor properly verified and arranged to warrant general conclusions as to the kinship between Chinese and the monosyllabic tongues on her frontiers. We cannot, accordingly, accept without reserve the confident assertion made several years ago by our great Indianist, W. W. Hunter. He tells us: "Chinese has hitherto been looked upon as a language standing by itself, devoid of ethnical kindred or linguistic alliances. But in spite of its inexactitudes, this book proves that China has given its speech not merely to the great islands of the Southern Ocean, but to the whole Eastern Peninsula, to Siam, Tenasserim, Burmah, in a less degree to Central Asia, to many of the Himalayan tribes, and to some of the pre-Aryan peoples of the interior of India." It is probable that the above mentioned scholars would regard the old language of China, now dead or lost, as the common parent of all the living Chinese dialects, and of those included under the title Indo-Chinese, so far, at least, as the framework or substance of the latter iS concerned. But it may be doubted whether the theory, even as thus limited, can ever be verified.[13]

We may not pass unnoticed the opinions on the genealogical affinity of Chinese held by our revolutionary Sinologist, M. Terrien De La Couperie. As the result of long study and research, M. De La Couperie has been led to recognise in the Chinese spoken language "an ancient member of the great family of agglutinant languages, known as Ural-Altaic." He adds: "And in doing so, it may be necessary to establish a third division of that family's group which has been provisionally constituted by recent discoveries, and which might appropriately be called Amardian; a group in which the first division embraces Akkadian and its dialect, and the second division Proto-medic, Susian, and Kossian."[14] We are this brought back to dear old Babylon. Professor Douglas, in the preface to the paper which contains the passage here cited, says of the "linguistic facts and suggestions" contained in it: "Put in a few words, these, and an abundance of others which will shortly be adduced in support of them, prove an unmistakeable affinity between the languages and traditions of ancient China and of Babylonia." Then in another book we have the following characteristic statement by M. De La Couperie: "China has received its language (since altered) and the elements of arts, sciences and institutions from the colonies of the Ugro-Altaic Bak families who came from Western Asia some twenty-three centuries B.C., under the conduct of men of high culture, acquainted, through their neighbours the Susians, with the civilisation which emanated from Babylonia and was modified in its second focus. This general statement is now beyond any possibility of doubt, for the evidence in its favour is overwhelming." It is a pity that the evidence has overwhelmed M. De La Couperie and disabled him from imparting it to expecting students. We look, however, for much light and leading from his promised works, the "Origin of Chinese Civilisation," and "China before the Chinese: the Aboriginal and Non-Chinese races of China."[15]

Professor Friedrich Müller gives a genealogical classification of languages based on Hæckel's "Hair" classification of mankind. His ninth class is called Mongolian, and it includes the following, (1) the Ural-Altaic languages, (2) the Japanese, (3) Corean, (4) the Monosyllabic languages, i.e., Tibetan and Himalaya languages, Burmese and Lohita languages, Siamese, Annamite, Chinese, and the isolating languages of the Indo-Chinese Peninsula. This classification has been followed, with considerable modifications, by Professor Sayce in his genealogical arrangement of all known languages. Sayce, however, puts Chinese in a separate group, and he gives under it the following curious list of dialects: "Amoy, Cantonese or Kong, Foochow, Punti, Shanghai, Mandarin." Professor Sayce did not learn in any of the authorities quoted in his note that "Punti" was a Chinese dialect.[16]

The opinions which have been cited above are, we may say, chiefly on the material constituents of the Chinese language as compared with those of others. They are based on a study, or pretended study, of the roots or original elements, with little reference to the formal structure. We now proceed to notice some of the opinions which have been given on Chinese from this latter point of view. And here we do not find a very great diversity of opinion among Western scholars, although, as will be seen, there is by no means perfect agreement among them.

The first to make a morphological classification of languages was perhaps Friedrich von Schlegel in his treatise on the language and wisdom of the Hindus. Using terms taken from natural science he divided languages into Organic and Inorganic. In the latter division he placed (1) language without inflections and composed of roots which suffer no change what ever, and also (2) those called agglutinating or affixing, in which the grammar is formed entirely by suffixes and prefixes which are still easily separated and retain to some extent their own independent meanings. In the former, or Organic division, he places (3) those languages whose roots are subject to modifications from within, and in which the grammatical distinctions are expressed by inflections. He puts Chinese in the first, or lowest class, as a monosyllabic uninflected language, in which the particles denoting modifications in the meaning of a root are single syllables having always a separate and independent existence. The Chinese roots never sprout nor yield a branch or leaf of inflection; they are thus merely lifeless, inorganic products.

W. von Schlegel followed, and divided languages into three great classes, those without any grammatical structure, the agglutinating, and the inflectional. Then we have Bopp, who approved of this division, but distinguished the classes in a manner somewhat different. In the first he placed languages which had no real roots and did not admit of composition, and hence were without organism and grammar. To this class he assigns Chinese, in which everything seems — and only seems — to be root and nothing more, the categories of grammar and the dependent relations being indicated only by the position of the words in the sentence. In the second class, Bopp placed languages with monosyllabic roots capable of being compounded. His third class comprises those languages which have dissyllabic roots with three indispensable consonants necessary to express the original or primitive meaning. Bopp also denied to Chinese the possession of roots, and what seemed to be such were not so actually. Then we have W. von Humboldt, who had studied Chinese and could compare it with Burmese and other Eastern languages. He placed it along with the Semitic and Indo-European groups, under the head of "Perfect Languages," as one of those which develope themselves, according to the law of their being, with regularity and freedom. Humboldt did not regard Chinese as related to Burmese either in origin or in structure. An important distinction of Chinese is that in it the speaker or writer trusts entirely to the mental activity of his hearer or reader and to the arrangement of words in sentences. He writes: "I think I can reduce the difference which exists between the Chinese and other languages to the single fundamental point that, in order to indicate the connection of words in its phrases, it does not base its grammar on the classification of words, but settles otherwise the relations of the elements of language in the concatenation of thought. The grammars of other languages have an etymological part and a syntactical part. Chinese grammar knows only this latter.[17]

Then we have Schleicher's well-known three-fold division of languages, as Monosyllabic (Isolating), Confixative (Agglutinating), and Inflexive (Inflectional). In the first division are "Languages which are simply composed of invariable disjointed meaning-sounds, Monosyllabic, e.g., Chinese, Annamese, Siamese, Burmese." Schleicher's distribution has been followed by Professor Max Müller and others. It forms the basis of Pott's division of languages, which, however, is a four-fold one. Pott splits up the agglutinating into two classes, the Agglutinating and the Incorporating. In his first class, that of the Isolating Languages, in which matter and form remain perfectly separate, he places the Chinese and Indo-Chinese languages.[18]

There are also other classifications of languages from the morphological point of view, as e.g., that of M. Lucien Adam. In this there are five classes, the first being that of the Isolating Languages, which are Chinese, Annamite, Siamese, Burmese, and Tibetan. Here, as in other classifications of languages on this principle, Chinese has a low place. Judged by its morphological constitution, Chinese is an inferior language. It and Sanskrit are at the two poles of the speech-world, and all other languages lie between them. In Chinese the words are units, they are not capable of attachment, and they are not related in any recognizable way as compounds or derivatives. They are not even roots, according to Bopp and some of his followers. Max Müller, however, treats them as roots, for his first stage of language is that in which "Roots may be used as words, each root preserving its full independence" and this stage is "best represented by ancient Chinese." The difference in opinion here seems to be partly due to the fact that the writers attach to the word Root meanings which are to a great extent unlike and incompatible.[19]

The thoroughly monosyllabic character of the Chinese language has also been called in question by some. Remusat was apparently the first to do this, but his arguments have been long ago refuted, aad he has been followed by only a few. A living sinologist, Dr. W. Grube, is disposed to take the living language of China out of the category of Isolating and Monosyllabic. He thinks that it, like Tibetan and the Burmese and other Indo-Chinese languages, has a middle place between isolating and agglutinating. The classical and anti-classical language of China, Grube regards as composed of monosyllables, but these, he thinks, are not of a primitive nature.[20]

It is generally admitted, however, that the morphological basis is not a good or sufficient one for a system of classification which will apply to all languages. More particularly the threefold distribution of languages, as Isolating, Agglutinating, and Inflecting, and the theory of progression founded on it, have led to serious errors concerning the history and character of languages.

There remain now to be considered some of the opinions which have been formed by Western critics on the Chinese language written and spoken, when judged by its contents and general character. The questions to be answered here are of a rather vague and general character, and they do not admit of precise treatment and uniform interpretation. We are to enquire whether Chinese has been found and declared to be rich or poor in its store of words and phrases to express the spiritual and material wants of the people. Compared as an instrument of thought with other languages, does it seem to do its work in a rude or inartistic manner, or does it seem to perform its functions well and neatly? Here, also, we find differences of opinion according to the standard of comparison and the attainments of the critic in Chinese. The missionaries and other European writers on China in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, seem to have been for the most part quite enchanted with the great compass of this language, and the simple terse forms with which it did its work unaided by suffixes or inflections. Semedo praises even its conciseness, which makes it indeed equivocal but at the same time compendious. Such is its softness, also, according to him, that when spoken correctly, as at Nanking, it charms the hearer, flatters the sense of hearing. But he admits that while Chinese is very rich in characters it is very poor in words, that is, in its supply of terms differing in sound.[21] Semedo found a sweetness in this language and so did Webb. The latter says that "if ever our Europeans shall become thoroughly studied in the Chinique tongue," it will be found that the Chinese have very many words "whereby they express themselves in such elegancies as neither by Hebrew or Greek, or any other language how elegant so ever can be expressed. Besides, whereas the Hebrew is harsh and rugged, the Chinique appears the most sweet and smooth language of all others throughout the whole world at this day known."[22] P. Premare, who was missionary and sinologist and had a right to speak with authority, becomes quite enthusiastic on the subject of this language. Chinese Grammar, he says, is for the most part free from the thorns which ours presents, but still it has its rules, and there is not in the world a richer language, nor one which has reigned so long.[23] And we find like high praise given to the language by P. Amyot, a very accomplished scholar, who knew both Chinese and Manchoo very well. He defends Chinese from several charges which had been brought against it, and argues for its excellencies as rich and full. He regards it as peculiarly adapted for recording and communicating political science.

Coming down to later years, when the study of language and lauguages began to be pursued in a thorough and critical manner, we have W. von Humboldt, as has been seen already, giving great praise to Chinese. Judging from the point of view of grammatical structure, one might, he says, at the first glance regard it as departing the most widely from the natural demand of speech, and as the most imperfect. On a more thorough examination, however, this view disappears, and, on the contrary, Chinese is found to possess a high degree of excellence, and to exercise on the mental faculties an influence which, if one-sided, is yet powerful.[24]

Steinthal, one of the latest and most philosophical students of language and languages, has a two-fold division into Formless and Form Languages. Lowest in the latter is Chinese, which has matter-elements, and nothing else. Form being indicated only by juxta-position. He speaks of Chinese, however, as being a language rich in terms for abstract ideas, and in vocabulary generally. It is also highly cultivated, and in the modern literature it shows delicacy, grace, spirit, wit, and humour. "The contrast between the means of the Chinese language and its productions is," Steinthal says, "a phenomenon quite unique in the history of language."[25] And Whitney warms into eloquence when he comes to treat of the history and character of Chinese. Having owned that "in certain respects of fundamental importance" the Chinese "is the most rudimentary and scanty of all known languages," he goes on: "The power which the human mind has over its instruments, and independent of their imperfections, is strikingly illustrated by the history of this form of speech, which has successfully answered all the purposes of a cultivated, reflecting, studious, and ingenious people, throughout a career of unequalled duration; which has been put to far higher and more varied uses than most of the multitude of highly organised dialects spoken among men—dialects rich in flexibility, adaptiveness and power of expansion, but poor in the mental poverty and weakness of those who should wield them."[26] So, also, a living authority on Chinese, Herr Georg von der Gabelenz, speaks of it as one of the most highly developed languages of our world, and as having given the greatest and best literature of all Asiatic countries. Chinese, he considers to be not only the most important representative, but also par excellence the ripest fruit of the Isolating class of languages.[27] On the other hand, however, we find it not seldom stated that the Chinese language is poor in its stock of words, and that as a means of expression it is rude and awkward in management. It has been declared by several of our Western scholars to be specially wanting in terms to express abstract and spiritual ideas, and the requirements of a high civilisation generally. A Jesuit missionary of the last century, who had studied Chinese among the people, writes from Canton that there is not, perhaps, in all the world a language poorer in expressions. He gives this opinion as the result of study, and he proceeds throughout a large part of the letter to dilate on the failings of the language.[28] Farrar and others have used similar phrases of depreciation, and Sayce has called Chinese a time-worn and decaying form of speech. No one, however, has decried it in such bitter, scathing language as M. Renan. Though this savant owns that Chinese attains its ends as well as does the Sanskrit, he says, "Is not the Chinese language, with its inorganic and imperfect structure, the reflection of the aridity of genius and heart which characterises the Chinese race? Sufficing for the wants of life, for the technicalities of the manual arts, for a light literature of low standard, for a philosophy which is only the expression, often fine but never elevated, of common sense, the Chinese language excluded all philosophy, all science, all religion, in the sense in which we understand these words. God has no name in it, and metaphysical matters are expressed in it only by round-about forms of speech."[29] It must be owned that many of the opinions here cited were formed somewhat rashly and without knowledge. Others evidently were the result of careful, intelligent study and comparison, but without sufficient authorities. The information necessary to enable us to form correct general judgments on the Chinese language as an instrument of expression and communication cannot be said even now to be all forthcoming. Nor are we yet in a position to give a final opinion on its rank and value when compared with other languages, or on its descent and kindred. We have among us at present students who are from time to time adding new and interesting facts, which will greatly help the future philosopher to form conclusions wide and general and at the same time accurate. But much still remains to be done before the genius and constitution of the Chinese language are thoroughly understood, and before its rank and value in the world's speech-tribes can be definitely settled. In some of the chapters which follow, an attempt will be made to bring together some of the materials which may be used hereafter in the building up of accurate knowledge and the formation of scientific deductions.


  1. "Ursprung der Sprache," Vor. S. xi.
  2. Bacon, "Advancement of Learning," Book ii. (Ellis and Spedding Ed., Vol. iii. p. 399).
  3. On this subject see Whitney's "Language and the Study of Language," p. 356 et sec. (5th Ed.).
  4. Fourmont, "Med. Sin." p. xiii.; Bayer's " Mus. Sin. Præf." p. 103; Leibniz "Op. Phil.," p. 297 et sec. (Ed. Erdmann); Farrar, "Language and Languages," p. 376.
  5. "An Historical Essay Endeavoring a Probability that the Language of the Empire of China is the Primitive Language." By John Webb. 1669. Sec. pp. 62, 147, 196.
  6. Webb's "Historical Essay," p. 29.
  7. See the Lettres Edifiantes, T. 34, p. 217 et al. (Ed. 1832).
  8. Semedo's "Relatione della grande Monarchia della Cinna," C. 6, p, 43. (Ed. 1643).
  9. "China's Place in Philology," pp. 86, 67; "Notes and Queries," Vol. ii. p. 6; "Ch. Rec," Vol. iii. p. 203.
  10. Chinese Grammar, p. 139.
  11. "The Origin of the Chinese," pp. 36, 78, et seq.
  12. "Sinico-Aryaca ou Recherches sur les Racines primitives dans les Langues Chinoises et Aryennes."
  13. "Journal Ind. Arch." Vol. IV., p. 296; Marshman Ch. Gr., p. 193; Schott, Ch. Sprachlehre S. 17; Whitney, O. C. p. 331; Atti del iv. Cong. Inter. Vol. II., p. 283; "A Comprehensive Dict. of the Languages of Ind. and High Asia," by W. W. Hunter, Disser'n. p. 20.
  14. Under the head "Turanian or Ural-Altaic (Ugro-Altaic)" Professor Sayce places two classes: (1) the West Asia and (2) the Uralic Languages. In the former he has the two groups of obsolete languages, (a) Accadian or Sumerian, and (b) Susianian, Kossæan, Protomedic. Introduction to the Sc. of Lang., Vol. II., p. 43.
  15. "Early History of the Ch. Civilisation," p. 19; Colquhoun's "Amongst the Shans," Int'n. pp. 29 and 40; M. De La Couperie, in "The Academy," September, 1st, 1883.
  16. Grundriss d. Sprachwissenschaft v. Dr F. Müller. B. I. S. 76; Sayce's "Introduction to the Sc. of Lang." Vol. II., p. 48.
  17. Bopp's "Vergleich," Gr. B. I. S. 204 (3rd Ed). W. von Humboldt's "Sprach. Phil. Werke," p. 649 et seq. (Ed. Steinthal): Lettre á M. Abel Remusat, etc., pp. 2, 44.
  18. "Schleicher's Compendium," Part I., p. 2 (Bendall's Translation); Fr Müller, op. o., p. 68.
  19. M. L. Adam in "Rev. de Linguistique," T. xiv., p. 245; Max Müller, "Lectures Sc. Lan.," Vol. I., p. 330 (9th Ed.)
  20. "Die Sprachgeschich. Stellung d. Ch.," S. 19.
  21. Semedo's "Relazione d. Cina," Cap. vi., p. 43 (Ed. 1643).
  22. Webb's "Historical Essay," etc., p. 196.
  23. "Lettres Edif.," T. 33 Lettre.
  24. "Ueber d. Verschiedenheit d. Men. Sprachbaues," B. II., S. 331 (Ed. A. F. Pott).
  25. "Charakteristik," &c., pp. 108, 137 et al.
  26. "Language and the Study," &c., p. 336, and see p. 367.
  27. "Chinesische Grammatik," S. 5.
  28. "Lettres Edifs." T. xxxvii., p. 311.
  29. De L'Origine du Langage," p. 195 (4th Ed.) Compare also p. 216.