Page:Essays on the Chinese Language (1889).djvu/15

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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,