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© August 2005
revised 26 June 2008

Baroque-era printer's ornament

Part VI (chapters I through V) from Kircher’s
China monumentis, qua sacris quà profanis,
nec non variis naturæ & artis spectaculis ...

John Evelyn described Athanasius Kircher, whose Roman Musaeum he visited in 1644, as “professor of Mathematics and of Oriental languages.”

Part VI of Kircher’s China Monumentis deals with the Chinese language and the origins of its characters.

The Monumentis of Kircher’s title refers to the Sino-Chaldean Monument — a marble stone tablet “nine and a half palms long, five high, and about one palm thick,” engraved with Chinese characters — which was uncovered by Chinese excavators in 1625. Father Michael de Boym’s close study of the stone tablet ca. November 1635 revealed its Nestorian inscription, written in Chinese with a portion in Syriac, thus establishing the incursion of Christianity into China as early as the eighth century. The monument was erected by Nestorian missionaries near the city of Hsi-an fu in A.D. 781, and Kircher speculated that the “Christian preachers” who did so included “the Apostle Thomas” (which Boym thought unlikely) or “his successors.”

The tablet’s complete transcription and transliteration, together with Boym’s translation of the inscription, was printed for the first time by Kircher in his China Monumentis, making this the first Chinese vocabulary ever printed in the West. It became the standard text for the study of Chinese until the nineteenth century.

In England, there was considerable interest within new science circles about all things having to do with China, including the Chinese language. As summarized by Ellen Tan Drake, Robert Hooke

made a study of Chinese characters and could pronounce and reproduce in writing many of them. One tract is published in the Philosophical Transactions, correctly showing characters running from the top of the page to the bottom and the columns of characters reading from right to left. Hooke provided an English phoneticization of the characters, showing he could also pronounce them (in the Cantonese dialect).

Hooke’s lectures to the Royal Society on Chinese arts & sciences were popular, and the Society’s journal evidences “a great interest in China, including references to Chinese geographical features, architecture, porcelain, chemistry, medicine and tea.”

Scott Montgomery has recently described the “multi-cultural construction of impressions of thought” wrought by the movements of knowledge through cultures and time as “science in translation.” In England, influential scientists such as Hooke and Wren were greatly impressed by the accounts of Chinese masonry, “Works of Architecture, and other ingenious Mechanick Arts,” which they studied closely. Kircher’s China Monumentis, which was favorably reviewed in a 1667 issue of the Society’s journal, is an important part of the longstanding tradition of intercultural exchange which led to the growth of science during the early modern period.

RELATES TO:  the GALLERY exhibit on Lely’s psychological portraiture, with its brief discussion of the phrase “Thou dost the things Orientally the same,” and its sidebar on “the China Character” and its conceptual art; an IN BRIEF topic on universal language schemes; a digital transcription of John Wilkins’ commentary on “the China Character and Language so much talked of in the world” in the LIBRARY, with a companion GALLERY exhibit on the information design of Wilkins’ An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language; more on Baroque belief in east-west mergings, and its material manifestation in a (mythical) passage to the Orient through the North American continent (either by way of a northwest passage, or the Sea of Verrazzano, aka the Sea of China), in the several GALLERY exhibits on maps of colonial Virginia; a GALLERY exhibit on ananas fructus, with descriptions of Chinese ananas plants from Kircher’s China Monumentis, Ogilby’s China, and Boym’s Flora Sinensis; a GALLERY exhibit on flying fish, with descriptions of Chinese flying fish from Kircher’s China Monumentis and Ogilby’s China; the PLAYERS pages on Athanasius Kircher, Robert Hooke, and Virginia Ferrar

Baroque-era printer's ornament

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