Eco: Kircher’s Chinese

by Esteban


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), schema of the Egyptian cosmos, Oedipus Aegyptiacus, tom. 2, vol. 1, p. 418. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“In an earlier chapter, we saw the suggestion made that Chinese might be the language of Adam. Kircher lived in a period of exciting discoveries in the Orient. The Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, and, later, French conquered the route to the Indies, the Sunda seas, the way to China and to Japan.

But even more than by merchants, these pathways were traversed by Jesuits, following in the footsteps of Matteo Ricci who, a century before, had brought European culture to the Chinese, and returned to give Europe a deeper understanding of China.

With the publication of the Historia de las cosas más notables, ritos y costumbres del gran reino de la China by Juan Gonzales de Mendoza in 1585, there appeared in print in Europe characters in Chinese script.

In 1615 there finally appeared Ricci’s De christiana expeditione apud Sinas ab Societate Ieus suscepta, in which he explained that in Chinese, there existed as many characters as there were words. He insisted as well on the international character of the Chinese script, which, he wrote, was readily understood not only by the Chinese, but also by the Japanese, the Koreans, the Cochin-Chinese and by the Formosans.

We shall see that this was a discovery that would initiate the search for a real character from Bacon onwards. Already in 1627, in France, Jean Douet published a Proposition présentée au roy, d’une escriture universelle, admirable pour ses effects, très-utile à tous les hommes de la terre, in which Chinese was offered as a model for an international language.

At the same time, there had begun to appear information about the pictographic writings of Amerindians. Attempts at interpretation had yielded contradictory results; and this was discussed in works such as the Historia natural y moral de las Indias by José de Acosta in 1570, and the Relaciòn de las cosas de Yucatàn by Diego de Landa, written in the sixteenth century, although appearing only in the eighteenth; in 1609 there also appeared the Comentarios reales que tratan del origine de los Yncas by Garcilaso de la Vega.

An observation often repeated by these early observers was that contact with the indigenous natives was at first carried out by means of gestures. This awoke an interest in gesture’s potential as a universal language.

The universality of gestures and the universality of images turned out to be related themes (the first treatise on this subject was Giovanni Bonifacio‘s L’arte de’ cenni of 1616; on this topic in general, see Knox 1990).

The reports of his Jesuit brothers gave Kircher an incomparable source of ethnographic and linguistic information (see Simone 1990 on “Jesuit or Vatican linguistics”).

In his Oedipus, Kircher was especially interested in the diffusion of Chinese. He took up the same arguments, in a more elliptical form, in his China monumentis quà sacris quà profanis, nec non variis naturae et artis spectaculis, aliarum rerum memorabilis argumentis illustrata of 1667.

This latter work was more in the nature of a treatise in ethnography and cultural anthropology which, with its splendid and sometimes documented illustrations, collected all the reports that arrived from the missionaries of the Company, and described every aspect of Chinese life, culture and nature.

Only the sixth and last part of the work was dedicated to the alphabet.

Kircher presumed that the mysteries of hieroglyphic writing had been introduced to the Chinese by Noah’s son Ham. In the Arca Noe of 1675 (pp. 210ff) he identified Ham with Zoroaster, the inventor of magic.

But, unlike Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese characters were not for Kircher a puzzle. Chinese was a writing system still in use, and the key to its understanding had already been revealed. How could such a comprehensible language be sacred and a vehicle for occult mysteries?

Kircher realized that Chinese characters were originally iconic and only later had grown extremely stylized over time, so as to lose their original similarity with things. He reconstructed after  his own fancy what he took to be the designs of fish and birds that had formed the starting points for current ideograms.

Kircher also realized that these ideograms did not express either letters or syllables, but referred to concepts. He noted that in order to translate our dictionary into their idiom we would need as many different characters as we had words (Oedipus, III, 11).

This led him to reflect on the amount of memory that was necessary for a Chinese scholar to know and remember all these characters.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 158-60.