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Reviewing Western opinions on Chinese language

Author  :  XU XI     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2019-05-07

  

Significance of the Chinese Language

 

Significance of the Chinese Language traces the development of generations of Western opinions on the Chinese language since the 17th century and touches on philology, comparative literature and world literature. The author points out that Westerners’ views on the Chinese language have had a significant impact not only on the construction of Western modern knowledge systems, but also on Chinese intellectuals’ perception of Chinese language and Chinese culture in the early 20th century.

In Significance of the Chinese Language, the author views the evolution of Western opinions on Chinese language from a perspective of philology. He traces the origin of Western opinion on Chinese language to the early 17th century, with the publication of Matteo Ricci’s Reading Notes About China in 1615 as a mark. 

When the Europeans of the 17th century tried to pursue a global lingua franca, it was surprising when some people suggested the Chinese language as the earliest primitive language of humanity. Matteo Ricci noticed that Chinese characters actually played a lingua franca role in a fairly wide range of areas. Written Chinese can help people with different dialects to communicate with each other; intellectuals from Japan, Vietnam, Korea and other neighboring countries can use Chinese characters to discuss academic issues.

In 1588, Juan Mendoza’s History of the Great Kingdom of China was translated into English and published in London. Some Chinese characters were printed in this book, so that more Europeans directly saw them. As hieroglyphics, Chinese characters seemed to be more intuitive, easier to understand and closer to nature than alphabetic writing. In 1605, the British thinker Francis Bacon in The Advancement of Learning said that the Chinese language is a real language. 

Entering the 18th century, the image of the Chinese language in Europe underwent a major transformation. In 1788, Language Theory written by Scottish philosopher James Bettie regarded the lack of a phonographic alphabet in Chinese as backward. Furthermore, the book posited that “China’s every subject is very rough.” “They are ignorant and narrow-minded people.” This idea of criticizing a language to evaluate a national character was further developed in the comparative literature that emerged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

When reviewing the fierce criticism of Chinese language and Chinese culture by Chinese intellectuals in the May Fourth Movement, we will find that their views echoed Western opinions on Chinese language in the 20th century. They used such a fierce attitude to criticize the Chinese language, largely because they, as Qingsheng writes, “intentionally or unintentionally accepted and disseminated Western views on the Chinese language.” 

 

 

(Edited by YANG LANLAN)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Editor: Yu Hui

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