Learning Chinese in the 1600’s

I love history, I love China, and I love maps. This explains why I am currently working my way through a book about the history of a Chinese map! It’s called Mr. Selden’s Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer. Here’s the description on Amazon:

In 2009, an extraordinary map of China was discovered in Oxford’s Bodleian Library—where it had first been deposited 350 years before, then stowed and forgotten for nearly a century. Neither historians of China nor cartography experts had ever seen anything like it. It was so odd that experts would have declared it a fake—yet records confirmed it had been delivered to Oxford in 1659. The “Selden Map,” as it is known, was a puzzle that needing solving.

Mr. Selden's Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer

In one section the author recounts the difficulty that early Europeans had learning Chinese:

The Chinese language’, one Jesuit author assured his readers, has no analogy whatsoever with any other language in use throughout the world. Nothing in common: neither the sound of its words, nor the pronunciation of its phrases, nor the arrangement of ideas. Everything is mysterious in this language: one can learn terms in two hours, yet it may take several years of study to be able to speak them. One can learn to read all Chinese books, and understand them well, without comprehending anything if someone else recites them. A scholar will be able to compose essays rich in elegance and polite phrasing, yet the same scholar will not always know enough to explain himself in ordinary conversation. Worse still, ‘the same words often signify opposite things, such that when two people pronounce them, what will be a compliment coming from the mouth of one will be atrocious insults from the mouth of the other.’ The language could still be learned; indeed, it could become ‘fertile, abundant, and harmonious in the mouth or under the brush of those who have applied themselves to its study’. But it wouldn’t be easy. From there it was only a short step to the declaration of George Bonham, a nineteenth-century governor of Hong Kong, that it was unwise to study the language, as it ‘warps the mind and imbues it with a defective perception of the common things of real life’.


(Brook, Timothy (2013-11-12). Mr. Selden’s Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer (Kindle Locations 1131-1135). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.)

So if you’re a student of Chinese and beginning to feel your mind is being warped, remember, you are standing on some serious shoulders! 

But remember….you have Pinyin!

As for the map, you can read more about it on the Oxford University Website (it is housed at the Bodleian Library) .

They’ve also produced a short video on the map, which highlights not only it historical significance, but its relevance today.

(if you receive this post by email and cannot see the embedded player, please click here to see the video)

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