China Illustrata


In a recent Language Log post, Hanzi Smatter circa 1700, Victor Mair discusses what appear to be fake Chinese characters on a European work of art.  In the comments, he adds a reference to a 1666 encyclopedic Latin work on China:

The great polymath, Athanasius Kircher (1601/1602-1680) had himself never been to China, but had a deep interest in Chinese characters, which are featured prominently in his China Illustrata (images readily available on the Web). Although his depictions of Chinese characters are painstaking, they are often so fantastically elaborated that it is impossible to determine which ones he was trying to represent.

Yes, there are some pictures readily available on the web if you’re good at finding them, but better than that, you can download the whole encyclopedic book (click on “Download / Print”), in which Kircher collects together all of the information about China that he could get his hands on.  And if that’s not enough, there’s even an English translation!*

The linguistic content starts on p224 of the English translation.  Here Kircher explains how the first Chinese emperor invented the Chinese hieroglyphic characters (but really he got the idea from the sons of Noah), and gives examples of all of the different kinds of characters (dragon characters, worm and clam characters, leaf characters, etc).  Despite the sad fact that this book seems to be the early major source of European misconceptions about China (and its language), it’s quite a fascinating thing to browse through.  Here is a teaser to get you started:


Yes, those are fish on the right!

(Of course this is not anywhere near the most interesting thing you’ll find in the PDF.  If you haven’t downloaded it yet, you have no idea what you’re missing!)

For more on Kircher, of course check Wikipedia.

*There’s a contemporary English translation here (scroll down, it’s an appendix in Nieuhof’s work).

2 responses to “China Illustrata”

  1. Chad says:

    The “Sino-Chaldean monument” Kircher refers to is more easily searchable as the Nestorian Stele. Fascinating reading. It’s interesting that Chinese pronunciation has changed so little in all that time. If you consider his method similar to Wade-Giles, even words like jin (人 ren) and ge (日 ri) are nearly unchanged.

    He is knowledgeable of many different writing systems, and it’s surprising he seems so off base with Chinese. It’s as if he heard the claim that characters were originally pictures of animals, and assumed they were always lines, but with lines in the shape of different animals. It seems totally invented, and rather sloppy for what seems to be a careful researcher. I don’t know how many jiaguwen examples existed in his time (and, it seems they weren’t known to be Chinese until 1900 anyway), but he could have just let his statements about the origins stand without the fanciful art.

  2. Bruce Rusk says:

    Strange as these characters may seem, they are in fact taken from Chinese sources (or perhaps in some cases Chinese sources received through Japanese versions). These character forms were quite common in Ming and Qing popular encyclopedias (日用類書) and other books; while they would not be taken seriously by Chinese etymologists at the time, they were by no means European inventions. For more, see Knud Lundbæk, _The Traditional History of the Chinese Script: From a Seventeenth Century Jesuit Manuscript_. (I have also written an article on this: “Old Scripts, New Actors: European Encounters with Chinese Writing, 1550–1700,” _East Asian Science, Technology and Medicine_ 26 (2007) which goes into more detail on the sources).

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