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).