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Chinese Ideograms in Renaissance France

Abstract : Although the author of the paper is not a sinologist, she endeavours to give an account of the reception of Chinese ideograms in Renaissance France. Hitherto, the subject has mainly been dealt with by specialists of the seventeenth century, whose studies begin with the Renaissance Jesuit Matteo Ricci and his French follower, Nicolas Trigault. Hardly less worthy of consideration, however, is the period 1560-1620, especially in France [Balsamo 1998 ; Brockey 2007]. Several factors deserve to be underlined: 1) Knowledge of Chinese ideograms had already begun to spread in France several decades before Ricci’s editions and translations became known thanks to the letters of French Jesuits such as Edmond Auger; these letters stimulated discussions about the "monsters" and idols that the ideograms were supposed to represent [Duret 1613] and fanned their readers' curiosity about this strange way of writing. 2) Some French authors and scholars took up this new form of "hieroglyphs" to support the ideology of a purely conceptual language [Vigenere 1586], which was later demonstrated by the Flemish Jesuit Hermann Hugo [1617]. 3) Besides being adopted by French cabalists intent on developing a spiritual language, Chinese ideograms fuelled the dream of universal communication between nations by appearing, in the eyes of many scholars, to represent an even more efficient type of characteristica universalis than emblems – highly appreciated in this respect at the time. While the authors who wrote on Chinese ideograms during this period appear to have been chiefly concerned with evangelism and missionary linguistics, their works opened up a wide field for scholars involved in writing the history of languages and writing. Until the end of the Middle Ages, theologians assumed that there was a natural congruence between languages and their alphabets. The discovery of Egyptian hieroglyphs and their (erroneous) interpretation as "images" of concepts prepared the positive reception of Chinese "hieroglyphics" as a potentially universal language, entirely independent of orality. Both the rediscovery of language theory in Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics and the late medieval interest in the specificities of writing, as opposed to oral communication (generally held to be superior), promoted the perception of these two kinds of media as independent entities. This trend, which emerged in Parisian scholastic circles, together with Christian curiosity about oriental languages, influenced the new missionaries. Moreover, Chinese ideograms were acknowledged as printed glyphs and as being 2000 years old [VERVILLE 1610] – a fact of major importance in this period during which both printing and a new conceptual vision of the writing/reading process were being developed [DEMONET 2007, 2008]. Among others, the negative interpretations of ideograms as grotesque images of the devils gave them the status of dangerous amulets. But the true connoisseurs of China, and especially the Jesuits, knew that there could be a correspondence between the unicity of he written language and the quasi monotheism of Buddhism, that could be understood as a proto-christianism. When scholars in oriental languages began to imagine that there could be a common origin to all western languages (the indo-European hypothesis), writing could subsume all differences by the consensus about this abstract representation of nature.
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Contributor : Marie-Luce Demonet <>
Submitted on : Friday, October 23, 2015 - 12:06:49 PM
Last modification on : Wednesday, November 6, 2019 - 1:48:04 PM


  • HAL Id : halshs-01219797, version 1



Marie-Luce Demonet. Chinese Ideograms in Renaissance France. 2012. ⟨halshs-01219797⟩



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