Letter from Peter S. Du Ponceau to Captain Basil Hall, R. B. N.

Philadelphia, 7th July, 1828.

My dear Sir,

Our mutual friend, Mr. Vaughan, has handed me your polite letter of the 29th ult. I was much surprised, and at the same time highly flattered, to find that the few observations I took the liberty to make to you on the writing of the Chinese, when we last me at Dr. Gibson's, had left an impression on your mind; as I had no expectation, amidst the many objects with which you were surrounded in your peregrinations through this country, of leaving even a trace in your remembrance. It is therefore with great pleasure that I comply with your request, in giving some further development to the ideas which I then threw out to you, and which derive all their value from your having thought them worthy to be kept in mind.

Having for many years devoted my leisure moments to the study of the philosophy of language, the Chinese idiom and its peculiar system of writing could not escape my attention. I was at first astonished at the wonders which are ascribed to this mode of ocular communication, which appeared to me to be greatly exaggerated, and I determined to pursue the subject as far as my means would permit me. The result of my investigations does by no means agree with the opinion that is generally entertained. I do not pretend to know the Chinese language; therefore those who have learned, and consequently can read and understand it, have a great advantage over me in a discussion in which I attempt to controvert even the opinions or profound sinologists. I have, however, studied the elementary and other works which treat of that idiom, in order to acquaint myself with the curious structure of that language, and the principles of its graphic system; and have possessed myself of a sufficient number of facts to enable me to form logical conclusions. This is all that can be expected of a general philologist; if it were otherwise, that science must be entirely abandoned, as it is impossible for any one man to know more than very few of the unnumbered and perhaps innumerable languages that exist on the surface of the earth.

The general opinion which prevails, even among those who are the most proficient in the Chinese idiom, is, that the system or mode of writing which is in use in that country, and which they call the written in opposition to the spoken language, is an ocular method of communicating ideas, entirely independent of speech, and which, without the intervention of words, conveys ideas through the sense of vision directly to the mind. Hence it is called ideographic, in contradistinction from the phonographic or alphabetical system of writing. This is the idea which is entertained of it in China, and may justly be ascribed to the vanity of the Chinese literati. The Catholic at first, and afterwards the Protestant missionaries, have received it from them without much examination; and the love or wonder, natural to our species, has not a little contributed to propagate that opinion, which has at last taken such possession of the public mind, that it has become one of those axioms which no one will venture to contradict. It requires not a little boldness to fly in the face of an opinion so generally received, and which has so many respectable authorities in its support, and none against it but those of reason and fair logical deductions from uncontroverted facts. As you have, however, in a manner challenged me to produce the proof of my assertions, I do not hesitate to do it, in the spirit of humility which becomes me, and submitting the whole to your candour and better judgment.

This opinion has naturally led to that of the Chinese writing being an universal written language conveying ideas directly to the mind, and which might be read alike in every idiom upon earth, as our numerical figures and algebraic signs are. This idea has been carried so far, that some missionaries have wished that the Chinese written language, as it is called, should be cultivated through the whole world; for then the New Testament, being translated into Chinese, all nations might read it, without learning the spoken idiom, and on a mere inspection of the characters.* And as a proof that this might be done, it has been alleged that the Japanese, Coreans, Cochinchinese, and other nations, could read Chinese books without knowing or understanding the oral language of China. But these are not the only wonderful systems to which this opinion has given rise.

This writing having been formed, as is supposed, without any reference to, or connexion with, spoken language, a question might naturally arise, which of the two was first invented? Nobody, to be sure, has ventured to say that writing existed before speech; yet if that proposition has not been directly advanced, I must say that sinologists have come very near to it. For instance, they affect to call the monosyllabic words of the Chinese language the pronunciation of the characters, which leads to the direct inference that the words were made for the signs, and not these for the words. A justly celebrated French sinologist, M. Abel Remusat, does not indeed believe that a language was invented to suit the written characters after they were formed; but he supposes that some then existing popular idiom was adopted, to serve as a pronunciation to the graphic signs.* One step more, and hardly that, and written characters must have been invented before men learned to speak.

The English sinologists, Sir George Staunton, the Rev. M. Morrison, and others, represent the Chinese writing much in the same point of view, of which you may convince yourself by referring to their works. And by way of proof, it is every where repeated that the Chinese writings are read alike by different nations who do not understand the spoken idiom.

No philosopher that I know of has yet attempted to reduce these vague notions to a rational standard. I have stated them candidly, as they appear in the works of the missionaries, travellers, and sinologists, and I must own that they never satisfied my understanding. I have taken great pains to come at the real truth, and I shall now proceed to communicate to you the result of my inquiries.

The Chinese language, I mean as it is spoken, for I do not call any writing a language, except metaphorically, is, as you well know, monosyllabic; that is to say, every one of its syllables (with very few exceptions) is a word, and has a specific determinate meaning; in which it differs from our languages, which consist for the most part of unmeaning syllab1es, or of syllables which, if they have an appropriate meaning, have no connexion with the words of which they make a part. Take, for instance, the word con-fir-ma-tion: the first and the two last syllables have no meaning whatever; the second, fir, by itself means a kind of tree, but it has no relation to the word in which it enters. It is otherwise with the Chinese language; every syllable of it is significant, and is never employed but in the sense of its meaning. There may be compound words in the Chinese, but as in our words welfare, welcome, each of their component syllables preserve their proper signification.

Every one of these significant syllables or words has one or more characters appropriate to it, and every character has a corresponding word.* If two Chinese read the same book, they will read it exactly alike; there will not be the difference of a single syllable. Were it otherwise, the Chinese writing would be translated, not read. Notwithstanding what the sinologists tell us of the beauty of the Chinese poetry, and even of their prosaic style, to the eye, it is certain that the metre and rhythm of their verses are addressed to the ear. Their versification is measured, and their poetry is in rhyme, and they have also a measured prose.* All this is writ well in the pretended ideographic character, word for word, exactly as it is spoken; and no two readings can absolutely take place. It seems therefore evident, that the characters were invented to represent the Chinese words, and not the ideas which these represent, abstractedly from the verbal expression.

It is true, that in the grouping of characters to represent single words, the inventors have called to their aid the ideas which the words express. Thus the character which answers to the word hand, is grouped with those which answer to words expressing manual operations. But this was not done with a view to an ideographic language; it was merely an auxiliary means to aid in the classification of the numerous signs which otherwise the memory could not have retained. The sinologists see great beauties in these associations, of which 1 am not competent to speak. I suspect, however, that there is in that more imagination than reality.

Be this as it may, as the Chinese characters represent the words of the language, and are intended to awaken the remembrance of them in the mind, they are not therefore independent of sounds, for words are sounds. It makes no difference whether those sounds are simple and elementary, as those which our letters represent, or whether they are compounded from two or three of those elements into a syllable. There are syllabic alphabets, like that of the Sanscrit and other languages, and it has never been contended that they do not represent sounds. And it makes no difference that the Chinese syllables are also words, for that does not make them lose their character of sounds. But, on account of this difference, I would not call the Chinese characters a syllabic, but a logographic system of writing.

This being the case, it seems necessarily to follow, that as the Chinese characters are in direct connexion with the Chinese spoken words, they can only be read and understood by those who are familiar with the oral language. I do not mean to say that they cannot be applied to other monosyllabic idioms, (and they are, in fact, applied even to polysyllabic languages, as I shall presently show,) I only contend that their meaning cannot be understood alike in the different languages in which they are used.

You very well know, my dear sir, how various are the forms of human languages. You know that, even in the same language, there are not two words exactly synonymous; a fortiori, it must be so in two different idioms. Take the word grand, for instance, which belongs to the French and to the English languages. Though its general meaning be the same in both idioms, yet how strong are the shades which distinguish the ideas they particularly represent! Now let us suppose that England is in possession of a logographic system of writing. Will the character representing the word grand be clearly understood by a Frenchman who does not know the English oral language? Will an Englishman understand the French character j'aimerais, without knowing the French mode of conjugating verbs? How would a Latin phrase be understood by an Englishman, or a Frenchman, merely by means of signs appropriate to each word? Our ideas, independent of speech, are vague, fleeting, and confused; language alone fixes them, and not in the same manner with every nation. Some languages take in a group of ideas, and express them in one word; others analyse a single idea, and have a separate word for each minute part of which it is composed. Some take an idea as it were in front, others in profile, and others in the rear; and hence the immense variety of forms and modes of expression that exist in the different languages of the earth. All languages abound in metaphors and elliptical modes of speech, which vary according to the genius of each particular idiom. In no language are these figures more frequent than in the Chinese, which is admitted to be elliptical in the highest degree, and is full of far-fetched metaphorical expressions. For instance, the grandees of the empire are called the four seas, (quatuor maria,) to express which the Chinese writing has two characters, one for quatuor and the other for maria, which is very distinct from the idea of superiority or greatness. I ask how these characters can be understood or read in a language that has not adopted the same mode of expression? Again: the English phrase, "I do not expect it," is rendered in Chinese by "how dare!" and the sentence, "What you are alarmed about is not of much importance," is thus expressed; "You this one bother not greatly required"* It would be difficult to read this intelligibly in any language but the Chinese, or one formed exactly on the same model, and in every respect analogous to it. Nor could the corresponding literal English phrases be read intelligibly in Chinese, for want of similar turns of expression and grammatical forms.

A purely ideographical language, therefore, unconnected with spoken words, cannot, in my opinion, possibly exist. There is no universal standard for the fixation of ideas; we cannot abstract our ideas from the channel in which language has taught them to run; hence the Chinese writing is and can be nothing else than a servile representation of the spoken language, as far as visible signs can be made to represent audible sounds. I defy all the philosophers of Europe to frame a written language (as they are pleased to call it) that will not bear a direct and close analogy to some one of the oral languages which they have previously learned. It will be English, Latin, French, Greek, or whatever else they may choose; but it will not be an original written idiom, in which ideas will be combined in a different manner from those to which they have been accustomed.

This reasoning, you will say, may be perfectly correct; but what if, in spite of your theory, Chinese books are understood in Japan, Corea, and Cochinchina, even though the people do not understand the spoken idiom of China? This is, indeed, a pressing argument; but was the child born with a golden tooth?

It is a pretty well ascertained fact, that in Tonquin, Laos, Cochinchina, Camboje and Siam, and also Corea, Japan, and the Loo-choo Islands, the Chinese is a learned and sacred language, in which religious and scientific books are written; while the more popular language of the country is employed for writings of a lighter kind. It is not therefore extraordinary, that there should be many persons in those countries who read and understand Chinese writing, as there are many among us who read and understand Latin; and many on the continent of Europe, and also in Great Britain and the United States, who read and understand French, although it is not the language of the country. In many parts of the world there is a dead or living language, which, from various causes, acquires an ascendancy among the neighbouring nations, and serves as a means of communication between people who speak different idioms or dialects. Such is the Arabic through a great part of Africa; the Persian in the East Indies; the Chinese in the peninsula beyond the Ganges; and the Algonkin or Chippeway among our north-western Indians. This alone is sufficient to explain why Chinese books and writings should be understood by a great number of persons in those countries, and why they should smile at an unlettered foreigner who cannot do the like. But it most not be believed that they read those writings as a series of abstract symbols, without connecting them with some spoken language. If their language be a dialect of the Chinese, varying only in the pronunciation of some words; and if it be entirely formed on the same model, there is no doubt but that the two idioms may be read with the same characters, as their meaning is the same in both; but if there is any material diversity between the two idioms, it is impossible that the Chinese character should be understood, unless the spoken language of China be understood at the same time; and this may be proved by well ascertained facts.

In Cochinchina, the language commonly spoken is a dialect of the Chinese, monosyllabic like the mother tongue, and formed on the same grammatical principles. In writing this language, the Chinese logographic character is exclusively used; but it does by no means follow, that a Cochinchinese book would be understood in China, or vice versà. For although in both languages, each character represents a single word, yet the words so represented are not always the same in sound or in sense. Thus the character which in Chinese represents the word tǎn, (a plain,) in Cochinchinese is read dât, (the earth.) The character kin, (metal,) in Cochinchinese is read kim, (a needle); Chinese y, (kettle,) Cochinchinese chi, (lead) ; Chinese pǒ, (to land,) Cochinchinese bac, (silver.)* It is evident that the same book or manuscript could not be read or understood alike by a Chinese and a Cochinchinese.

I cannot omit here an observation which appears to me to be peculiarly striking. If the Chinese writing be really ideographic; if it represents ideas and not sounds, how does it happen that the same character is used in different languages to signify things that have no kind of connexion with each other; as for instance, the verb to land, and the substantive silver? It is difficult to think even of a distant metaphor that will apply to both these subjects.

In Japan, there are two languages in general use. The Koye, which is no other than the Chinese, with some variation in the pronunciation of the words, arising probably from the difference of the vocal organs of the two nations; and the Yomi, which is the most popular language, the former being devoted to religion and science. The Yomi is polysyllabic, and has declensions, conjugations, and other complex grammatical forms, which the Chinese has not. Therefore, it cannot be written with the Chinese character logographically, any more than the Greek or Latin could; yet the Chinese character is used in writing that idiom. From a selection of those characters a syllabic alphabet has been made, which is in common use.* From a similar selection, says M. Remusat, the Coreans have made a monophonic alphabet of nine vowels and fifteen consonants,* with which they write their language. At the same time they can read and understand the Chinese, in which their sacred and scientific books are written.

We know very little of the language of the Loo-choo Islands. Father Gaubil (the French missionary) says, that they have three different idioms; others say that they speak a language compounded of the Chinese and Japanese. But little reliance is to be placed in these reports. It is probable that the Chinese is read and understood there also as a religious and scientific language, or perhaps as an auxiliary means of communication.

I have said enough, I think, to show, that if the Chinese writing is read and understood in various countries in the vicinity of China, it is not in consequence of its supposed ideographic character; but either because the Chinese is also the language or one of the languages of the country, or because it is learned, and the meaning of the characters is acquired, through the words which they represent. Without knowledge of these words and of their precise signification, according to the genius, syntax, and grammar of the language, it would be impossible to understand or remember the signification of the characters. If those characters could be read into languages which, like the Yomi and the Corean, differ in their forms from the Chinese, or in the meaning and sound of the words which the signs represent, they might be read alike in English, French, Latin, Greek, Iroquois, and in short in every existing idiom upon earth, which I think I have sufficiently proved to be impossible, according to the plainest deductions of simple logic.

I have been called further by my subject than I intended; but as I do not believe that it has yet been presented in this point of view, I thought that I should not be sparing of a few words in order to make myself clearly understood. With what success I have made out my argument, I leave you entirely to judge. At any rate, I rejoice in the opportunity which it gives me of expressing to you the sentiments of sincere respect and esteem with which I am, dear Sir,

Your most obedient, humble servant,


Capt. BASIL HALL, R. B. N., F. R. S., &c. &c.

New York, 14th July.

P. S. -- Since my arrival in this town, whither I have come on an excursion of pleasure, I have been agreeably surprised to find, by an article in the Baron Férusac's Bulletin des Sciences Historiques, Philosophiques, &c. for the month of March last, that the opinion I have expressed on the subject of the Chinese writing, begins to prevail among the learned of Europe. The article I allude to is a short notice (p. 258) by M. Champollion, the elder, of a work on the History of Philosophy, published last year at Bonn, by M. Windischman, a German writer, who, as usual, represents the Chinese character as a sort of pasigraphy, which may be read alike in every language. M. Champollion very properly combats this opinion, and observes, (as I have done,) that the Japanese, Cochinchinese, and other nations, have been obliged to modify that system of writing, to adapt it to their own languages. He adds, that the details of those alterations are to be found in a late memoir of M. Remusat, inserted in the eighth volume of the Memoirs of the Institute of France, (Academy of Inscriptions and Belles Lettres,) pp.34-69. Thus I have the good fortune to have M. Champollion and M. Remusat on my side, to some extent at least, though to what extent I cannot exactly tell, as the volume of the Memoirs of the Institute above referred to has not yet reached this country, at least that I know of. I am very anxious to see it, as I have no doubt that the subject will have been treated in a very profound and scientific manner by so able and learned a writer as M. Remusat. I beg leave to refer you to it, for further information on this interesting topic.

P. S. D.