Tuesday, December 1, 2015
On the Chinese Language by A.E. Moule 1871
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Difficult as the Chinese language is known to be, yet some may be inclined to conclude that the task of preaching the Gospel to the dense populations of this great empire is not, after all, so hopeless, siuce there is but one common language for all its peoples. Alas for the mistaken hope! There is one common language of books, but none for conversation or oral proclamation; there is one royal road for communicating through the Chinese eye with the Chinese mind, but for the ear we must follow each section of the nation, possessing its distinct dialect, and learn to speak that colloquial before we can use the foolishness of preaching for the salvation of those who shall believe. The Chinese written language is one, and binds the far-stretching provinces together. The spoken dialects are more than two hundred in number, and vary so widely in many cases as to be in effect as formidable almost as varying languages, and separate the speakers so strongly that they are to one another sometimes as foreigners, though still fellow-countrymen—all Chinese.
I have often experienced the effect of this twofold feature in the language of China—uniform to the eye, multiform to the ear—even in the comparatively limited range of my missionary itinerations in the province of Che-kiang. I have lain down to rest in the mission-boat at night amid the familiar sounds of the Ningpo dialect, or but a very slight variation of it, spoken by the passers to and fro on the banks of the canal; and in the morning I have waked up to find my boat threading its way through the crowded parts of a large city, all alive with market-people, and the shreds of their conversation which I could overhear scarcely intelligible from the variation of dialect. Yet here, over every shop, painted or cut on horizontal boards, or on signs swinging in the wind by the door, or painted again on the whitewashed walls of streets aad private houses, the same picturesque Chinese characters, with the sight of which I was familiar in Ningpo, entirely unchanged in form, conveyed the same meaning, and precisely the same idea, to the speakers of this different dialect. And still more striking was the impression produced by this peculiarity in the languages of China, when, on a tour for my health, I visited Fuh-chau and Amoy, or, last spring, on my return voyage, when I spent a few days in Hong-kong and Singapore. In these places the spoken language was absolutely unintelligible, not only to myself, but also to the ear of our Chinese Ningpo servant, who accompanied us; and yet their shop-signs, and bills and proclamations posted on the walls, spoke intelligibly to the eye, and spoke Chinese.
Analogies to these linguistic peculiarities will readily and naturally suggest themselves; but, nevertheless, no true analogy is, I believe, to be found. A deputation of the Church Missionary Society, after twelve hours' consecutive railway travelling, may find himself carried from the sounds of the Dorset dialect into the region of broad Yorkshire, and his ear may be perplexed both by the one and by the other; but when pleading the cause of the Society one Sunday before the Dorset peasantry, and the next before those of Yorkshire, if he speak in plain Saxon his sermon will be understood: he need not adopt the local dialect. The well-known Dorset poet, William Barnes, born and bred in the heart of the country, and who can move the laughter and tears of Dorsetshire men and women by his sweet pastoral poems in their dialect, as rector of a Dorset parish need use but plain English in his pulpit, and he is understood. Not so, alas! in China: there is no common spoken language, "understanded of the people," in north and south of that great land. The dialects are languages, though with a common substratum, and there is no connecting medium of speech.
The Roman character, again, in its adaptation to most of the European languages (for there is an increasing tendency to print even German in such letters) may be supposed to correspond to the prevalence of the Chinese character throughout China proper, through its dependencies, and even in the adjacent empire of Japan (the Japanese, indeed, have a distinct language and orthography of their own). But the analogy in this case again does not hold good. German and French, Spanish and Italian, are indeed expressed in written and printed documents by exactly the same letters as English; and the same individual letters in various combinations appear on foreign sign-boards and post-bills as on our own; but an Englishman is not, on that account, able to read and understand what he sees. The alphabet is not the language. In Chinese (to anticipate what must presently be described more minutely), there being no real alphabet, and every apparent letter and character being a complete word, those who can read the letters can read or understand the language, or, at all events (with the exception of lads in their first year of school-life), can give the meaning of the individual words, if not the whole drift of the sentence. In our alphabet of twenty-six letters, only three, a, i, and o, are words. In China, whose language is her alphabet, and whose alphabet, so called, consists of tens of thousands of what I will term for the time letters, each one is a word; and right spelling consists not in the right selection and order of the letters in the word, but in the right sequence of the strokes and dots (which are the only substitute for an alphabet) in the letter. The omission of a stroke or dot causes a distinct word to come into view; the omission of a letter in an English word does not necessarily destroy the character of the word so much as the reputation of the scribe. And, while speaking of the character, let me add a few words as to its history and mechanical nature: "The earliest plan for recording events or expressing thought where speech could not be used, was, it is said, the use of knotted cord. Then came a strange geometrical figure, eight-sided, invented by the remote Emperor Fu-hi as a means of recording, one can hardly say expressing, his views about the nature of things and of duty. Next came what was called the tadpole character, from the waving lines and thick head-like blots of which they are composed—probably picture-writing; and traces of these pictured ideas may be seen in the modern forms of the characters. These tadpole characters are still seen in very old inscriptions, but are never written now. Then followed the seal character, which is still used for seals, and for the titles for books, inscriptions on tombs and monuments, etc. Some scholarly gentlemen learn this character on purpose to be able to engrave seals, and present them to their friends; but many good scholars know nothing about it. About 2,000 years ago the Li and Kiai characters were invented by two officers in the court of Ts'in Sze-hwang, the first absolute Emperor of China. These characters are those now commonly used; while a somewhat stiffer style (the Sung character, invented about 1,000 years ago) is used sometimes in printing. Printing is done almost entirely by wooden blocks; and, the characters being cut out from the copy pasted on to the block, the style of the printed page depends of course very greatly on the style of the scribe's writing. In ordinary writing the full form of the character is hardly ever used, many well-known abbreviations being employed; and there is yet another style—the grass hand—in which abbreviation and fancy run wild, often puzzling even the practised eye of a Chinese scholar, and not merely the anxious eye of a missionary student. Such are the letters or characters with which we have to deal in China—invented in their earliest form, perhaps more than 3,000 years ago—for there is mention of a writing in the canon of history about 1270 B.C. —and improved to their most perfect form 1,800 years ago, under the great Han dynasty, whose name is still given to the Chinese language and character. Writing is all done on paper made of the second skin of the bark of bamboo, soaked in water with lime till the woody and coarse parts are separated from the pulp. There is a kind of paper used in Fuh-chau called rice-paper, made from rice-straw; some also is made of cotton, some from the bark of mulberry-trees, wheat-straw, and from the skin inside cocoons. In very early times, smooth slips of bamboo were used instead of paper, and the characters were scratched on them with a stylus. Brushes of various sizes and qualities, such as those used by artists, are employed in writing, and no pens or pencils of a different kind are used by Chinese scribes. Medhurst thus enumerates the successive stages in the formation and in the nature of Chinese characters: first they were pictorial, then symbolic, afterward compounded, and finally arbitrary—a description correct enough if we bear in mind that traces of each of these stages still remain in the system of writing now in vogue."
Now, this double language forms the first and the life-long difficulty of a missionary to the Chinese. Without some degree of fluency in the spoken language, and some considerable familiarity with the language of books, no conscientious missionary will feel satisfied with the result of his studies, and with his mental equipment for his work. The colloquial is not beyond the reach of a diligent learner, with a quick ear and a ready memory; though to speak Chinese well is not the work of a few months, as some have asserted, nor even of a few years. The vocabulary is very large, the idiom intricate and peculiar: it teems with proverbial sayings; some with an historical and local reference; some with superstitious or religious allusions: some sayings or modes of expression are rife in the plains, some in the hills, of the same district; and I have more than once known a veteran and able missionary puzzled and surprised by phrases or words which I had happened to have not unfrequently heard, while he could perplex me by numerous expressions entirely strange to my memory and my ear. But the written language of China, to be mastered in its entirety, would require almost two lifetimes of unremitting toil; to be acquired as an ordinary Chinese scholar knows it, a missionary must give an amount of daily and life-long study which few, if any, can afford to bestow.
This being the case, it may well be deemed presumptuous in me, after only eight years' acquaintance with this ponderous and difficult language, to attempt to write upon it. I have thought it wiser and better, therefore, to give in what follows, almost verbatim, the results of the researches of one with longer experience than myself, merely adding a few illustrative remarks from my own observations. Let me make one remark, in passing, on a point of vital interest to all future students of languages in the mission-field. The importance of the first two years of study cannot be too often noticed nor too earnestly insisted upon. It is a time which, if once lost by negligence or by accident, never returns. I lost part of that precious time myself through the months of panic, confusion, and fighting, which immediately followed my arrival in China; and I despair of ever thoroughly regaining the ground.
The materials from which what follows is drawn consist of an article in the Cambridge Philological Journal by the Rev. G. E. Moule, on the Chinese marks for the genitive and plural; of two papers on the language, also by my brother, and read before my father's parishioners last year, from which I have already quoted above; and of a very brief paper on the same subject, which I shall quote in extenso:
"When we speak of the Chinese language, it is important to remember that there are, in fact, two main branches of it, the language of books and that of conversation.
"This is the case in other countries; for instance, in England, where it is hardly good taste in every-day conversation to talk exactly as we write.
"But the difference is very much greater and more marked in China.
"In China there are a great many dialects of the spoken language, perhaps as many as two or three hundred; while the book language is everywhere the same.
"The dialects differ among themselves as much as Dutch differs from German. Just as the educated Hollander speaks Dutch, and the Saxon, German, so the man of letters at Ningpo speaks his Ningpo dialect, and the Shanghai scholar the dialect of Shanghai, without any reproach on account of provincialism.
"There is one of the spoken dialects called the Mandarin colloquial, which is more generally understood by certain classes than any other. It is the native tongue, with slight local variations, of most of the provinces north and west of the river Yang-tsze.
"The variety of it which prevails at Peking is called the 'court fashion,' and is adopted by all the mandarins and their attache's and servants throughout China.
"It is a political principle in China that no Mandarin may hold office in his own province. They are thus, so far as speech is concerned, foreigners wherever they go. Their common focus is Peking. The higher grades of mandarins have regular audiences and conversations with the emperor. They are thus obliged to learn his dialect —that of Peking—and carry it with them in their governments throughout the empire. Hence it becomes naturally the official dialect of the Chinese courts of justice; not of the law-books, it is true, but of the pleadings, and evidences, and sentences. The witnesses, coming into court, and speaking their provincial patois, are unintelligible to the mandarin until an interpreter explains in the official dialect. Written pleadings explain themselves to the judge's eye; but for his ear every thing provincial must be interpreted into the 'court fashion.'
"So it was of old, when the barons held court and pronounced judgment for a Saxon population in Norman French.
"But it is wrong to call Mandarin the language of the 'educated class.' Thousands of that class speak nothing but their own patois. In Ningpo there are hundreds of literary graduates, but it is very hard to find one of them, not in official employment, skilled in the Mandarin colloquial.
"The great peculiarity, then, of Chinese, lies in the marked distinction between the language of books and that of conversation. For books, one language prevails from end to end of China, and is read besides by Coreans, Japanese, Loochewans, Annamese, Thibetans, Mongols, etc. For utterance, the dialects are legion; seven or eight principal varieties at least in each of the eighteen provinces.
"In learning a colloquial dialect—and very few missionaries ever attain the mastery of more than one—the pronunciation and the idioms of syntax are both serious difficulties.
"Many of the sounds are quite unknown, not only in England, but on the Continent too. For example, at Ningpo some of the commonest words commence with the nasal ng; ngo, 'I;' ngeo, 'cow;' ngoen, 'eye;' ngao, 'to bite;' etc. Some consist of ng without any vowel; as, e. g., the word for 'thou,' for 'five,' and for 'fish.' M again is sounded as a word without any vowel, or with a very indistinct vowel sound to help; and so are s, ts, dz, and r. The difference, too, between an aspirated letter and one without the aspirate is very important, and very hard to observe at first. Tsa, 'a debt,' must not be confounded with Ts'a, 'to send;' and a, 'low, dwarfish,' 'a, 'shoes,' ha, 'crabs,' must be carefully distinguished.
"Missionaries must be more than careful not to clip an h in China.
"The tones are another very delicate and very important business. The Chinese distinguish two classes of tones, the even and the inflected.
"The inflected are the rising, departing, and entering tones. The first (at Ningpo) gently raises the voice while the syllable is uttering; the second pitches the voice high, and lets it drop slightly as the sound ceases; the third is short and abrupt.
"In some dialects all four tones, the even and the three inflected, admit an upper and a lower subdivision, grounded partly on the difference occasioned by the heavy or the light initial of the syllable. An educated Chinaman cannot always be trusted in the subdivisions of tone; but he never mistakes an even for an inflected tone, or vice versa.
"Nicety of ear and accurate utterance are indeed very valuable, but not indispensable; and some of our most efficient missionaries have been quite unable to master the tones.
"The confusion that would arise from such imperfections, and also from the monosyllabic nature of Chinese, and the small number (not 500) of distinct sounds in the language, is obviated chiefly by the practice of coupling each ambiguous word to another, which, by likeness or by contrast, seems to define its meaning.
"Thus at Ningpo, 'body' is kyi-sing; 'toil,' sing-kw'u; 'depth,' sing-ts'in; 'newness,' sing-gyiu. That is to say, four words, different in Chinese writing, but all sounded alike, sing, and which might be mistaken for each other if left by themselves, are distinguished and defined by being coupled to other words: to kyi, a word also referring to the body, to kw'u, which, means 'bitter,' to fe'tn, which means 'shallow,' and to ts'in, which means 'old.'
"This practice of coupling, and the distinct arrangement of thoughts or matters in one's discourse, are the chief, though not the only, means of guarding against confusion in our use of this monosyllabic, and, so far as different sounds are concerned, this poor language.
"For writing, all confusion is avoided, but, so to speak, by a very costly device.
"This device is the Chinese written character.
"Every word, i. e., not only every distinct syllable, but each of very many different meanings under each syllable, has a distinct written sign.
"Morison gives, under the one syllable E, not less than a thousand differently-written characters. And the instances just now given of the meanings of sing may also illustrate my meaning.
"These characters, or written signs, are not, like European words, spelt with one, two, or more letters of a definite alphabet. They are formed of strokes arranged, not so as to represent a sound, but to serve as a memorandum or symbol of some definite notion or thing.
"Just as the numerals, 1, 2, 3, etc., or 100, 1,000, 2,000, etc., represent no invariable sounds, but only a particular numerical notion for each; so that, while the Frenchman says trois, the Englishman three, the German drei, and so forth, all of them, and a dozen other nations besides, agree to think of the same number whenever the symbol 3 is written.
"Of all our difficulties in Chinese, these characters suggesting a meaning, but having no invariable sound, are the chief.
"To read fluently the Chinese Bible or the Confucian books, we must know 5,000 or 6,000 of them; some composed of fifteen or twenty strokes and dots, some again so nearly alike that it wants a practised eye to distinguish them. As to the sounds of the written characters, each dialect has its own way of pronouncing them: e. g., the sign for 'ship' is chw'an at Peking; zayn at Shanghai; jeune (French) at Ningpo; dzoon at Hang-chow.
"The twofold nature of the language, for books and for talk; the quaint monosyllables that go to make up our talk; the tones and couplings with which we discriminate the syllables; last, and chiefest, the manifold written characters; these are some of the China missionary's difficulties.
"We thank God, however, that in many instances they have been overcome in great measure; and missionaries can both read and expound to Chinamen in their own tongue, and from the vertical columns of their own printed characters, the wonderful works of God.
"Old Premare said well and truly, 'We must become boys again, if we desire to preach Christ Jesus to these Gentiles so as to do them good. But, with such a prospect, what toil will not be alleviated ?'"
Now, this paper, brief as it is, contains within it, or suggests, most of the points of chief importance, with reference to the Chinese language, and these points will require merely a few illustrative remarks. I would notice, first, that neither the book language of the Chinese, nor the court or official mandarin dialect, correspond, as has been sometimes imagined, to the position and use of Latin as the means of communication between the learned in Europe. Latin, though a dead language as the language of a people, can yet be spoken as well as written. But, though the Chinese written language can be enunciated as well as written, it is never used as the medium for conversation; and though the mandarin colloquial can be written as well as spoken, it is the medium for official, not for learned converse; and the vast majority of the scholars of the empire know little or nothing about it. The mandarin dialect differs from the many other dialects of China mainly in the fact that it alone has a literature. Some few imperial works, the "Sacred Edict" for instance, as well as novels, have been published in this dialect; while the numerous local dialects of the provinces had no literature whatsoever until quite recently when Protestant missionaries tried the experiment. The New Testament, Genesis, Exodus, and some of the Psalms, the Prayer-book of the Church of England, a Hymn-book, "Pilgrim's Progress," together with a considerable variety of smaller books, are now printed, and are read by Christian converts in their own colloquial; but a Chinese scholar would rarely condescend to read a book in patois, though, as was stated above, he converses in the simplest patois....
The Chinese language has no relationship with any other tongue worth attending to. The language which was spoken in China in Abraham's day, two thousand years before England was known to civilized men, is spoken by the Chinese of whom English merchants buy their tea and silk, and to whom the missionaries of the Church Missionary Society carry the history of Adam, of Moses, and of Christ, the story of the Gospel, the precious word of God. It has been enlarged, it is true, during these four thousand years, from Yaou and Shun, the primeval emperors, down to the Manchoo family, which now sits on the throne. New wants and new thoughts have made necessary new words and phrases; writing and printing have suggested new and more complicated forms of expression; the pronunciation has been modified, and a great variety of local dialects has sprung up. But all has been done, not by mixture of other ingredients, nor by taking in of Tartar words, or Malayan, or Sanscrit, or European, but by combining in different ways the native elements handed down from the very earliest tribe of settlers that first laid the foundation, soon after the dispersion of mankind from Babel, of the Chinese nation. How different is this character of the language of China from the nature of our own language! English has been growing and changing for some two thousand years—from its first Celtic element (a twig of the tree of languages, the main stem being the Sanscrit), through, and by means of, the Latin introduced by the Roman conquerors; then came the Danish and Saxon (the real foundation of the English language); next Norman-French at the time of the Conquest; and after that, as commerce and learning brought Englishmen more into contact with foreign nations, the language was enlarged and enriched by fresh collections from the Latin, Greek, and other European tongues, by the languages of Arabia, Persia, India, and China, the Malayan, and the original languages of America. It is entirely the reverse in China. She has, indeed, lived aloof from the nations in a remarkable manner, but she has not been altogether without the intercourse which England has had with other people. China has been conquered by two, if not three, distinct races of Tartars— Huns, Mongols, and Manchoos; the Chinese have fought and traded with many more of the Tartar tribes, as well as the Arabs, the natives of India, and the Malay peninsula and archipelago, the Japanese and Loochewans; and among Europeans, with Russia, Holland, Spain and Portugal, France and England; yet no trace of the effect of the languages of either the conquerors, the tributaries, or the mercantile acquaintances of China, can be discovered in her language. That language has triumphed over the Tartar languages of conquering dynasties, like Rome, in her fall subduing her barbarian invaders, but no other tongue has been admitted to a domicile in China.
The unique and isolated character of her language may account, in some measure at least, for the general misconception about its nature and composition. But surely no philologist will consider this a sufficient excuse for continued ignorance: rather should the mysteries as to its origin and history, and the difficulties connected with its structure and acquisition, give a keenness and a zest to its study. The highest powers of some of the noblest of human intellects have been bent to the study of Greek and Latin. "They find in such classical studies" (to quote the words of another), "first, two languages, each of the highest refinement and exactness; each possessing an accidence and a syntax admirably fitted to interest and exercise the faculties of investigation and reasoning; and both complete in their history—embalmed, so to speak, in their perfect form. He deals also with two literatures of preeminent grandeur and beauty, spread (taken together) over more than a thousand years, and, now, with their languages, fixed and embalmed in beautiful completeness, in their whole progress from youth to age." Such exactness of syntax, such beauty and sublimity of diction—though Chinese is not devoid of elegance—such a literature, such treasures of knowledge, are not to be discovered in the language of China; but if it be "more blessed to give than to receive," here, in the study of this tongue, is a magnificent task for the noblest intellect; here is a field in which minds the best furnished with classical lore may exercise their powers; here is a task with which those to whom a classical education has been denied may grapple in God's strength, and welcome, as a higher calling, a grander pursuit. For what treasure of wit or wisdom, of tragic interest or tenderest pathos, drawn from the stores of classic literature, can for one moment compare in value and in glory with the Gospel of the grace of God, which, when we shall have learned Chinese, we may impart to that mighty nation, with her four hundred millions of human tongues, with her countless thinkers, readers, teachers, and scholars, passing on into eternity without hope, without God, perishing for lack of knowledge!
One word of practical appeal I would make in conclusion. If it be true that there are two hundred different dialects in China; if it be the case that it is very rare for a missionary to master more than one of these dialects; then, surely the theory with which, if I mistake not, some true friends of missions satisfy themselves, is a delusion. It will not do to send a few missionaries—a dozen or twenty at the most from our Church to that vast land—and exclaim that these men can introduce the leaven to leaven the lump; that a native ministry and a native church is the hope of China. We must have, to give the experiment a fair trial, leaven for the populations speaking each of these two hundred dialects; we must have two hundred and not twenty missionaries; or, if they shall go two and two, four hundred at the very least, before the Church of England can be at ease as to the performance of her duty to China. - Rev. A. E. Moule.
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