Comparative Literature Studies 40.1 (2003) 92-95
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Ideographia. The Chinese Cipher in Early Modern Europe. By David Porter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. xiv + 296pp. $49.50.
In his 1792 essay, Dissertation on the Chinese, Sir William Jones noted the inconstancy of the China mode: "By some [the Chinese] have been extolled as the oldest and the wisest, as the most learned and the most ingenious, of nations; whilst others have derided their pretensions to antiquity, condemned their government as abominable, and arraigned their manners as inhuman." These extreme judgments reflected a time of intense preoccupation with all things Chinese, from the ubiquitous china sets of British society to the chinoiserie rage that swept the artistic, architectural, and horticultural tastes of much of 18th century Europe. The year 1792 also witnessed the dispatching of Lord Maccartney as the first British envoy to the Qing court, in an abortive attempt to win friendship between the two monarchs and trading privileges for the powerful seaborne empire. That diplomatic failure, among others, was the prelude to war, as British naval might humiliated the fragile Qing empire in an easy victory in 1839, heralding more than a century of Sino-western confrontation and the degradation of Chinese civilization in western opinion.
Matters were very different in the 17th century. In 1615, the Belgian Jesuit, Nicholas Trigault, published in Latin translation a revised edition of the notes kept by his fellow missionary in China, the founder of the Mission, Matteo Ricci. In its many reprints and vernacular translations, The History of the Christian Expedition to China, as the Latin title was called, made a deep impression in a continent torn by Christian confessional strife. The antiquity, the brilliance, and the complexity of Chinese civilization offered an alternative to Christendom, made more enticing by the promise of evangelization and conversion. Nurtured by 150 years of Jesuit encomia, this philosinitism was eventually subverted by another discourse, centered in Protestant Britain and informed in large part by an Augustan classical reaction and commercialist worldview, that would dismiss China as the byword of stagnation, despotism, and tedium.
Ideographia is not about this story. True, the changing fortunes of the China gaze is very much present in David Porter's brilliant study, but his concern "lies less in cataloguing Western images of the East or Eastern influences on European culture than in tracing the origins of hermeneutic strategies, their historical evolution, and their own culturally transformative [End Page 92] potential" (3). By invoking "ideographia," Porter hopes to suggest "both a plurality of ideographic systems and a symptomatic proclivity to discover such systems in otherwise meaningless configurations of signs" (9). An important theoretical conceit for Porter is the assumption of a genealogical principle of legitimacy, that is the ordering principles of origin and descent, to serve as an analytical category. His own interpretive strategy privileges four encounters: linguistic, religious, aesthetic, and commercialist. Organized into four chapters, each theme entails the analysis of a body of texts (in the larger sense of pictorial and spatial representations as well).
In "Linguistic Legitimacy and the Interpretation of Chinese Writing," in my view the longest and the central chapter in the book, Porter spells out in detail his argument for the attraction of the Chinese language. A system of ideographs seemed to promise, for Bacon, Sprat, Wilkins, and other language reformers of 17th century England, a pure, stable, enduring, and exact correspondence between signs and things. Dreading the emasculation of philosophy at the hands of rhetoric, written Chinese, so praised by Ricci and other Jesuit missionary-savants, represented a system of true representations not only for those like Bacon and Sprat, who were ignorant of the actual language itself, but also for Leibniz and T. S. Bayer, one an admirer of the I-ching and the other a budding proto-Sinologist the other. The impulse to fix the English language extended to the writings of Johnson and Swift, although they would not share the enthusiasm for Chinese entertained by the previous century. The reason for that difference is not...