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The Chinese characters are records of a distant past. Instead of being hidden under the rubbish heaps of ruined palaces, like the Cuneiform Inscriptions, they have, millennium after millennium, been passing in open day through the hands of scribes. Subject to the caprices of each generation of writers, they now present themselves to us in a vast variety of successive forms. Through these forms, if the inquisitive eye of science trace correctly the process of change, we may acquire a knowledge of the origin of Chinese writing, and the method pursued by the inventors.
These men did not make a language. What they did was to find out a mode of committing to writing a language which was already made. It was a sufficient medium at that time for the thoughts and wants of a civilized people. The Chinese language, as judged by the characters, is not barbarous. Though simple and not much developed, it is civilized, and represents man in a condition marked by high moral, political, and social characteristics. He is well fed and well clothed. He is possessed of the conveniences and even luxuries of life. Many of the principal elements which make up the social state of modern China existed when the characters were invented. In these inquiries the conviction
is forced on us that we are dealing with an old civilization, and a language well stocked and compacted. The words of the language were as clearly divided into parts of speech, and as clearly distinguished from each other by their sense, as at any later period.
This book is intended to be a guide to the study of the picture writing of the Chinese and to their conventional signs of words. It is an introduction to the analysis of the Chinese characters, and to the history of the words in ancient and modern times in regard to their sounds and written signs.
Those who have read my “China's Place in Philology" know that I believe in the possibility of proving the ultimate identity of Chinese and European words. My present task, however, does not lead me into opposition with the opinions and practice of any modern philologists, by comparing words belonging to different families of language, except in one respect. I have found it necessary to strengthen the proof of the old sounds of the Chinese characters by citing corresponding words in Mongol and Japanese. After the work was in print, and while writing this Preface, I have seen Professor Max Müller's fourth volume, just published, of “Chips from a German Workshop,” where, at page 111, are inserted three posthumous letters of the late Professor Julien bearing on this very point. The validity of my proof pub. lished in the “Revue Orientale” of November, 1865, more than ten years ago, of the connexion of the Chinese and Mongol languages, is contested by this great scholar. I will endeavour, as time permits, to collect a much larger number of instances of identity in roots than is contained in that article, for I am fully aware that in this critical instance of contiguity between the monosyllabic and polysyllabic areas the vocabulary of identities should be made as large as possible.
I have been urged to do this by Professor Max Müller himself, who yields to none in the interest with which he regards questions connected with the Eastern Asiatic languages, and who has said and done much to stimulate those who are engaged in these researches. I will here only say that Professor Julien, when he condemned my views on this point, did not carefully examine the instances given of identities of roots. For example, the Chinese word lok “green,” Mandarin lü, admits of comparison with the Mongol logon, but Julien compared logon with t'sing "blue," "green," and " black.” When comparing the Chinese t'ien “heaven” with the corresponding word in Mongol, he wrote it tegri, as in modern Turkish, instead of tengri or tingri, the Mongol. Besides this, he omitted all references to my arguments from common laws of order in words, from rhythmical resemblances and from identity in syllabary.
Words in the languages of nomad races are, it seems to me, more easily lost or changed than in the languages of settled populations. Hence the necessity of paying particular regard to identical laws whether in the syllabary, the syntax, the system of derivation, or in the prosody. It is much to be regretted that Julien with his vast knowledge of words does not appear to have been conscious of this.
In this book will be found by the student a much larger collection of explanations of characters than has been before given in works on the Chinese language. The etymologies are traced to their native sources and frequently criticized. The compiler of the Shwo wen is the author of most of the current explanations, but though always deserving of atten
tion, he often errs, as is shown by native students of later times. No explanations then should be ascribed to him for which he is not responsible. Later authors are also worthy of being consulted. Their names are here often cited; for brevity, I have written the initial letters only, e.g. Sw for Shwo wen, and Tt for Tai tung, author of Lu shu ku.
The early Jesuits were accustomed to interpret Chinese characters on the wildest principles. They detected religious mysteries in the most unexpected situations. Kwei“ treacherous," is written with kieu “nine,” and above it one of the covering radicals #. This then was Satan at the head of the nine ranks of angels. The character A c'hwen “a boat,” was believed to contain an allusion to the Deluge. On the left side is the ark and on the right are the signs for eight and for persons. The day for this mode of explaining the Chinese characters has gone by.
The form of the characters made use of for explanation in this work is the modern. This will be most useful and comprehensible to the student. Old forms are puzzling to the beginner. The best collection of old and new forms of the characters accessible to the European student is that given by Morrison in his fifth volume. It has the advantage of being alphabetical.
The acquisition of the written language will become easier when the characters are explained than if there be no key to their formation.
Besides helping the student to acquire the written language, I have had in view the determination of the phonetic value of the characters.
There is sufficient regularity in the construction of the characters to render it possible for us to arrive at some