« PreviousContinue »
STATE OF THE CHINESE LANGUAGE
AT THE TIME OF THE
INVENTION OF WRITING.
BY THE REV. J. EDKINS, D.D.
SECTION 1.-Time of the Invention of Writing.
The time of the invention of Chinese writing is said by native writers to have been B.C. 2300. Can we rely on them? On what trustworthy traditions do they base their belief in this fact? Their oldest books profess to come from B.c. 1100. But in them are portions which are older. There are poems of the Shang dynasty B.c. 1700 to B.c. 1100, and historical records of that and the Hią dynasty which preceded it, and stretched over four centuries, which date, therefore, from 2100 to B.C. 1700.
As might be expected, these old historical records have lacunæ. Some portions bear marks of later manipulation. In the Han dynasty, after the burning of the books, there was great zeal in restoring the classics exhibited by prince and people. Temptation was strong at that period to invent and to gain credit and currency for old writings. Doubtful paragraphs and chapters would at that time readily attain the character of genuineness. To detect the newlyadded passages, has been a favourite subject of criticism in the
present dynasty. There has been a good amount of success in separating the old from the new.
We are not called on to take sweeping measures however. To reject the whole of the writings which the Chinese ascribe to a time earlier than B.c. 1000, would be too revolutionary. They do not bear a very mythical looking character. Some incidents look extremely unlike the work of an inventor. The positions of the stars which mark the equinoxes and solstices are not what would have been assigned in the Han dynasty. The Emperor Yan would not, at a later age, be made, I suppose, to give at the same time his two daughters as wives to his successor, the Emperor Shun. This incident would not be invented by any Han writer.
Some English writers, such as Dr. Legge and Mr. Chalmers, while adopting the sceptical side on this question, have not perhaps sufficiently considered the force of the argument from linguistic development. Changes in language take a long time to effect. The period assigned by the Chinese to the invention of writing does not seem too ancient, if we duly estimate the alterations that have taken place in the language. In the absence of secure chronological data, we may employ as a test the rate of slowness which marks the progress of variation in the language. To serve this end we may, for example, conveniently select the twelve hundred years that have elapsed from the time of Hiuen Tsang, the Buddhist traveller and translator from Sanscrit, as a period which admits of sharp definition, and has included in its range some most important linguistic changes.
SECTION 2.—State of the Language 1200 Years since.
There is this advantage in taking Hiuen Tsang's time as an epoch. He was a translator from Sanscrit, and wrote with Chinese characters many Sanscrit names.
In his time there were four tones, each of them well marked. There are now five, the first having become divided into two. Chinese investigators into their own language tell us, that in the rhymes of the Book of Odes three tones are all that we can find traces of. This seems to be quite such a statement, based as it is on a thorough examination of the data for forming a judgment, as we can accept.
Taking this mode of estimating the rate of linguistic change, we have furnished to us two epochs of tone formation :
If we follow this method of testing linguistic growth, we are taken back to B.c. 1800 years as the time when the language began to tend towards tonic development. For the distinction between the two remaining tones is alphabetic, being that between mute and nasal, or vowel endings. Over the whole of China, at present, there is a distinction maintained by tonic pronunciation between the two classes shang and hia, into which the first tone is divided. This distinction was unknown in Hiuen Tsang's time. The change then has been very thorough, and it has been accompanied by various other radical changes, extending through many parts of the pronunciation and grammar. During this time the initial sonant letters have disappeared from four-fifths of China, and the final mutes k, t, p, have also been lost from two-thirds of China. The sonant initials have been changed for surds, and the final mutes have been dropped altogether.
Thus the dictionary Kwang yün, 1200 years old, gives the syllables bat and bak. But these will be called pa or pai or pe by the northern or western Chinese of the present day. The old sonant 6 has been thinned off into p, the t and k dropped, and the vowel lengthened or modified. In Canton and Amoy they will be called pat, pak.
Fortunately, in the Kwang yün, the syllables are divided according to their initials. B and p are not confounded; they are kept carefully apart. So with g and k. So with d and t. The proof is in a nutshell. We have here a sure stepping ground in our backward search into the early condition of the Chinese language.
F and ch are both new letters in the Chinese natural alphabet. They were, as we learn from the Kwang yün, coming into use when that dictionary was compiled. At that time there was no trace whatever of the modern coalescing in Mandarin of h and 8. This coalescing means that the letter h before the vowels i and ü is fast taking the sound 8. This remarkable and important phenomenon is the converse of the Greek and Celtic change of s to h. It is
registered in no book of the Ming dynasty, and therefore ought to be regarded as not more than two centuries old.
For the pronunciation of 1200 years ago there is no better guide than the Kwang yün; and, having this book, there need be no difficulty felt upon the state of the pronunciation at the time it represents.
The same period has witnessed the upgrowth of the modern Mandarin language. It differs much from the old literary style; and is probably diverging from it more and more as time goes on. The earliest Mandarin books are not more than 600 years old. Authors of the Sing li philosophy were the first to write in it, the celebrated Chu hi being among them. These men wrote in two styles, the classical and the Mandarin. Their motive in choosing a colloquial style was a consciousness that they had important thoughts to teach their pupils, and that thought is superior to style. The reading public of China needed to be convinced that thought ought to be expressed in simple language, its value being in itself, not in its costume.
The philosophers were followed by romancists and play-writers. Their usage tended to lower the Mandarin language as a literary style. The moral philosophers, by their employment of it, did less to elevate its claims than the writers of fiction did to diminish its honours. During the two dynasties that have ruled China for the last five hundred years, the ancient style has prevailed, as it does at present; and the Mandarin style has failed to acquire any high position in the esteem of scholars.
Yet the Mandarin language, as a spoken medium, has lived and grown with no check and with no foreign admixture. It is distinguished for more fulness, exactness, and clearness than the book language. Among the various patois of China it is the best for sweetness, intelligibility, and general adaptedness. Spoken by 200,000,000 of people, and remarkable as it is for flexibility and extent of phraseology, it has made scarcely any progress as a literary medium. Yet this is a matter of taste and of fashion. The old book language was once vernacular. The difference between it and the Mandarin is a difference between an old and new colloquial. The book language was once as much on the lips and in the ears of the people, as the little-esteemed Mandarin of to-day.
During the Han dynasty there was a rich development of native literature, especially in the departments of history, poetry, dictionaries, and classical criticism. Important works on physical philosophy, alchemy, astronomy, and the first Buddhist treatises, date from that time.
It was an age notable for archæology and thorough scholarship. As an instance, let me refer to the Fang yen. This book, made when the Chinese had not learned to spell, is a collection of synonyms
from existing dialects. Every dictionary of a language is, in fact, very much the same thing. It is a book in which one word is explained by others having the same meaning. This is specially true in Chinese, where knowledge is limited chiefly to one language.
In the Fang yen, let the words for great' be examined. We have mok,' dim, gut, dap, kok, get, tok, pong, tong, kang. Gut was the favourite in the kingdoms Tsi and Sung. Each word had its locality; each region had a special fancy for some one term. Thus synonyms became numerous, and, while a certain predilection reigned among scholars for particular words and turns of expression, the dialects were ruled by a local liking which tended to keep certain expressions current for a longer time than the use of scholars would have permitted.
When we arrive at the Han dynasty, the syllabic spelling of the Kwang yün fails to be useful to us. Kwo p'u seems to have been the first to employ it, and he belonged to the fourth century. In his time we can judge of the existing pronunciation by his spelling. Before his day there was no idea among the Chinese literati that a word was divisible into letters. Alphabetical analysis was as strange to them as the analysis of water, or air, or light, to Western chemists before the discoveries of modern science. Our only sou of inquiry as to ancient sounds in older times are the rhymes of poetry, the use of characters for each other, and the phonetic principle in writing.
SECTION 3.-State of the Language in the Time of Confucius.
I now proceed to the era of Confucius. Great maturity marks the language as it was in the Cheu and Ts'in dynasties from s.c. 1100 to
1 Should any one be surprised not to meet with the common Indo-European root mag in Chinese, Mongol, or Japanese, he will find it in this old book, viz. mok, above given.