Athanasius Kircher, Jesuit, encyclopedic scholar, one of the most brilliant minds of the 17th century in Europe, became interested in China, then newly fashionable. The Jesuits had been engaged since 1582 in the intellectual exploration of this civilization, with the initial mission of Matteo Ricci.
Kircher published his « Illustrated China » in Amsterdam in 1670. Among other things, he deals with ideographic writing, the principle of which is still obscure to him, according to all appearances, since he mistook the ideograms for hieroglyphics, observing « the similarity of the ancient Chinese characters with the hieroglyphics »and that « the first Chinese people who were descended from the Egyptians followed their ways of doing things for their writing. »
He proposed an astonishing classification of Chinese ideograms according to sixteen « forms », drawn from his rich imagination, and based on the supposed similarities of Chinese characters with natural forms.
Here are some excerpts describing these « forms ».
Form I: « You see here snakes wonderfully intertwined with each other, and which have various figures according to the diversity of the classes they mean. »
Form II: « The first form of the old letters is taken from the things of agriculture. »
Form III: « The 3rd form of the letters is composed of quantities of birds, called ‘Fum Hoam’, and is said to be the most beautiful of all those that the eyes can see: because it is made of several feathers, & several wings.
Form IV: « The form IVof the ancient characters (…) is taken from oysters and worms. »
Form V: « The form VII is composed of the roots of the herbs. »
Form VI: « The form VI is composed of the remains of birds. »
Form VII: « The form VII is made of turtles. »
Form VIII: « The form VIII – made of birds & peacocks. »
Form IX: « Made of grass & wings. »
Form X: « Their meaning is ‘quai ço xi ho ki ven’ or, said otherwise, Ço, author of some writings, composed these letters, not to forget what he knew. »
Form XI: « Take the figure of stars and plants. »
Form XII: « Letters of the edicts formerly used. »
Form XIII: « Yeu çau chi ey en tao. »
Form XIV: « Letters of rest, joy, science, talks, darkness and clarity. »
Form XV: « Composed of fish. »
Form XVI: « Does not have to be read: that is why we did not understand what it meant. »
Beyond the undeniable poetry of this disconnected, repetitive and fanciful catalog, one can only note the apparent, staggering, ignorance of one of the most agile European minds of these times with regard to a culture, that seemed then indeed difficult to access.
Such phenomena of blindness and intercultural misunderstanding, far from being outdated in our newly globalized world, can indeed be observed today.
At least, Athanasius Kircher then had a try, in good faith.