China and Inner Asia

Organized Panel Session

2 - Grammatology and the Manchu Script in Early Nineteenth-Century Paris: Langlès, Rémusat, Klaproth

Thursday, March 22
7:30 PM - 9:30 PM
Location: Johnson, Mezzanine Level

By the late eighteenth century, the grammatological identity of the Manchu script should, one might think, have been a settled issue for European scholars. The Manchus themselves treated their script as an alphasyllabary arranged in twelve sections. Yet in the 1730s, Gottlieb Bayer had published several papers in St. Petersburg that presented the script of the rulers of China as an alphabet no different from its Near Eastern predecessor, Syriac. Decades later, Michel-Ange-André Le Roux Deshauterayes laid out the Manchu as an alphabetic table that, as part of Diderot's Encyclopédie, circulated widely. Still, when Louis-Mathieu Langlès announced the casting of an alphabetic Manchu typeface in Paris in the late 1780s, he faced resistance. First, a French Jesuit in Peking, Joseph-Marie Amiot, Langlès's Manchu teacher at a distance, reproached the young scholar for haughtily seeing an alphabet where the Manchus themselves saw none. Two decades later, Jean-Pierre Abel Rémusat and Julius Klaproth, scholars closer to home, challenged Langlès's claims regarding the Manchu alphabet in print. How should we understand this controversy? In this paper, I will survey the debate over the Manchu script's nature that played out in France between 1780 and 1820. By examining the writings of Langlès and his critics, I will try to disentangle personal animosity and simple priority debates from traces of an ideology that saw the alphabet, and not the syllabary, as the hallmark of civilization.

Marten Soderblom Saarela

Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, Germany

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2 - Grammatology and the Manchu Script in Early Nineteenth-Century Paris: Langlès, Rémusat, Klaproth



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