The invention of an alphabet for the transcription of Chinese characters half a millennium ago

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The Latinization of Chinese characters will ultimately prove to be one of the most important developments in the history of writing.  We usually attribute this epochal achievement to the Italian Jesuit priest, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), but he was assisted in that monumental endeavor by several individuals.  One of the most important of these was the Jesuit Nicolas Trigault (1577–1628), whose Xīrú ěrmù zī 西儒耳目資 (An Aid to the Eyes and Ears of Western Literati) helped to establish the alphabetization of Sinitic on a solid footing.

In "Printed Editions of the Xiru Ermuzi", Memoirs of the Research Department of the Toyo Bunko, no. 79 (2021), 1-32, TAKATA Tokio has carried out a detailed codicological study of all editions and copies of Trigault's text.  In the process, he has brought to light two hitherto unknown editions of Xiru Ermuzi, greatly enhancing our understanding of the development of this vital work.  Takata's study is extremely detailed and heavily footnoted.  Here I present his Introduction and Concluding Remarks.


The Xiru ermuzi 西儒耳目資 (An Aid to the Eyes and Ears of Western Literati) by the Jesuit Nicolas Trigault (Jin Nige 金尼閣, 1577–1628), published in the late Ming, was an epoch-making work that theoretically explained a method for transcribing Chinese characters in the Latin alphabet, presented a table of all the syllables of Nanjing Mandarin at the time, and also included an index that made it possible to search for the romanized transcription of Chinese characters, which were arranged in the order of their radicals and number of strokes. C. Dehaisnes, who wrote a biography of Trigault, even states that this was the most important of all the books published by Jesuits in China.1) As well as showing the final form of a romanization system that people had been searching for since the time of Matteo Ricci (Li Madou 利瑪竇, 1552–1610), it also provided for a long time the basis of the phonetic transcription systems for Chinese used in Europe. As well, this book played an extremely important role in that it had an enormous influence on the Chinese character reform movement in modern China. However, until now only a single edition of the Xiru ermuzi had been known to exist, and all research has been conducted on the basis of this edition. In the following, I wish to introduce to readers the existence of two further editions, separate from the widely known standard edition, and discuss the background to the writing of the Xiru ermuzi and also some aspects of its influence.

Concluding Remarks

Until now, only the Tianqi 6 edition [VHM:  1626] of the Xiru ermuzi compiled by Wang Zheng had been known. The newly discovered IOM version [VHM:  in Russia] was a trial edition published by Trigault with the cooperation of Han Yun at the start of Tianqi 5 [VHM:  1625]. It had various shortcomings when compared with the current standard edition, but it developed through questions and answers a theory for transcribing Chinese characters in the Latin script and presented tables with the romanized equivalents of Chinese syllables. The basic form of the definitive edition of Tianqi 6 can already be observed in this trial edition. It is to be hoped that in the future this trial edition by Han Yun will be subjected to a more detailed examination as an important source for considering the origins of the Xiru ermuzi.

Meanwhile, the movable-type edition held by Shanghai Museum would appear to have been an experiment that was not brought to completion, but it nonetheless shows that there still existed an interest in and demand for the Xiru ermuzi during the Qing dynasty. In this sense, this work, too, is an important source of material.

Hànyǔ pīnyīn 汉语拼音 / 漢語拼音 ("Sinitic Spelling"), the official Romanization of Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) owes it parentage to the work of Ricci and Trigault, in particular the latter's Xīrú ěrmù zī 西儒耳目資 (An Aid to the Eyes and Ears of Western Literati).


Selected readings


  1. Victor Mair said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 11:21 am

    From Chau Wu:

    Catholic scholars in China during the late Ming – early Ching period made tremendous strides in such endeavors. I don't know how many versions of romanization of Mandarin they made. But here is one version from the nineteenth century preserved in the University of Bologna. In the following article, Figures 3 & 4 (申爾福經 and 解罪經) show the transcription character by character. By the way, notice their way of writing Amen 亞孟 in Hanzi, touching on the subject of Amen you have discussed in an earlier post.

    歷史學柑仔店》十九世紀的多語神人:默作凡德 – 自由評論網


    This article also touches on the oldest and, historically, one of the most influential Sinology schools in Europe, Collegio dei Cinesi 中國書院, founded by Matteo Ripa in 1732.

    Matteo Ripa – Wikipedia

    In December 1723 Matteo Ripa left Beijing for Europe, travelling with four young Chinese Christians

    Università degli Studi di Napoli "L'Orientale" – Wikipedia

    The Università degli Studi di Napoli "L'Orientale" is the oldest school of Sinology and Oriental Studies of the …

  2. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 10:41 pm

    We might have the URL for the pdf of Takata's article quoted above.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 7:48 am

    @Hiroshi Kumamoto

    Thank you very much for making the pdf of Takata's article available to everyone.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 7:49 am

    From Alan Kennedy:

    Later in date was the Chinese-Latin dictionary of the Franciscan monk Basilio Brollo (1648-1704).

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