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East Meets West丨Austrian Sinologist Leopold Leeb: How Can Latin Be Used to Build a Bridge Between China and the West?
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East Meets West丨Austrian Sinologist Leopold Leeb: How Can Latin Be Used to Build a Bridge Between China and the West?

Leopold Leeb, a renowned sinologist who was born in Austria in 1967, went to China in 1995 and obtained his PhD in Philosophy from Peking University in 1999. Between 1999 and January 2004, he produced translations and carried out research at the Institute of World Religions, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Leeb’s research interests include Western classical languages, ancient and medieval literature, philosophy, and religious studies. His main publications include The Latin Bridge, The Latin-English-Chinese Dictionary, The Dictionary of Latin Idioms and The Concise Course of Latin, and he compiled and translated Beyond East and West: The Autobiography of Wu Jingxiong.  

The dialogue between Latin and Chinese has a long history. The earliest teaching of Latin in China dates back seven hundred years to the Yuan dynasty when, in 1294, John of Montecorvino travelled to the Yuan capital (present-day Beijing) to preach and teach Latin to 40 local boys. Then, four hundred years ago, the Italian missionary Matteo Ricci began to translate the Four Books into Latin and, for the first time ever, he spelt Chinese characters in Latin, becoming the 'progenitor' of Chinese pinyin. The peak of Latin–Chinese translation came in the 17th century when many advanced Western technologies were introduced to China.


Latin and Chinese: a special relationship  

Some years ago, I wrote a book, Latin in China (not yet published), which deals more comprehensively with the introduction of Latin into China, including early cultural exchanges, academic translations and the creation of new words in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, the earliest Latin scholars in China, the Latin academies in China, the preparation and publication of textbooks and bilingual dictionaries, the Latin scholars of the Republican period, and the Chinese literati's interest in classical studies in the late 20th century.

In fact, the relationship between Latin and the Chinese language is rather special. For example, few people will know that the ancient Chinese word "lao", meaning "cheese", was pronounced LAK, which is similar to the Latin word "lac" ("milk"). However, there are not too many examples of this, although "luobo" ("radish") also reminds me of the Latin "rapum" ("radish").

People queuing outside a cheese shop to buy dairy products in Nanluoguxiang, Beijing (2008).

Photo by Yu Long, China News Service

Latin and ancient Chinese are both old languages with a rich history of more than 2,000 years and numerous accompanying documents. While ancient Greek, ancient Hebrew and ancient Chinese are all ancient languages, Latin should be considered to be the most modern ancient language because its vocabulary contains many modern words; for example, the ancient Romans were already using "republic", "voting rights", "civil law", "international law" and other ideas. In addition, the Romans wrote law textbooks, grammar textbooks, logic textbooks and encyclopaedias covering many areas of knowledge. Interestingly, much of the vocabulary of the language of the ancient Romans is still in use today.

Many modern Chinese words come from Latin 

Around 60% of English words come from Latin, and many words in modern Chinese also come from this ancient language. The word "modern" in the phrase "modern Chinese" is derived from the Latin word "modernus", which first appeared in Roman papal literature in 496 AD and means "to be close to" or "just past". Meanwhile, the literati of Charlemagne's time (800 AD) were already referring to this particular era as "modernum saeculumv" ("the modern period"). The word "modern" thus became a word that is used in all European languages and other languages of the world. However, it is important to remember that the Romans used it first!

A modern advertisement on the streets of Shanghai (2004).

Photo by Wu Mangzi, China News Service

Modern Chinese also contains foreign words, such as the word "ka" ("card") that people swipe (from the medieval Latin "charta", meaning "a piece of paper"). A large number of Latin words have been translated into modern Chinese, and people use them every day but rarely think about their origins. A very sentimental example is "muyu" ("mother tongue") and "muxiao" ("alma mater"). The word "muyu" comes from "lingua materna" (English "mother tongue", French "langue maternelle", German "Muttersprache"). In the Chinese dictionaries of the 1930s, there was no "muyu", only "benguoyu" ("native language") or "guoyu" ("national language"). It is worth noting that the first Latin author to mention "mother tongue" was Augustine (354–430 AD). In his autobiography Confessions, he was the first to describe how babies learn languages from their mothers. From that point onwards, Europeans began to focus on the educational role of mothers. The word "alma mater" comes from the medieval Latin "alma mater" ("benevolent mother") and refers to one's school, because a school, like a mother, gives pupils (students) much (spiritual) nourishment and helps them to mature. Latin is the world's "most romantic" ("romantic" from Roma) language. It is also the language of science, as evidenced by the fact that the majority of Isaac Newton's works were written in Latin.

In June 2016, a primary school in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, held a graduation ceremony for their sixth-grade students with the theme of "Caring About Their Alma Mater and Flying Their Dreams". Parents of the graduates were invited to attend.

Photo by Zhang Yun, China News Service

With regard to the introduction of academic terms, the book Euclid's Elements, as translated by the Italian missionary Matteo Ricci, defined many geometric concepts and created terms such as "sanjiaoxing" ("triangle"), "zhengfangxing" ("square"), "dian" ("point"), "mian" ("face") and "ti" ("body"), which were all translated from Latin. The Chinese word "ti" refers to the body, but in ancient times it had no geometric meaning. We use the words "litigan" ("three-dimensionality"), "wuti" ("object") and "qiuti" ("sphere") today because the Latin word "corpus" ("body") has altered the meaning of the Chinese word "ti" with a geometric connotation.

Portrait of Matteo Ricci

Photo by Yao Jun, China News Service

The Chinese language has been rewritten and enriched through the influence of Latin in many ways, and numerous terms and expressions have been added. For example, terms of grammar (verbs, nouns, adjectives, conjunctions, prepositions, pronouns, etc.) are not to be found in ancient Chinese. Civil law, criminal law, marriage law, commercial law, contracts, international treaties, associations and committees can also not be found in ancient Chinese, but today there is a "village committee" in every rural Chinese village. Who knew that "weiyuanhui" ("committee") comes from the Latin word "committere" ("to give", i.e. to "give" one's voice to another person, to appoint them)?

Latin is also the language with the most 'power'. In modern Chinese, "xiangxiangli" ("imagination") ("vis imaginationis"), "jiyili" ("memory") ("vis memoriae") and "lijieli" ("comprehension") ("vis intellectiva") are all in fact Latin concepts.

When I began studying Chinese in 1988, I did not expect to find so many words in the language that I felt so close to. At that time, I thought Chinese was a completely 'different system' or involved 'another way of thinking'. Nevertheless, today, I have come to understand that the Chinese use the same vocabulary as the Europeans in many ways. We have long been brethren in thought, especially since 1949 when "vernacular" and "Mandarin" were introduced and the old "semi-classical Chinese" disappeared.

Today's Chinese are accustomed to using the words "xing" ("quality") (as in "purity") and "zhuyi" ("ism"), but few reflect on where they get their ideas from. The suffix "ism" is also Latin. By the 13th century, there were many schools of thought and debates among the learned in European universities, and they began to use the suffixes "-ista" and "-ismus" (e.g. "nominalism" and "nominalismus") to express a particular ideological tendency or ideology. However, because modern Chinese terms are written in Chinese characters, there is no sense that the etymology of these words is foreign.

In fact, Latin has 'transformed' many traditional Chinese words. For example, in ancient Chinese, "shehui" ("society") referred to group activities such as festivals and temple fairs, but in today's Chinese, "society" is more often associated with "social relations", "social class", "sociology", "socialism" and so on. Latin can help us recover the original meaning of "shehui": "societas" ("English society") comes from "socius", i.e. "ally" or "friend". Society is therefore the product of friendships. Moreover, in medieval Latin, "societas" also meant "association" or "civil society", implying that people organised "societies" in order to have a rich social life.


The striking similarities between ancient Chinese and Latin

It is also important to highlight some striking similarities between ancient Chinese and Latin. For example, the Roman word "pupilla" has two meanings: firstly, it can refer to a "little girl", and secondly, it can refer to the "pupil of the eye". Why is the Chinese word "tong" for "pupil" placed next to the word "mu" for "eye"? Is it because we see our own image in each other's eyes – "a shrunken child"? How else can we explain the ‘coincidence’ of "pupilla" and "tong"?

There are other examples: the Latin word "fructus" primarily means "fruit", but like the Chinese word "guo" ("fruit"), it can also mean the abstract "result". This expression may have been inspired by Buddhism: "cause and effect". The Chinese idiom "As a man sows, so does he reap" is equivalent to the Latin idiom "Sicut seminaveris ita metes". However, the Latin word "fructus" can also mean "fetus" ("child"), as in "fructus ventris tui" ("the child you give birth to"). Because the Latin word is influenced in many ways by legal thought, "fructus" also means "to enjoy", "to benefit" and "the right to benefit".

Both Easterners and Westerners use the word "flower" and certain animals as a metaphor for the beauty of women. The Latin adjective "florens" ("flowering"), for example, means "beautiful", which is similar to the Chinese saying that a person is "a flower" or "gorgeous" (the original character for "hua" ["flower"] had the radical for "grass"). Many Chinese girls have names such as "xiaohua" ("little flower") or "hongmei" ("red plum blossom"), while in the West the same phenomenon also occurs as the Latin "rosa" becomes "Rose", the Latin "lilium" becomes "Lily", and the Hebrew "susanna" ("lily") becomes "Susan", etc. The Latin word "margarita" ("pearl", from Greek) is also the name of a woman, "Margaret", similar to the names for gems used in Chinese, such as "Lin Daiyu" ("yu" means "jade").

The Chinese words "gao" ("high"), "ping" ("equal") and "di" ("low") express not only the height of a figure, but also a certain mood and attitude, such as "pride", "easy-going" and "feeling down". In Latin, the word "height" is used to express an attitude of the mind, as "celsus" ("high") can also mean "pride", "aequus" ("equal") can mean "calm" or "fair", and "humilis" ("short", "low") can mean "insignificant" or "inferior". In addition, the Latin word "sublimitas" ("highly", "noble") associates "excellent" with "high", as in the Chinese word "gaoshang" ("noble").

On April 22, 2006, the 37th "World Earth Day", the "2006 Earth's Third Pole Everest Campaign" was launched in Beijing, a signature campaign for environmental protection in the city’s universities. Volunteers were officially recruited from society.

Photo by Du Yang, China News Service

The Latin word "caput" can mean "the main city of a country" and it is the root of the modern Chinese word "shoudu" ("capital"). At the same time, "caput" can also be the "chapter" of a document, that is, the "chapter" in English. It is interesting to note that Chinese also uses the word "shou" ("one") to refer to a "chapter", as in the case of the Three Hundred Poems of the Tang Dynasty.

The Chinese words "dingning" and "dingdang" are both onomatopoeic, but the former also means "repeatedly instructing". The Latin word "tinnire" also combines two meanings: "nummuli tinniunt" ("the coins are clanging") and "nimium iam tinnis" ("you have told and instructed us too much").

There are many more examples, all of which can be found in my book The Latin Bridge. My desire to encourage more Chinese readers to learn Latin has led to the production of several textbooks and dictionaries. Today, Chinese students spend a great deal of their time learning ancient Chinese, but there are still very few who choose to study Latin.

I began teaching Latin in Beijing in 2002 and, 20 years later, my interest in this educational pursuit has not waned. In fact, quite the opposite, it has continued to grow.

Latin has given me a very strong sense of belonging. For example, the tombstone of Zheng Manuo (1633–1673), the earliest Chinese to study in Europe, was found in Beijing in 2018, and the inscription is written in Chinese and Latin side by side, cleverly combining the two cultures. This had an effect on me as I felt as if I was reflecting on my own journey when I started reading Zheng Manuo's story. His life and his bilingual inscriptions have given me a deep respect and appreciation for Beijing as a "lingdu" ("spiritual capital").


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