Heroes of Sinology, Part I

R.H. "Get your stinking paws off my dictionary!" Mathews


by Ernie Diaz


It’s all very well to be a Sinologist nowadays. All manner of media await your pronouncements and forecasts on China’s state of affairs, provided you emphasize the limitations, unless you’re appearing on CCTV9. Of course you must generalize as much as possible; a granular approach to the hearts and minds of 1.3 billion people might give the impression that there are no easy answers to the question of how to deal with such an unwieldy new player on the world stage.


This western attitude of treating China as a problem, a problem demanding broad measures, gives us skinny-ankled intellectual types at CEX all the more reason to doff our caps to the first wave of western Sinologists. They gave their energies to exploring China’s finest and dustiest treasures when few gave a hoot in hell about the Sick Man of Asia, and when many in China had renounced these treasures as relics of a decadent past. Their work was often tedious, but the results laid an essential foundation for those few who still seek to understand, before making themselves understood. Ironically, their work  often took them into strange circles far removed from the ivory tower of academia.



Henri Maspero
15 Dec 1882 (Paris) – 17 March 1945 (Buchenwald)


Granted, many of those circles were ripples from the swirling vortex that engulfed West and East in the first half of the 20th century. The son of a famous Egyptologist, Maspero was to the library born. Egyptology to make father happy, a law degree to make money, and then a Chinese degree to make himself happy.


Money and other people’s good opinion do not make one free. Curiosity does. Pity the scholar’s dusty lot if you will, but the gifted one loses himself in pursuit of understanding, the way an artist transcends in the process of creation. La Chine Antique, published in 1927, remains one of the best extended treatments of early Chinese history, the test of time proving the timeless scholar. His legal training aided in Le Serment dans la Procédure Juridique de la Chine Antique (1935), an exploration of classic Chinese jurisprudence.


Sadly, perhaps tragicomically, Maspero’s scholastic brilliance found little match in his lecture hall delivery. Stumbling, circumlocutory and long-winded, Maspero nonetheless found one devoted disciple: “le clochard du Maspero”, a tramp who took advantage of the College de France’s open door policy, sitting spellbound. Unless Maspero ran on far too long, in which case a desultory “About time to finish, no?” prompted the professor to wind things up.


Book smarts, street smarts, eternal the great divide. A Jew, he nonetheless risked occupied France for the safety of the stacks. Arrested on “suspicion of terrorist activities”, he was transported to and died in Buchenwald, despite formal pleas from fellow Sinologist, the German Erich Haenisch. The man went early and cruelly. The legacy – a framework of enquiry into subjects from affixing to the dialect of Chang’an – reinforces the edifice that followed.


R H Mathews
13 July 1877 (Melbourne) – 16 Feb 1970 (Melbourne)

Proportionately speaking, Christianity must have brought as many westerners to Sinology as Chinese to Jesus. Robert Henry Mathews joined the China Inland Mission in 1906 at 29, too old to learn Chinese, in the eyes of a world that held little hope for more than half a century. Persistence got him in, tending to Adelaide’s destitute a dispensation for his theological degree, and a ticket to Shanghai in 1908.

Perhaps we do a disservice to the many Sinologists who dwelt on a book of poems for a decade; Mathews was a man on a mission, literally, who interpreted the lack of response to his preaching as primarily a language gap. Slight but forceful, he kept warlord Feng Yuxiang and his troops in good order at Bible study. His ensuing scholarship was more practical than parsing Tang couplets, but hell with it, his is a better story than many others’, his faith a device for making life interesting, to objective onlookers.

The Mission’s re-assigning him to revision of Baller’s Chinese-English dictionary launched his contributions to Sinology. A three-year flurry produced a 1200-page manuscript, one that had fleshed out in addition to some five thousand characters needed for deeper reading, another forty thousand of rare and precious characters, knowledge akin to a linguistic Sino-Smithsonian. One doesn’t need to see Fonzie’s jacket, per se, but still nice to know it’s there in honored storage.

While modernizing a companion volume, Mathews saw Japanese pressure flatten Shanghai’s vistas. The Marco Polo Bridge Incident told a savvy big-nose to leave town, but savvy rarely knows the freedom of a project that consumes the soul. He turned out Progressive Studies in the Chinese National Language, a gorgeous collection of cross-referenced indices and vocabulary lists, on and on into onomatopoetic affective reduplicates, in time to see the CIM compound seized by the Japanese, and his new Dictionary destroyed, along with the printing blocks.

Those who knew Mathews surmise that the blow grieved him more than his subsequent internment at the Lenghua camp, one of Japan’s bleakest, but for the suffering of his wife, also an inmate. Leathery Aussie endurance saw him out of the camp and into his tenth decade. The Harvard Library reprinted his first dictionary, which eighty years on has not been surpassed as a first resource for the student of classical Chinese.



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2 Responses to Heroes of Sinology, Part I

  1. Chris Backhouse says:

    Even earlier sinologists perhaps had an even tougher job on their hands. One of the most extraordinary was perhaps Iiakinf Bichurin:



  2. Ernie says:

    Yeah, Part II will not necessarily be chronological.

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