China and the Royal Society: Lives and letters

Chronological table

Europeans have always been intrigued by the unfamiliar in China. One of the most obvious differences was the Chinese written language, in which the characters represent whole words, rather than sounds. Early Fellows tried to explain this difference scientifically, questioning whether Chinese might be related to Hebrew.

Chinese manufacturing processes also enthralled visitors. How were their beautiful porcelain dishes made? What did silkworms eat, and how was silk spun? What were the ingredients of lacquer? Of course, there was an economic side to this interest. Luxury goods such as porcelain and silk commanded high prices in Europe, and the secrets of their production were investigated as part of the scientific agenda of the Royal Society.


Lettre de Pekin sur le génie de la langue Chinoise (Brussells, 1773)
In 1761 Turberville Needham FRS published a book suggesting that Chinese characters were related to Egyptian hieroglyphics. This provoked an energetic debate in scientific circles, and the Royal Society wrote to China to ask the opinion of Chinese scholars on the subject. The answer came from a French Jesuit missionary in Peking. It was printed in this volume with illustrations showing different forms of Chinese characters in different periods. The author concluded that there is little similarity between Chinese and Egyptian forms of writing.

Robert Hooke, 'Some observations, and conjectures concerning the Chinese characters', Philosophical Transactions vol 16 (1686)
Robert Hooke FRS published this report on the Chinese language in 1686. He had access to several books printed in China, including a Chinese dictionary and a manuscript version of the Lord's Prayer written in Chinese. He believed that the Chinese language was very old, and that pronunciation of the characters had changed a great deal over the centuries.
Read Hooke's article

Portrait of James Holman FRS (1786-1857), by George Chinnery
Lieutenant James Holman joined the Royal Navy when he was 12, but went blind at the age of 25. He turned his  the globe and visiting Siberia, Tasmania, and previously unexplored parts of Africa. His accounts of his travels made him a popular author in England. Holman visited Macao and Canton (Guangzhou, China) in 1830. George Chinnery was based in Macao at this period but also worked in Canton and the surrounding area. He was the only western painter in South China during the first half of the 19th century, and his work is an important record of life and culture during the period. Holman's portrait must have been painted during his visit to South China. Holman bequeathed it to the Royal Society at his death.

Chinese chronology (c.1724)
European interest in Chinese chronology stemmed from the fact that the Chinese could trace their history much further back than the standard European accounts of the creation of the world, which were in general agreement that it had occurred in about 4000 BC. This chronological table was presented to the Society by Sir Thomas Dereham FRS. A detailed explanation of the Latin translation of this table was published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1730.
Read the Philosophical Transactions article