An Early Modern Epistemological Turn? Natural Knowledge Production in the East Asian Cultural Sphere
2: On the Establishment of the Chinese Terminology for Plants and Animals as a Byproduct of the Qianlong Emperor's Manchu Language Reform
Friday, March 25, 2022
11:30am – 1:00pm EST
Virtual Paper Presenter(s)
Mårten Söderblom Saarela
Academia Sinica, Taiwan
The increased availability of Manchu sources has opened up new avenues of inquiry for Qing studies. Archival documents have yielded new information on the political, institutional, and environmental history of the period, and studies of Manchu-Chinese prints and manuscripts have brought the rich cultural and educational life of urban Manchus to light. The books produced by the Qing court, however, have largely been studied as ideological products that affirmed Manchu specificity and the dynasty’s right to rule. This paper, by contrast, will treat court-sponsored books as natural-historical scholarship. It suggests that dictionaries equipped the Manchu language to describe the world, but inadvertently also changed the Chinese language in the process. The Qianlong emperor’s overhaul of the Manchu lexicon in the eighteenth century was an attempt to weed out Chinese loanwords from the Manchu language; Qianlong had no genuine interest in regulating Chinese. Yet since the results of the language reform were presented in the form of a bilingual dictionary, the emperor unwittingly also standardized the Chinese equivalents of his curated Manchu words. Many Chinese words for birds and beasts, some distinctly vernacular in character, thus received implicit imperial sanction. This paper will discuss the Qing court’s unintended standardization of Chinese words for the natural world and argue that the articulation of taxonomy in Mandarin Chinese in the twentieth century has one of its roots in the plurilingual scholarship of the early modern Manchu empire.