06 September 2016
From China to Peru
Dr Johnson opened his ‘The vanity of Human Wishes’ in 1749 with the memorable:
Let Observation with extensive View,
Survey Mankind, from China to Peru;
Donald Greene argues that Johnson didn’t mean just the eastern and western extremes of the map but that for him Peru signified the atrocities wrought by the Spaniards on the Indians while China represented wisdom and culture.
What possibly underlay Johnson’s view was the synthetic proverb literature, exemplified by this recently-acquired little book, which showed Chinese wisdom to be comparable with European. (There was no such bibliography for Peru.)
The proverbs first appeared in Marc-Antoine Eidous’s Hau kiou choaan, ou Histoire Chinoise traduite du Chinois (1765). Or rather, that’s what it says here in the ‘Avertissement’. In fact, it was ‘traduit du chinois en anglais’ by James Wilkinson, edited by Thomas Percy (he of the Percy Ballads), and put into French by Monsieur Eidous. By the way, this was a ‘pleasing history’ story rather than hard history.
Frontispiece and title-page of Hau kiou choaan or the pleasing history. A translation from the Chinese language. To which are added, I. The argument or story of a Chinese play, ... III. Fragments of Chinese poetry. (London, 1774) 243.i.30-31.
A boat whose planks are affixed with but bird-lime does not long resist the violence of the waves.
One may remove a blemish from a diamond by polishing it: but that of a prince who does not keep his word is never effaced.
And as an example of the comparative method:
Il est important de bien commencer en toutes choses: la faute la plus légère peut avor des suites funestes.
Ce proverbe est le même dans plusieurs langues: En latin: Dimidium facti, qui bene coepit habet. En français: De bon commencement bonne fin.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies