CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

Since the 16th century onwards, the strangeness and difficulty of the Chinese language have caused Jesuit missionaries and European scholars to marvel, a fascination which still resonates with Roland Barthes’ or Henri Michaux’s during the 20th century. Yet, the 19th century occupies a place of its own in this centuries-long history: even though Parisian sinologists managed to master the Chinese language better than anyone in Europe until them, they endeavoured to distinguish its deciphering from ordinary readings. Putting the Chinese language outside the common register of reading allowed the emergent sinological science to assert its monopoly on it by defining the only legitimate way to decipher it. What was the right to read in the Chinese language? What tools should be used to approach a Chinese manuscript? How should it be read, and what emotions was it supposed to convey? The deciphering of the Chinese language was thus the focus of an exceptional theorization. This did not prevent non-Sinologist actors, such as art lovers and poets, from persisting in reading the Chinese language differently, and reading something else therein – whether the value of a Chinese vase or the secret of a poetic effect. The case-study of the Chinese language in 19th century Paris thus makes it possible to address two questions that have been largely neglected by the history of reading: does the act of reading vary according to the languages read? And what does one read in a text, apart from its meaning?


  • reading
  • China
  • Chinese
  • Paris
  • sinology
  • orientalism
Clément Fabre
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