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  • Burning Library: Galen in Chinese Shorthand August 10, 2016

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback

    chinese writing

    The Arab writer Ibn al-Nadim included this extraordinary record of contact between east and west in his Index of the Sciences, finished in 988. He is reporting an encounter between a Chinese student, visiting Baghdad, al-Razi, perhaps the greatest of the Persian writers of the golden age, and the writings of Galen, the greatest Mediterranean authority on health. Enjoy the unlikely coming together of worlds.

    Al-Razi said, ‘A Chinese scholar came to my house, and remained in the town about a year. In five months he learnt to speak and write Arabic, attaining indeed eloquence in speech and calligraphy in writing. When he decided to return to his country, he said to me a month or so beforehand, ‘I am about to leave. I would be very glad if someone would dictate to me the sixteen books of Galen before I go.’ I told him that he had not sufficient time to copy more than a small part of it, but he said, ‘I beg you to give me all your time until I go, and to dictate to me as rapidly as possible. You will see that I shall write faster than you can dictate.’ So together with one of my students we read Galen to him as fast as we could, but he wrote still faster. We did not believe that he was getting it correctly until we made a collation and found it exact throughout. I asked him how this could be, and he said, ‘We have in our country a way of writing which we call shorthand, and this is what you see. When we wish to write very fast we use this style, and then afterwards transcribe it into the ordinary characters at will.’ But he added that an intelligent man who learns quickly cannot master this script in under twenty years.

    This report, apart from the detail of twenty-years to learn short-hand, is credible. There was Chinese contact with Persia. Ibn al-Nadim was writing just a century after Al-Razi’s death, the story could have been handed down, then. What is most interesting is that the transmission of Galen seems just an incidental detail to a description of Chinese shorthand. What happened to this translation of Galen? Medieval Persian medicine has clear influences from China, and Arab medicine arguably influenced the Chinese. But there is no suggestion that Galen ever made it to China, or at least that Galen influenced Chinese medicine. The shorthand translation then is another for our burning library list. It also has wrong place potential…

    Other burning library books (or films): drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com

    31 Aug 2016, Bruce T writes: You might want to look into the history of a form of traditional medicine in the Muslim world, and beyond, called Unani Medicine. It’s used to this day from Morocco to Central and South Asia. It’s based on the works of Hippocrates and Galen. This type of medicine was also spread via the Maritime Silk Road. With Roman sea trade to India and beyond, the ideas of Galen may have made it to China centuries before Muhammad and the Unani School. The story you printed may be an origination tale to do with the spread use of the Unani school of healing through the region. The Chinese were always annexing parts of Central Asia when various peoples got out of control. It rarely worked, or lasted long, but the contact between the settled Persians in Iraq and Iran and their steppe relatives butting heads with the Chinese could have been a vector in the ideas of Galen heading east. Two, don’t forget the Nestorians. Many were ethnic Greeks carrying their culture with them. A Chinese official hearing about Greek knowledge through a Nestorian cleric may have got the idea to send a few good men west to dig into the subject.  My sister-in-law is one of the few people I know who can still take shorthand. It’s literally a dying skill. When I was in college, girlfriends who knew shorthand were very popular among us cretinous slow printing type boys. And ones who could type. Typing wasn’t considered manly in my youth. It would get you pointed out and laughed at. It was worse than not being able to drive a car with a stick shift, a major violation of the man code. Chinese scholars were traveling by ship to Java and India in this period to study Buddhism via Southeast Asian shipping. Arabs from both Basra and the Yemen were going to Canton in the early 7th century. The Chinese records in Canton record a massacre of thousands of Arab merchants in the Canton region in the middle of that century. Indian and Southeast Asian shipping called at Hormuz, Aden, and Basra in this period. At that time a Chinese trader/traveler wouldn’t have been that unusual in any of those places. The story fits the pattern of traveling Chinese scholars. The Buddhists would travel to Java to study with scholars who were both literate in and native speakers of the languages of the areas of the subcontinent they were traveling to gather Buddhist knowledge and copy texts, then head to India, returning via ship when their work was done. Baghdad was the center of learning in the Islamic world, a visiting Chinese scholar would have headed up river from Basra to present his credentials to the court, get to work, then return home when the work was done, bringing his texts with him. Via the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, India, Arabia, East Africa, and China were a very interconnected world, even at this time. In the late 9th century, a Chinese merchant or scholar turning up in Baghdad would have likely been the same as a Frankish scholar turning up in Constantinople looking for Greek originals of the Bible, interesting, but not out of the unusual. Do a google search on a fellow named Du Huan. He was captured at the Battle of Talas in 751 in east Central Asia. He had quite a tour around the then Muslim world, from Central Asia to North Africa before he headed back home via ship a half decade later. Wrote a book on his adventure most of which is long gone, but a son or nephew wrote and encyclopedia on his adventure at the turn of the 9th century. As there was a regular shipping route for Du Huan to get home on, Chinese folks showing up in  Persia and Mesopotamia couldn’t have been that unusual or the Chinese that out of place.