by Man Shun Yeung and Caroline Frank
Five years ago John Eng-Wong was looking for art for his office in American Studies, and University Curator Robert Emlen offered him a portrait of Benjamin Bowen Carter. Prompted by the painting, Eng-wong began to look into Carter’s background. A member of Brown University’s class of 1786 and a surgeon trained under Benjamin Rush, Carter was also one of the earliest Rhode Islander’s to sail to Canton as ship’s supercargo. Digging deeper into the archives, Eng-Wong, of Chinese descent himself, learned that Carter was perhaps the first American to make a serious attempt to learn Chinese. His research led him to Brown University Library Special Collections and two oversized eighteenth-century handwritten Chinese-Latin dictionaries—one bound and titled the Dictionarium sinicum, and the other in loose manuscript form.
Investigating this transpacific subject further, Eng-Wong then learned of a scholar in China also researching Carter—Professor Man Shun Yeung of The University of Hong Kong, who has now made two research visits to Brown University. Using rare resources found in both Brown University Library and the Rhode Island Historical Society archives, Professor Yeung intends to shine light on Carter’s role as an American pioneer in Chinese studies. His review of these two Chinese-Latin dictionaries reveals that Brown University is one of the very few special collections libraries in the world to own two different editions of the Hanzixiyi漢字西譯 (“Western Translation of Chinese Characters”) compiled by the Italian Franciscan priest Basile de Glemona (葉宗賢/葉尊教, 1648-1704). Glemona compiled the first edition of his dictionary between 1685-1694 when he was in Guangzhou and Nanjing, and the second edition between 1694-1700 when he was in Nanjing.
The Dictionarium sinicum was originally in Benjamin Bowen Carter’s possession. The “Carter manuscript” was donated by John Carter Brown (1797-1874)in 1844, as noted by his own inscription:
This volume belonged to my maternal uncle Doctor Benjamin Bowen Carter, a graduate of BU class 1786. Dr C. was a fine linguist & particularly versed in the Oriental languages & literature. He died in the City of New York AD 1831, aged 60 years.
It gives me pleasure to deposit this curious book in the College Library for preservation & for the use of those who may desire to consult it.
Jhn Carter Brown
The dictionary also includes notes from Benjamin Bowen Carter. Carter’s remarks provide important information on the transcription of the manuscript and his own instructions for understanding Chinese characters and pronunciation. Taking into consideration that the Chinese characters are arranged according to phonetic order, this manuscript is believed to be a handwritten copy of the second edition of Glemona’s dictionary.
The other Chinese-Latin dictionary now in Special Collections was owned by Samuel Ward (1756-1832). The “Ward manuscript” has an inscription on the front cover which reads “A Chinese Dictionary by Col Saml Ward,” and is described as “Chinese Dictionary with Manuscript Notes in Latin.” During 1788 and 1789, Samuel Ward sailed to China on the vessel General Washington, managing trade for the Providence firm Brown & Francis. It is uncertain when or where he acquired the manuscript. Judging from the fact that the Chinese characters are arranged according to the Chinese radicals 部首 and the Chinese title “漢字西譯” is inscribed at the end of the main contents, this manuscript is believed to be a handwritten copy of the first edition of Glemona’s dictionary. In the first seventeen pages, Guanhua官話 (term for the language of the officials) transliterations and Latin explanations supplement the Chinese characters.
The narrative that these two dictionaries document reshapes our understanding of early Sino-American cultural relations, and offers a glimpse into transpacific connections in the late eighteenth century. The Dictionarium sinicum will be on display on the second floor of the John Hay Library through August 19.