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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1836 to 1838 > Chinese

By far the most remarkable, however, of Mezzofanti's successes in the Propaganda was his acquisition of Chinese. The difficulty of that language for Europeans has long been proverbial, and it argued no ordinary courage in a scholar now on the verge of his sixtieth year to enter regularly upon such a study. His first progress at Naples, before he was interrupted by the severe illness which there seized him, has been already described. It was not for a considerable time after his return, that he was enabled to resume the attempt systematically. A wish was expressed by the authorities of the Propaganda that a select number of the students of the Naples college should be sent to Rome for the completion of their theological studies. Three young Chinese had already visited the Propaganda while Mezzofanti was still in Bologna, one of whom, named Pacifico Yu, offered himself to the Cardinal Prefect, as a missionary to the Corea, at a period when the attempt was al¬most a certain road to martyrdom : but it was not until the year 1835-6 that the design of adopting a few of the Neapolitan students into the college of the Propaganda was actually carried out. Don Raffaelle Umpierres, for many years Procurator of the mission at Macao, was soon afterwards appointed their prefect and professor ; and under his auspices and with the assistance of the young Chinese, Mezzofanti resumed the study with new energy. His success is admitted on all hands to have been almost unexampled. Certainly it has never been surpassed by any European not resident in China. In the year 1843, I was myself present while he conversed with two youths, named Leang and Mong, and although my evidence cannot extend beyond these external signs, I can at least bear witness to the fluency with which he spoke, and the ease and spirit with which he seemed to sustain the conversation. But his complete success is placed beyond all doubt by an attestation forwarded to me, by the abate Umpierres, the Chinese Professor,* already named, who declares that he " frequently conversed with the Cardinal in Chinese, from the year 1837, up to the date of his death, and that he not only spoke the mandarin Chinese,* but understood other dialects of the language."

Mezzofanti himself freely confessed the exceeding difficulty which he had found in mastering this language. It cost him, as he assured Father Arsenius Angiarakian, four months of uninterrupted study. Speaking once with Cardinal Wiseman of his method of linguistic study, he said that the " ear and not the eye was for him the ordinary medium through which language was conveyed ;" and he added, that the true origin of the difficulty which he had felt in learning Chinese, was not so much the novelty of its words and forms, as the fact that, departing from the analogy of other languages, it disconcerted the pre-arranged system on which he had theretofore proceeded; it has an eye-language distinct from the ear-language, which he was obliged to make an especial study.

It is worth while to mention that the Cardinal successfully accomplished in a short time what cost the missionaries in China, with all their advantages of position, many years of labour, having actually preached to the Chinese students in the Propaganda, on occasion of one of the spiritual retreats which are periodically observed in ecclesiastical seminaries.

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