Chinese Whispers

Edward Payson Vining’s Art of Error

The vertiginous scheme illustrates Vining's contention that centuries of error and approximation have obscured the truth of Hwui Shan's description. He saw words as archaeological sites, their pasts reposing in every stroke and diphthong. Thus he intimates slips of the redactor's brush (for the agave's "barbed" leaves, someone may have read "copper," distorting the fu-sang plant into a mulberry "tree"); thus he fills pages in an attempt to equate Fu-sang-kwoh (kwoh=country) with Mexico, not just geographically but phonetically. After asserting that the latter's xi was originally sounded shi, he lists possible historical variants for the Chinese syllables in question, basing some of his conclusions on sinotized Sanskrit. Judicious patching gets him to "Ve-shi-co," where he might deservedly rest his pen—except for the fact that "one language is mentioned by Buschmann as closely connected with the Mexican, which substituted V for the Mexican M, and which would therefore pronounce 'Me-shi-co' as 'Ve-shi-co.' "

One more example must suffice. Inspecting the full panoply of definitions for quetzal and coatl, Vining deduces that the name of the chief Toltec/Aztec deity does not mean "plumed serpent" but "honored guest." Quetzalcoatl was no myth, but Hwui Shan himself.

illustration by Limbert Fabian

It was said that Hwui Shan brought back as proof a stone mirror of marvelous efficacy; we reflect that Columbus, after all, was seeking China. The two voyages—dubious from the west, indisputable from the east—configure a rough palindrome. The next notion is as natural as it is absurd. Count Gobineau declared that the "peuples jaunes" had come from America; Hubert Howe Bancroft, in his magisterial work on the native races of the Pacific coast (1883), allowed: "It is true, the Old World may have been originally peopled from the New. . . . " We might read as metaphor a Smithsonian report of 1872 (quoted by Leland) that attempts to find Asiatic roots for the Dakota tongue: "[T]he people who speak those languages would begin sentences . . . where we end ours, so that our thoughts would really appear in their minds as inverted."

Vining penned his preface in Chicago on March 3, 1885. In December of that year, he addressed the New York Shakespeare Society on "Time in the Play of Hamlet." Hewing to the text, he refuted the notion that the tragedy was evocatively laissez-faire in the matter of dramatic time and instead pointed to a rigorous chronology (A: two months). "We may safely conclude," Vining said, "that whenever faults appear to us to exist in his work, they are much more likely to lie in our own carelessness and ignorance than in any imperfection in the poet." Hwui Shan's story was similarly blameless; only over many years, by the agency of countless hands, did its points get misconstrued and exaggerated, the way a sentence resolves into nonsense during a game of Telephone. The monk, like the Bard, could do no wrong.

In 1886 Yale awarded Vining an honorary M.A.; he also published a book on freight classification (perhaps a more divisive issue than it sounds, given his professional reputation). In later years, his philological articles appeared in the millenarian Watchword and Truth. For the final book of his diverse if scant oeuvre, Israel: Or Jacob's New Name (1908), his canvas is smaller than ever: Genesis 32:28, or indeed just the word "Israel," or indeed just the middle syllable, cognate of the verb "SaR"—the true etymology of which, as divined by Vining, establishes the veracity of the Pentateuch. But however supple his learning, his rhetoric often turns acid, as he inveighs against "modern 'higher' criticism" and "adherents of German infidelity."

On the last day of 1920, Vining suffered a fatal stroke. The New York Times obituary noted his biblical and Shakespearean scholarship, though not his labors on behalf of a neglected Buddhist priest; it gave his birthplace as "Reichertown, Mass." But in 1943, Who Was Who in America bestowed the honor to "Belchertown, Mass." Both seem feasible as American town names; which is correct? The R is now a B, the i an l. Had the paper of record erred? Vining would have savored the confusion (though one wonders how he felt when Leland, in his 1893 Memoirs, approvingly cited "the truly great work of Vinton"). A day cold, and already the sort of corruption that he claimed had compromised the Chinese account was at work on his own memory.* Infidelity adhered. Nothing he wrote proved his point so well as his death.

*My notes include a 1902 dismissal of An Inglorious Columbus ("the term Fu-Sang is not mysterious, but uniformly is applied to Saghalin"), by one Edward G. Bovine; I suspect the name is Bowne. Leland misrememoirs de Guignes's name as Desguignes. Heidelberg's catalog for 1846 lists a "Carl Leland of America as being a studiosus philosophiae," but no Charles.

Check out the other stories in the Winter 2001 Voice Education Supplement.

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