Chinese Whispers


In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue: So runs the New World catechism. But some doubted his primacy even then. Oviedo relates the “romantic story” of a Spanish caravel that blew off course, making landfall on the future Indies. The mortally ill crew returned months later, and the pilot revealed the location to his friend Columbus before rather conveniently dying.

Such revisionism may be unconscious flattery: America is so great, so stunningly singular, that it needs to be discovered not once but eternally. The first foreigner is ever changing, his proponents holding up artifacts or rethinking twice-told tales, map in hand. He was of course Leif Ericsson. For Welsh-wishers, he was Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd and he reached Alabama. He came from Carthage, he was a Phoenician, he left strange mounds in Michigan.

He was a monk named Hwui Shan or Hoei-shin or Hui-shên and he came not from the east but the west.

In 499, then, Hwui Shan, a Buddhist missionary originally from Afghanistan, arrived at last in China. He told of having sailed to four lands lying east, and dilated on the third, called Fusang. Here grew many “fu-sang” trees, from which the inhabitants derived food, clothing, paper (they had the art of writing), and toponym. They knew nothing of war and did not value gold. Hwui Shan noted, among other things, the changing colors of the royal wardrobe, two prisons (for serious and light offenses), courtship and mourning rituals, and titles of nobility. Most curious, though, was the information that he and four fellow mendicants introduced Buddhism to the people of Fusang in 458.

Well over a thousand years separated the bonze’s tale from its staunchest advocate, Edward Payson Vining. The monk’s account surfaced in the seventh-century Liang dynasty annals, wherein the transcribing prince proceeded to lampoon it, to the amusement of his friends. By the time the historian Ma Twan-lin included it in his Antiquarian Researches (1321), it had shaded into mere fancy.

So the discovery of America required discovering. While researching his book on the Western Tartars, the French sinologue M. de Guignes came across the Fusang story, and in 1761 identified the country as Mexico. Continental scholars weighed in on either side. The geographer to George III applied the label “Fou-sang” to what is now Vancouver; the Prussian Orientalist M.J. Klaproth thought Japan more likely; the physician of the Russian legation in Peking attacked the botanical evidence, and somehow ended by placing the country in decidedly unfloral Siberia. Nearly a century later, the story found a transatlantic vector in the polymath and wit Charles Godfrey Leland, then a young Princeton graduate studying at Heidelberg, where he heard Carl Friedrich Neumann lecture on the topic. In 1847, Leland urged his stateside brother to find a publisher for his translation, perhaps a touch hastily (“Some words . . . puzzle me, but you can easily correct them, and if you can’t, let them go, don’t give it an excuse for not getting it published, let it rather go, faults and all”); nevertheless, three years passed before it appeared in Knickerbocker Magazine.

Amplified into an 1875 book, Leland’s Fusang caught the attention of Edward Payson Vining, general freight manager of the Union Pacific Railroad. He had a reputation for driving hard, even unscrupulous bargains with rival and lesser train pools; according to a Chicago agent, he was “so despised here that not one of the RR men want any further business relations with him.” But on the printed page, his inflexibility turned into an elastic curiosity, amenable to radical hypotheses—which he then pursued to their logical ends. In The Mystery of Hamlet (1881), he fingered the dithering Dane as a woman pretending to be a man for reasons of state—a theory that found favor with the American actor Edwin Booth (brother of Lincoln’s assassin) and shaped Danish actress Asta Nielsen’s 1920 screen version. (If his take is no longer much invoked, his ghost must be satisfied with an appearance in Ulysses, ch. IX.)

Somewhere between brushing up his Saxo Grammaticus and adjusting rates on eastbound tea transport, he found time to compose his Fusang exegesis, An Inglorious Columbus, which appeared in 1885. (The adjective here means “obscure”—a description of Hwui Shan rather than a poke at Columbus.) If it were fiction, it would be Nabokov’s Pale Fire, spun out to the length of a couple of Adas: From the 746 Chinese characters of Ma’s text, Vining extrapolated a book of over 800 crammed octavo pages. Where the locus classicus is brief, almost elliptical, the commentary obsessively collates and rationalizes, approaching in density a state of pure information.

It is a fascinating book; it is also nearly unreadable. After a thumbnail history of Buddhism, Vining relinquishes a third of the tome to his precursors (from de Guignes on), reproducing most of their arguments in toto. Each version repeats part or whole of the essential story, then attacks or defends certain aspects, responding to other glosses—thus leaving the reader with another substrain of repetition. (One may recall, uncharitably, the “never-ending series of transmigrations” that Prince Siddhartha set out to escape in the first place.) The cento culminates in a 38-page chart, looking something like a timetable. Each verso gives a section of the Chinese original, while the recto stacks eight translations, one atop the other. Skilled in many languages, Vining alas had no Chinese. This did not stop him from providing the final version.

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.

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.