Sinological Profiles
Albert Terrien de Lacouperie
1845 (Normandy) - 11 Oct 1894 (London)

Albert Étienne Jean-Baptiste Terrien de Lacouperie was descended from a Cornish family named Terrien which had emigrated to Normandy during the English Civil Wars of the 17th century, and had there acquired the property of La Couperie. His father was a merchant, and after the usual business education Albert settled in Hong Kong, where he gained a knowledge of Chinese and became interested in the origins of Chinese civilization. In 1867 appeared his first published work, Du Langage, Essai sur la Nature et l'Étude des Mots et des Langues. There followed Les Noms Propres in 1868. These attracted considerable attention. Lacouperie himself was attracted to work then being done on Babylonian inscriptions, and by resemblances between Chinese characters and early Akkadian hieroglyphics. This link was to be a theme, though not always a fruitful one, running through much of his subsequent work.

[Putting modern preconceptions aside, Rongorongo may reflect a variety of influences. In the 1930s Guillaume de Hevesy identified similarities between the rongorongo signs and 130 signs used in the at least 4500-year-old script found in the towns of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa in the Indus Valley. The orthodox view is that any similarities have been exaggerated and are purely coincidental. The Indus Valley script was usually written from right to left, but there are a few early cases of boustrophedon. Some Etruscan and Hittite texts are also written in boustrophedon style, as are some Greek ones from about the 6th century BC].

There follows a hiatus of a decade in what is now remembered of Lacouperie: his twenties and early thirties. He came to London in 1879, aged 34, and in that year was elected a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society. His first publication in English, Early History of the Chinese Civilization, appeared in 1880. In 1882 and 1883 he published papers suggesting that Akkadian was the most fruitful point of comparison for the languages of the earliest Chinese, whom he called the Bak Tribes, and which he concluded were originally located in Mesopotamia. At this same time, Lecouperie was also known to be working on the Yi, considered by him to be the oldest Chinese book. Legge, up in Oxford, was just completing his own translation of the Yi, and rumors of Lecouperie's project did not him. In his preface of 16 March 1882, Legge writes:

There has been a report for two or three years of a new translation of the Yî, or at least of a part of it, as being in preparation by M. Terrien de Lacouperie, and Professor R. K. Douglas of the British Museum and King's College, London. I have alluded on pages 8, 9 of the Introduction to some inaccurate statements about native commentaries on the Yî and translations of it by foreigners, made in connexion with this contemplated version. But I did not know what the projected undertaking really was, till I read a letter from M. Terrien in the 'Athenæum' of the 21st January of this year. He there says that the joint translation 'deals only with the oldest part of the book, the short lists of characters which follow each of the sixty-four headings, and leaves entirely aside the explanations and commentaries attributed to Wen Wang, Kâu Kung, Confucius, and others, from 1200 B. C. downwards, which are commonly embodied as an integral part of the classic;' adding, 'The proportion of the primitive text to these additions is about one-sixth of the whole.' But if we take away these explanations and commentaries attributed to king Wan, the duke of Kâu, and Confucius, we take away the whole Yî. There remain only the linear figures attributed to Fû-hsî, without any lists of characters, long or short, without a single written character of any kind whatever. The projectors have been misled somehow about the contents of the Yî; and unless they can overthrow all the traditions and beliefs about them, whether Chinese or foreign, their undertaking is more hopeless than the task laid on the children of Israel by Pharaoh, that they should make bricks without straw.

I do not express myself thus in any spirit of hostility. If, by discoveries in Accadian or any other long-buried and forgotten language, M. Terrien de Lacouperie can throw new light on the written characters of China or on its speech, no one will rejoice more than myself; but his ignorance of how the contents of the classic are made up does not give much prospect of success in his promised translation.

This rather sharp remark occasioned a reply by Lacouperie in the Academy for 9 September 1882, Legge's response of 23 September followed, and the controversy was close by Lacouperie's surrejoinder of 30 September, "maintaining my views." As for the Akkadian proposal, it has not in fact found favor in recent times, but Lacouperie's own times were more receptive, and in 1884 he became "Professor of Indo-Chinese Philology" (his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography gives this as "Comparative Philology as applied to the languages of Southeastern Asia") at University College, London. He was also a member, and sometime Member of Council, of the Philological Society, and published much of his output in that society's journal as well as that of the Royal Asiatic Society. As with his older contemporary Pfizmaier in Vienna, many of his books were actually reprints of his publications in these society journals.

One of his few books still in print is his 1887 study Languages of China Before the Chinese. Its postface gives us a detailed but brief glimpse of the scholar at work:

The scheme of this book was presented to the Philological Society and read as a part of the President's Address at the Annual Meeting, Friday, May 21st, 1886. As a delegate of the same Society to the Seventh International Congress of Orientalists held at Vienna last year, I read in French a résumé which was very favorably received by the fourth or Eastern section at the meeting of the 30th September, 1886.

My best thanks are offered to my colleagues the Members of the Philological Society for the publication of this work, which has appeared in full in the Philological Transactions for 1885-1886. It has been made partly with notes from my MS work China Before the Chinese, from my other work on The Beginnings of Chinese Civilization, in preparation, and from my lectures on The Science of Language, chiefly with reference to South-East Asia, which will soon appear,

It should not be inferred from the first paragraph of this that Terrien de Lacouperie was himself the President of the Philological Society as of its annual meeting in 1886. On the contrary, the outgoing President on that occasion, whose address included summaries of the work of several members including that of Lacouperie, was the notable Walter William Skeat (1837-1912), later to be the editor of Chaucer (1899) and other Old English texts, and compiler of an Etymological Dictionary of English (1910).

Terrien de Lacouperie's work on pre-Chinese languages follows the rational lines that would be natural for any first attempt at the subject. One line was a survey of hints in the early Chinese texts, including the Fang Yen. Another was an attempt to define the grammatical character ("ideology") of the various languages, related and unrelated, of China and Southeast Asia. His formula of five elements incorporates such variables as a preference for VO versus OV order. This is a useful complement and corrective to the comparison of individual words. Word information as such was not abundantly available to him; he quotes and in part duplicates the brief wordlists from various Southeast Asian languages that had been published, or in some cases left in manuscript, by early missionaries and travelers. Those lists are still all we know about some of the languages in question.

From the early texts, and despite the orthodox interpretations that were attached to many of them, Terrien de Lacouperie gained a sufficiently accurate view of the Spring and Autumn period that he realized, half a century before Chyen Mu and Owen Lattimore, that the "Chinese" territory of that period was in fact honeycombed with non-Sinitic peoples and even states.

Coming from yet another angle, he investigated early Chinese money, starting with two monographs of 1882 and culminating in a Historical Sketch of Chinese and Japanese Coins, first included as a section in the 1885 Official Catalogues of the British Museum, and published separately in 1887. This is still used as a reference by dealers, quite possibly because its dates are systematically too early.

On the other side of the Channel, Lacouperie was also a member of the Sociètè Asiatique, and his major work, Languages of China Before the Chinese, was issued in French in 1888. His honors came chiefly from France: he was twice awarded the Prix Julien for his services to oriental philology, and received an honorary Litt.D degree from the University of Louvain. For a time he received a pension from the French government. The pension being at length withdrawn, an attempt was made to secure for him an equivalent income from the English ministry, but nothing came of this.

His last years were much occupied with his study of the Yi, and with summing up his views on the origins of Eastern scripts. A first part of his Yi findings was published in 1892; the rest remained uncompleted. It is intriguing in spots without being consecutively convincing. The whole trend of Lacouperie's thought still provokes a collective allergic reaction in Sinology and its neighbor sciences; only now are some of the larger questions he raised, and doubtless mishandled, coming to be hesitantly askable. Those in future wish to observe the anniversary of his death (11 October 1894) may like to seek out 136 Bishop's Road, Fulham, his residence at that time. He was survived by his wife; there is no record of any children.

E Bruce Brooks


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