Theophilus Siegfried Bayer: pioneer of Chinese studies in the west

Engraved Star Map from Globus Coelestis Sinicus Explicatus Sp Coll MS Hunter 10 (S.1.10)

Engraved Star Map from Globus Coelestis Sinicus Explicatus Sp Coll MS Hunter 10 (S.1.10)

One of my long-term projects in Special Collections involves preparing transcribed summaries of the correspondence between the pioneer Sinologist, T.S. Bayer and Jesuit missionaries based in Peking (Beijing)during the eighteenth century.

Theophilus Siegfried Bayer (1694-1738) was a Prussian classical scholar who specialized in Sinology. During the course of his career, Bayer amassed a large personal library of manuscripts and books, mostly on Chinese and Oriental topics. After his death his library was sold by his widow to a Lutheran pastor living in London called Heinrich Walter Gerdes. William Hunter later purchased the collection from Mrs Gerdes and it came to the University of Glasgow in 1807, along with the rest of his collections.

Bayer himself published several works, including: Historia regni Graecorum bactriarii (1738), De Eclipsa Sinica (1718) and Museum Sinicum, a two-volume compendium of materials on the Chinese language published in 1730.  Bayer’s interest in Sinology develoloped early. Following his graduation, in 1716 he was granted a scholarship for a study tour of University towns in Germany. In their libraries he saw Chinese dictionaries, Chinese-Spanish missionary vocabulary list and grammars, and a Chinese history known as “Chinese Annals”. He made full copies from these and began his ambitious, life-time’s work of teaching himself Chinese.

Page of Bayer's mnauscript from Globus Coelestis Sinicus Explicatus Sp Coll MS Hunter 10 (S.1.10)

Page of Bayer’s manuscript from Globus Coelestis Sinicus Explicatus MS Hunter 10 (S.l.10)

In February 1726 he was “head-hunted” by the agents of Peter the Great of Russia and accepted an invitation to the Chair of Greek and Roman antiquities at The St Petersburg Academy. He and his wife moved to St Petersburg, where he remained for the rest of his short life, spending a significant amount of his time on his Chinese studies. Whilst there, he published  Museum Sinicum (1730), a two-volume text book of Chinese – the first book about the Chinese language to be published in Europe.

In 1731, he was shown a Chinese-Latin dictionary which had been brought to St Petersburg by the leader of the Russian embassy to Peking. This was a gift from the dictionary’s author, Dominique Parrenin, a Jesuit missionary based in Peking, and it gave Bayer the impetus to continue his Chinese work. It was also the start of a fruitful exchange of correspondence between Bayer, Parrenin and the other Jesuits working in Peking, since Bayer now sent Parrenin a copy of Museum Sinicum, asking for help and advice. This is the correspondence which I am currently working on, preparing transcribed summaries of the main themes of each letter to be added to the manuscript record of the item. Most of the letters are written in Latin, since this was the scholarly language of the day. Studying Bayer’s correspondence is rewarding as it provides a fascinating view of the efforts put into his pioneering work in Sinology by this little known but immensely erudite and hard-working scholar.

Globus Coelestis Sinicus Explicatus Ms Hunter 10

Page from Bayer’s manuscript from Globus Coelestis Sinicus Explicatus Sp Coll MS Hunter 10 (S.1.10)

Perhaps if he had lived longer Bayer’s work may have received the recognition it deserved and he would have been better known, but sadly, in 1738 he contracted a fever and died suddenly.

Bayer’s letters to and from the Peking Jesuits have been given the shelfmark MS Hunter B/. As well as the letters, they also exchanged gifts of books and other items, many of which are now in the University’s possession, for example the Star Map with explanatory notes by Bayer, located at  MS Hunter 10 (S.1.10) and illustrated here.

All of these items are available for consultation in Special Collections.



Categories: Library, Reflections, Special Collections

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