I had mentioned in an earlier post that Cardinal Bertone says that the Salesians are being inundated with requests to send Latin teachers to Chinese universities. I looked up the question of Latin and China again in Waquet`s Latin or the Empire of a Sign (published in 2001) which chronicles the history of Latin studies, mainly in the West, from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. While it is a fascinating read it has to be said that she is not hugely sympathetic to the preservation of Latin outside specialist circles. She talks about the question of using a Latin liturgy in China in the Catholic missions of the 17th century and writes:
The argument in fact was concened less with knowledge of Latin than in the pronunciation. Missionaries and apostolic visitors to the orient all agreed on the inability of the Chinese to achieve a correct pronunciation; their letters, memoirs and reports were filled with proofs to this effect, referring knowledgeably to the pecularities of Chinese phonetics, lacking in several of the sounds corresponding to Latin letters. The main examples were the vowels a and e and the consonants b, d and r in the initial position which became respectively ya, nge, pe, te and lle. It was also impossible for the Chinese to end a word with a consonant other than m or n, so that vos amatis would be pronounced vosi yamassissi. And they did not have sounds corresponding to i and g, so that ego, for example, would be pronounced nheco. There was also their inability to pronounce two conjoined consonants or a double consonant without introducing a mediating vowel: sanctam would thus become sanketam and ecclesiam an almost unrecognizable ngekekelesiam. Even this absurd cacophony for a single word was as nothing compared to what became of whole sentences and phrases such as Ego te baptizo in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, Te absolvo a peccatis tuis or Hoc est corpus meum which became: Nghe ngho te bapetiso in nomine Paetelisu nghe te Filii te Sepilitusu Sanketi, Nghe te yapesolva ya pekiatisu tuisu and Hocu yesutu colpusu meum.
Apparently, following requests from the Jesuits, Paul V in 1615 allowed Scripture to be translated into literary Chinese and allowed future Chinese priests to celebrate Mass, recite the breviary and administer the sacraments in their own language. However this was not fruitful as the ordination of native priests was put off and translating the Bible proved very difficult in terms of terminology. The Chinese church continued to use Latin until in 1949 Pius XII allowed Chinese to be used for the whole of the Mass apart from the canon. It is interesting that we may see a great revival in Latin studies coming from such a country that took to it so badly to start with.