April 01, 2005


Isaac D’Israeli, in his article on Literary Impostures, mentions the intriguing story of George Psalmanazar (1679?-1763), a man of uncertain origins who came to claim that he was a native of the island of Formosa (i.e. Taiwan). So little was known about this island in Europe at the turn of the eighteenth century, that Psalmanazar got away with an elaborately fanciful back-story, one which he eventually expanded into a marvellously inventive book-length Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, which was published in London in 1704.

Title-page from Psalmanazar's 1704 'Historical and Geographical Description...'

Psalmanazar’s quick wit, ready imagination and sound memory convinced many of his story, and sufficed to wrong-foot those who suspected his imposture. When summoned to the Royal Society, he was asked by Edmund Halley whether the sun ever shone all the way down the chimneys in Formosa. Psalmanazar hazarded that it did not, at which Halley explained that, Formosa lying between the tropics, it must. Psalmanazar riposted that Formosan chimneys twist and turn on their way down, so the sunlight never reaches the bottom… Eventually, after 1706, the fake Formosan admitted that he had been living a lie. He spent most of the rest of his life as a jobbing writer and editor in London. In his later years he wrote a memoir of his imposture, which was published posthumously.

Map of Formosa, from Psalmanazar's 1704 'Historical and Geographical Description...'

There are several good articles about Psalmanazar to be found on-line, a few of which feature illustrations from his Historical and Geographical Description, which I have reproduced here. Best of all, a few extracts from the book have been posted at this site. Here, for example, Psalmanazar on the diet of Formosans:

…they are permitted to eat of Swine’s Flesh, of all sorts of Fowl, except Pigeons and Turtles; of all sorts of Venison, except the Hart and the Doe, of all the Fish that swims in the Sea or the Rivers without any exception. They some times roast or boil their Flesh, but they know not what it is to stew any Meat, and therefore do not use it, though it is not forbidden. They commonly eat the Flesh of Venison and of Fowls raw: And, which may seem strange here in England, they eat Serpents also, which they look upon as very good Meat and very savoury…
The Formosan alphabet, from Psalmanazar's 1704 'Historical and Geographical Description...'

Of the animals in Formosa, he wrote:

Besides the Animals abovementioned, they have also familiar Serpents, which they carry about their Body; and Toads which they keep in their Houses to attract all the Venom that may happen to be there; and Weasels for eating of Mice, and Tortoises for their Gardens. There is also a kind of Animal much like a Lizzard, but not so big, which the Natives call Varchiero, i.e. the Persecutor of Flies; its Skin is smooth and clear like Glass, and appears in various colours according to the situation of its Body: ’Tis wonderful to see how eagerly and industriously it pursues the Flies wheresoever it sees them, upon a Table, or on Flesh, or in Drink, and it seldom fails of catching them.
Some inhabitants of Formosa, from Psalmanazar's 1704 'Historical and Geographical Description...'

And of the language of the Formosans:

The Emperor is call’d in that Language, Baghathaan Cheveraal, i.e. the most high Monarch; the King, Bagalo, or Angon: the Vice-Roy, Bagalendro, or Bagalender; the Nobles, Tanos; the Governours of Cities or Isles, os Tanos Soulletos; the Citizens, Poulinos; the Countrymen, Barhaw; the Soldiers, Plessios; a Man, Banajo; a Woman, Bajane; a Son, Bot; a Daughter, Boti; a Father, Pornio; a Mother, Porniin; a Brother, Geovreo; a Sister, Javraijn; Kinsmen, Arvauros; an Isle, Avia; a City, Tillo; a Village, Casseo; the Heaven, Orhnio; the Earth, Badi; the Sea, Anso; Water, Ouillo.
Some inhabitants of Formosa, from Psalmanazar's 1704 'Historical and Geographical Description...'

Click on the images above to see them slightly enlarged.

Posted by misteraitch at April 1, 2005 11:42 AM

Great investigation! Unlucky for him, one character 'Iida' which is the vertical rectangle with a bar in it is "ni" the kanji for 'day' or 'sun'. And generations later, the square before it would become the katakana for the sound 'RO' (this said, it's just a square). However, even though he was a highly creative man, he was far imagining how horribly complicated the real Japanese truly is with it's hiragana + katakana + kanji to learn.

This said, have you read the book "The Code Book" by Simon Singh on the history of cryptography? In chapter 5, The Language Barrier, the author describes the very hard time western archeologists had with decyphering linear B. It took until the mid 1940's till someone discovered that it used a consonant + vowel combination table. Fun, cause any japanese would have figured it out on the first days since it's what they have been using for ages.

On that same subject, I have found a very old 1908 Russian - Japanese dictionary which includes old tsar period measurement units and a former disused japanese writing system known as hentaigana (hentai meaning deviant/changing in that case). I bought it for nothing from an antique seller as a book full of "chinoiseries" in it. he he he...

Anyway, fascinating new entry again. Many thanks.

Posted by: Gamera on April 2, 2005 12:27 AM

I don't know if you are aware of gallica (BNF server). The images in your post, among others, maybe found there.


Let me also suggest to search into gallica the works of tienne-Louis Boulle and Jean-Jacques Lequeu.

Many thanks for your posts.


Posted by: Antoni on April 3, 2005 02:35 PM

Thanks for your comment & for the link Antoni: I was aware of Gallica but did not think to look there on this occasion. I’ll be sure to check out your recommendations.

Posted by: misteraitch on April 3, 2005 03:14 PM


I am a real "Native of Formosa".
It is an amazing book.
Thank you for establishing site, too.
Any chance for me to find the full English text of this book?
Thank you.

Jung Che Chang

Posted by: Jung Che Chang on July 22, 2005 11:10 AM
Comments are now closed