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Wylie, Alexander (DNB00)

WYLIE, ALEXANDER (1815–1887), missionary and Chinese scholar, born in London on 6 April 1815, was the youngest son of an oil and colour merchant in Drury Lane. His father came from Scotland about 1791. When a year old Alexander was sent to Scotland and placed under the care of a relative who lived on the Grampians. He was educated in the grammar school at Drumlithie in Kincardineshire, and after his return to London in a school at Chelsea. On leaving school he was apprenticed to a cabinet-maker.

Having picked up at a bookstall a copy of Joseph Henri de Prémare's ‘Notitia Linguæ Sinicæ,’ he learned sufficient Latin to read it, and its perusal led him to study the Chinese language. Procuring from the British and Foreign Bible Society a copy of the New Testament in Chinese, he began to read it, compiling a dictionary of symbols as he proceeded. When James Legge returned to England in 1846 he required a superintendent for the London Missionary Society's printing establishment at Shanghai. Wylie visited Legge, who found with surprise that he had so far mastered Chinese without assistance as to be able to read the gospels with tolerable accuracy. The London Missionary Society engaged him and sent him to the offices of (Sir) Charles Reed [q. v.] for six months to study printing, while Legge instructed him in Chinese. On 26 Aug. 1847 he arrived at Shanghai, his salary being paid by the Bible Society.

While in charge of the printing press he learned the French, German, Russian, Manchu, and Mongol languages, besides acquiring some knowledge of Greek, Uijúr, and Sanskrit. He was deeply read in the history, geography, religion, philosophy, arts, and sciences of Eastern Asia, and had a wide acquaintance with Chinese literature. His knowledge of Chinese mathematics was unique. In 1852 he showed that William George Horner's method for solving equations of all orders, published in 1819, had been anticipated by the Chinese mathematicians of the fourteenth century, and in the same year an article of his in the ‘North China Herald,’ dealing chiefly with Chinese arithmetic, was translated into German, and was the subject of two papers by Joseph Bertrand in the ‘Journal des Savans.’ Some of the editions of the scriptures printed by him are fine specimens of typography, and have excited the admiration of the Chinese as well as of Europeans. He made frequent expeditions with other missionaries into the interior of the country, and more than once encountered grave perils. In 1858 he accompanied Lord Elgin in his expedition up the Yang-tsze as a temporary agent of the Bible Society. He left Shanghai for England in 1860, and, returning in 1863 as a permanent agent of the society, travelled through St. Petersburg and Siberia to Peking. He continued in charge of the agency until 1877. In 1868 he accompanied Griffith John, the Wesleyan missionary, on a journey of two thousand five hundred miles, proceeding up the Yang-tsze to the capital of Sze-chuan, thence to the source of the Han, and then to Hankow and Shanghai. In this tour he visited many places hitherto unknown to Europeans.

In ten years he dispersed among the people over a million copies of portions of the Bible. In 1877, owing to the failure of his eyesight from incessant proof-reading, he returned to England. In 1878 he was present at the fourth congress of orientalists held at Florence, and read a paper on the Corea. He died at 18 Christchurch Road, Hampstead, on 6 Feb. 1887, and was buried on 10 Feb. in his father's grave at Highgate cemetery. In 1848 Wylie married Mary Hanson, who had been for seven years a missionary among the Hottentots. She died in 1849, leaving a daughter who survived him.

Although a protestant, Wylie was on good terms with many of the jesuit and Dominican priests in China, and the Greek archimandrite was his personal friend. His translations and publications were of great service to Chinese scholars, and Henri Cordier states that Wylie's library was the foundation of his ‘Bibliotheca Sinica.’

Wylie was the author or translator of the following works in Chinese: 1. ‘A Compendium of Arithmetic,’ 1853, 2 vols. 2. ‘Supplementary Elements of Geometry,’ 1857, consisting of books vii–xv. of ‘Euclid’ in continuation of Matteo Ricci's translation of books i–vi.; the entire translation was republished in 1865 by the viceroy, Tsêng-Kwo-fan. 3. ‘A Popular Treatise on Mechanics,’ Shanghai, 1858. 4. De Morgan's ‘Elements of Algebra,’ Shanghai, 1859. 5. Elias Loomis's ‘Elements of Analytical Geometry and of the Differential and Integral Calculus. In eighteen books,’ Shanghai, 1859. 5. Herschel's ‘Outlines of Astronomy,’ Shanghai, 1859. 6. ‘The Marine Steam Engine,’ by Thomas John Main [q. v.] and Thomas Brown, 1871, 4 vols. He also edited translations of the gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark in Manchu and Chinese in 1859. In English he published: 1. ‘A Translation of the Ts'ing Wán k'e Mung, a Chinese Grammar of the Manchu Tartar Language,’ Shanghai, 1855, 8vo. 2. ‘Notes on Chinese Literature,’ Shanghai, 1867, 8vo; a valuable contribution to Chinese bibliography, containing notices of over two thousand treatises. He wrote the article on the ‘Literature and Language of China’ in the ‘American Cyclopædia’ (1874); contributed frequently to the ‘North-China Herald,’ the ‘Chinese Recorder,’ and was a member of several societies for oriental research. A selection of his writings with biographical notices and a portrait was printed at Shanghai in 1897, entitled ‘Chinese Researches by Alexander Wylie.’ Wylie and his colleague, Lockhart, furnished Sir James Emerson Tennent with the materials for the chapter in his ‘Ceylon’ (1859) treating of the knowledge of the island by the Chinese in the middle ages. He was also serviceable to Sir Henry Yule [q. v.] in his edition of ‘The Book of Ser Marco Polo,’ 1871.

[Chinese Researches, 1897; Cordier's Life and Labours of Alexander Wylie, 1887; Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Soc. 1868, p. 153; Robson's Griffith John, 1888, p. 94.]

E. I. C.