Attaining just a glimmer of an understanding of Chinese or Japanese in the seventeenth century required prodigious feats of imagination and the abandonment of widely-held convictions about the nature of language. Progress towards a rational and sophisticated understanding was held up by persuasive but fantastical theories to which lifetimes were devoted in vain. In their very different ways both languages were subversive of contemporary notions of language, and the conceptual frameworks for adequate descriptions had to be generated from scratch. The difficulties can scarcely be overestimated: the Chinese language was vigorously attacked in 1678 as the language of the devil on the ground that its pictographic nature would occasion a breach of the Second Commandment if the name of God were written, and the following year Leibniz drew up a list of questions concerning Chinese which ask, among other things, ‘whether the Chinese language was artificially constructed, or whether it has grown and changed by usage like other languages’. Japanese attracted less interest, but the difficulty of the two languages was legendary: in 1708 the Dutch scholar Adrian Reland (1676–1718), who published numerous works on Persian, Jewish and Islamic studies, wrote of the immense numbers of characters to be learnt by anybody who wished to know Chinese or Japanese, with awe at the thought that ‘a man's life would scarcely suffice to attain perfect knowledge of one language’.