Rethinking East Asian Languages, Vernaculars, and Literacies, 1000–1919


The authors consider new views of the classical versus vernacular dichotomy that are especially central to the new historiography of China and East Asian languages. Based on recent debates initiated by Sheldon Pollock’s findings for South Asia, we examine alternative frameworks for understanding East Asian languages between 1000 and 1919. Using new sources, making new connections, and re-examining old assumptions, we have asked whether and why East and SE Asian languages (e.g., Chinese, Manchu, Mongolian, Jurchen, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese) should be analysed in light of a Eurocentric dichotomy of Latin versus vernaculars. This discussion has encouraged us to explore whether European modernity is an appropriate standard at all for East Asia. Individually and collectively, we have sought to establish linkages between societies without making a priori assumptions about the countries’ internal structures or the genealogy of their connections.
Contributors include: Benjamin Elman; Peter Kornicki; John Phan; Wei Shang; Haruo Shirane; Mårten Söderblom Saarela; Daniel Trambaiolo; Atsuko Ueda; Sixiang Wang.

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Biographical Note

Benjamin Elman, Ph.D. (1980), University of Pennsylvania, is Gordon Wu '58 Professor of Chinese Studies at Princeton University. His publications include On Their Own Terms: Science in China 1550-1900 (Harvard, 2005), A Cultural History of Modern Science in China (Harvard, 2006), Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China (Harvard, 2013).

Table of contents

1. Introduction: Languages in East and South Asia, 1000–1919 - Benjamin A. Elman
2. The Vernacularization of Buddhist Texts: From the Tangut Empire to Japan - Peter Kornicki
3. The Sounds of Our Country: Interpreters, Linguistic Knowledge, and the Politics of Language in Early Chosŏn Korea - Wang Sixiang
4. Rebooting the Vernacular in Seventeenth-Century Vietnam - John D. Phan
5. Mediating the Literary Classics: Commentary and Translation in Premodern Japan - Haruo Shirane
6. The Languages of Medical Knowledge in Tokugawa Japan - Daniel Trambaiolo
7. The Manchu Script and Information Management: Some Aspects of Qing China’s Great Encounter with Alphabetic Literacy - Mårten Söderblom Saarela
8. Unintended Consequences of Classical Literacies for the Early Modern Chinese Civil Examinations - Benjamin A. Elman
9. Competing “Languages”: “Sound” in the Orthographic Reforms of Early Meiji Japan - Atsuko Ueda
10. Writing and Speech: Rethinking the Issue of Vernaculars in Early Modern China - Shang Wei



All interested in the history of classical languages and vernaculars,in light of modern Chinese intellectual and cultural history, and anyone concerned with comparative studies of the history of language and society.