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Edited by Benjamin A. Elman

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.



Series:

Shang Wei

Abstract

When modern Chinese intellectuals embarked on what they claimed to be a vernacularization movement in the second decade of the twentieth century, they took modern Europe as their putative model. They argued that China, in its ongoing transformation from the old empire into a modern nation-state, must undergo a similar shift in which the “dead” classical writing was superseded by a vernacular writing rooted in the “living language.” Despite their apparent adherence to modern discourse on language revolution and nation-state building, however, the revolution they initiated moved in the opposite direction. Instead of promoting one or more written forms of the “regional vulgar tongues,” they replaced the established classical writing with “plain writing,” which had originated in the tenth century and continued to be an integral component of the writing system of the empire. In so doing, they succeeded in inventing a cosmopolitan national language that, through the subsequent state-sponsored standardization of pronunciation, would effectively overtake all the existing regional tongues (including Cantonese, Hakka, and the language of Amoy, or South Min) and become “the mother tongue” of the whole Chinese people. Taking this non-European, “vernacularization-by-writing” movement as the starting point for a scholarly inquiry, we gain an illuminating perspective on the unique path China has taken to become a nation-state and a better understanding of the writing culture and linguistic politics of the bygone empire. This approach also allows us to more adequately appreciate the legacy of the early modern empire in the making of the modern Chinese nation and the radical transformations China underwent in the modern era.

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Peter Kornicki

Abstract

This essay takes as its starting point the Tangut Empire, which lay to the west of China in the Song dynasty. There many Buddhist texts were translated into the Tangut vernacular and some were printed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The readiness to translate Buddhist scriptures in the Tangut Empire is matched in Tibet and elsewhere but provides a stark contrast with Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, and this essay explores why vernacularization was accepted in some East Asian societies but rejected in others.

Series:

Wang Sixiang

Abstract

This chapter examines the politics of language in the early Chosŏn period (1392–1550s). In the frequent envoy exchanges between Chosŏn Korea (1392–1910) and Ming China (1368–1644), Korean court interpreters who mastered spoken Chinese played indispensable roles as mediators of the spoken language. Although the two courts communicated via classical Chinese, a literary language they shared, they still required oral communication. Chosŏn court interpreters also produced an extensive book-body of language manuals, which made use of the Korean alphabet in phonological glosses. Invented and promulgated in the mid-fifteenth century, the new script systematically represented the phonology of Sino-Korean, which made it readily adaptable to notating the phonology of spoken Chinese as well. Extensive use of the script by court interpreters demonstrated the importance of the script as a technology of mediation between two very different spoken languages: Korean and Chinese. On the one hand, the invention of the alphabet, often seen as either solely a prerequisite for the eventual elevation of the Korean "vernacular" over classical Chinese or a gesture of freedom from the Ming, was in fact intimately connected to the Chosŏn court’s efforts to maintain cultural and political ties with the Ming court. On the other hand, the importance of the spoken language was overshadowed by a graphocentrism among scholars, which marginalized the essential roles played by interpreters as mediators of linguistic difference.

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John D. Phan

Abstract

The history of vernacular writing in Vietnam describes an intimate and evolving relationship with Literary Sinitic. As with other nascent vernacular forms in East Asia, the practice of composing in Vietnamese was long held to be inferior to or unnecessary in the face of Literary Sinitic; at best it was viewed as a pedagogical crutch for learning the classical language. Nevertheless—while Vietnamese did not truly eclipse Literary Sinitic until the twentieth century—vernacular language did experience a rapid ascent after the seventeenth century, when Vietnamese-language works rendered in the morphographic character system known as Chữ Nôm burst into popularity. The relatively dramatic escalation in Nôm composition over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries suggests an equally dramatic shift in the cultural and intellectual attitudes of the literati who practiced it. Vernacular writing had to be reinvented, however, before it could be used for the kind of intellectual and imaginative tasks exemplified by later literature. Remarkably, just such a reinvention is articulated in the prefatory material of a seventeenth-century Sino-Vietnamese dictionary called the Chỉ nam ngọc âm giải nghĩa (Explication of the Guide to Jeweled Sounds 指南語音解義). The Chỉ nam bears two prefaces: one in Literary Sinitic (written in Sinitic characters) and one in Vietnamese (written in Chữ Nôm). Though usually read separately, they in fact combine to form an interlocking argument that redefines Nôm, not as a crude or simplistic facsimile of Sinitic writing, but as a legitimate and authentic extension of the sagely and civilizing technology that Han characters represented. The bilingual prefaces seek to dissolve the linguistic and cultural barriers separating the vernacular from the classical mode and to render Vietnamese intelligible in terms of Literary Sinitic intellectuality. The Chỉ nam was produced at a crossroads in the history of Vietnamese vernacular writing. Although Nôm had gained some momentum as a pedagogical tool over the fourteenth century, the ascent of Neo-Confucianism following the Ming occupation of 1407–1427 led to a revival of classical education that disrupted or even reversed the course of vernacularization. The Chỉ nam therefore represents a “rebooting” of vernacular practices, fueled by a new perception of its place, nature, and function. Its production in the mid-seventeenth century marks a watershed in the evolution of the Vietnamese vernacular—between the limited and proscribed forms of vernacular literature found in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the flourishing traditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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Haruo Shirane

Abstract

This essay explores the role of commentaries and translations in the interplay between classical Chinese and vernacular Japanese and between high (Heian period aristocratic) vernacular and demotic vernacular. Japan was largely a biliterate culture in the Heian period and earlier, with literary Chinese and kana-based vernacular existing side by side in the literary, religious, and political worlds. By the Edo period, however, high (Heian) vernacular Japanese had become almost as distant as classical Chinese for commoner readers. In this context, demotic vernacular translations of the Heian Japanese classics became a very important mediator between new readers and the Japanese classics. I argue that there were two fundamental kinds of translation, between literary Chinese and Japanese high vernacular and between Japanese high vernacular and demotic vernacular (what I call intervernacular translation). I focus on the important role of commentaries, which functioned not only as intermediaries between classical Chinese and vernacular Japanese but as a major force in the production of a wide range of genres, from poetry to warrior tales (gunki-mono).

Series:

Daniel Trambaiolo

Abstract

Detailed attention to the linguistic forms of medical writing can shed light on the social and cultural processes involved in the development of medical knowledge. This chapter analyzes the language of published Japanese medical treatises from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, focusing on the linguistic strategies by which medical writers made classical Chinese medical learning accessible to a Japanese audience and the ways they incorporated local medical learning from vernacular oral and written sources. Both these phenomena arose from Japanese doctors’ efforts to adapt Chinese medical learning to their own contexts of practice, but together they contributed to the formation of a distinctive book-body of medical literature whose character was quite different from that of the continent.

Series:

Mårten Söderblom Saarela

Abstract

Manchu, the dynastic language of the Qing Empire (1644–1911), quickly fell into oblivion at the establishment of Republican rule in China. Because of its status as a language of government administration, the Manchu language in the Qing period had been studied by officials, clerks, soldiers, and the linguistically curious of various ethnic backgrounds. One of the products of the Chinese encounter with Manchu was an alphabetical order based on the Manchu script. Just like Western alphabetical order, the Manchu system had the notable advantage of being used to organize a great variety of corpora. Although originally applied to Manchu-language material, the system also developed to handle texts written in Mongolian and, eventually, Chinese. In the end, the Manchu system did not develop in the same way as alphabetical order did in Europe, and by the time the dynasty fell, the incentive to study the now politically suspect Manchu script largely disappeared. Yet numerous printed dictionaries and many manuscripts featuring Manchu alphabetical order remain, inviting the study of what we with good reason might call one of the most radically new developments in information management to take place in China during the past several centuries.

Series:

Benjamin A. Elman

Abstract

Was imperial China a meritocracy? If so, were civil examinations an important part of what made it a meritocracy? Did the standard training program in the classical language serve as a gatekeeper to keep non-elites out? Due to the symbiotic relations between the court and its officials, the asymmetrical relations between the powerful throne at the center and its disparate elites nonetheless empowered elites to seek upward mobility through the classical language. But true social mobility (i.e., peasants becoming officials) was never the goal of the imperial state. The modest level of social circulation enabled by a classical education was a precocious harbinger of the unifying power of a common written language in the early modern world and an unexpected consequence of the meritocratic civil service.By limiting their focus to the civil examination graduates, earlier accounts of the civil service failed to tell us what classical literacy meant for the vast majority of candidates (over 90 percent of whom failed!) or the society at large. To see the larger place of the classical language in Chinese society, we must look beyond the official meritocracy of the graduates and their immediate families. One of the unintended consequences of the civil examinations was the creation of millions of classically literate men and women, perhaps 10 percent of the population (200–250 million in 1600), who used their linguistic talents for a variety of nonofficial purposes, becoming hereditary doctors or classically trained literati physicians, local pettifoggers, fiction writers, and examination essay teachers. If there was much social mobility (i.e., the opportunity for members of the lower classes to rise in the social hierarchy), it was likely here. The archives indicate that peasants, traders, and artisans, who made up over 90 percent of the population, were not among those 100 annual or 50,000 total palace graduates between 1371 and 1904. Nor were the lower estates a significant part of the two to three million who failed biennial licensing examinations. What many who follow P’ing-ti Ho mean by the anachronistic term "social mobility" might be better described as a “healthy circulation” of lower and upper elites via classical literacies.