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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from the old empire into a modern nation-state, must undergo a similar shift in which the “dead” classical writing was superseded by a vernacular writing rooted in the “living language.”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.

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.

Series:

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.