“Chinese” Writing in East Asia (Part One)

Society Culture

Of the approximately 200 countries in the world today, China and Japan are the only two that still use the Chinese writing system, known as kanji in Japanese.

According to the Kojiki and Nihonshoki, court-sanctioned collections of early history and myth that are Japan’s earliest books, it was during the reign of the emperor Ōjin (r. 270–310) that word of the Chinese writing system arrived in Japan. The arrival of actual Chinese writing in Japan dates to the early fifth century. This marked the beginning of a struggle with the Chinese writing system for the people of the Japanese archipelago. Struggle, because the Chinese characters were a medium designed to suit the language of China. It would be some time before the Japanese overcame the difficulties involved in turning the Chinese characters into a dependable tool for writing their own very different language.

The Early Stages

In China, the number of characters has increased through the ages. The majority of the characters currently in use are thought to have been in existence by around the first century AD, during the Later Han Dynasty. This corresponds to the latter half of the Yayoi period in Japan. Many more characters must have joined the lexicon by the early fifth century, when kanji characters are thought to have arrived in Japan.

The Song Dynasty dictionary Guangyun (Broad Rimes), compiled in 1008, lists readings and tones for 26,194 characters. Faced with this huge number of characters, the literate elite of Japan must have painstakingly compiled their own lists of Japanese and Chinese readings for the characters. According to a bibliographical record of compiled around 891, there were 16,790 Chinese volumes in the court collection at the beginning of the Heian Period. One can imagine the scholars at court working diligently to absorb this vast library of knowledge.

This initial process of adopting and absorbing Chinese writing and the accompanying literary tradition can be regarded as something of a primary processing stage. The next stage in the evolutionary process was to create new, made-in-Japan characters (known as kokuji in Japanese). This might be compared to the secondary processing stage.

The kokuji are “Chinese” characters that were created in Japan by Japanese people. An entry in the Nihonshoki records that the Emperor Tenmu (r. 673–686) commanded Kyōbu no Muraji Iwatsumi to make “new letters.” In the Jōei shikimokushō, an almanac compiled during the early sixteenth century, it is written: “The character 畠 [hatake], or ‘cultivated field,’ is one of more than 1,000 characters that were created in Japan.” The kokuji resulted from a kind of reproduction process, building on the methods and wisdom of the Chinese writing system.

Chinese Learning and the Birth of Modern Japan

The Japanese drew on their reserves of linguistic creativity again in the nineteenth century, when the country encountered the quite different Western culture and embarked on an ambitious program of modernization in the years following the Meiji Restoration of 1868. This period might be described as the tertiary processing stage undergone by kanji in Japan. In a context where Westernization and modernization were essential, through translation the Japanese created a method of understanding new areas of scholarship, science, and thought, without losing the intrinsic qualities of the Japanese language. In the Heian Period a sensibility of “Japanese spirit, Chinese learning” ruled the day. In the tumultuous years of the mid-nineteenth century, these sentiments were crystallized and reborn as “Japanese spirit, Western learning.”

During these years, scholars in Japan put the creative power of Chinese characters to work as they translated books of the new learning from the West, coining more than 1,000 new terms for modern concepts like “executives” (幹部), “political policy” (政策), “economics” (経済), “investment” (投資), “society” (社会), “management” (経営), and “freedom” (自由). (Taken from Yamamuro Shin’ichi, Shisō kadai to shite no Ajia, [Asia as Intellectual Theme], Iwanami Shoten, 2011.)

Each of these terms strikes me as being a remarkably precise rendering, born of a deep understanding of the Chinese characters used. The new terminology resulted from a strong grounding in Chinese and a thorough knowledge of the Chinese classics. None of them would have been possible without the knowledge and appreciation of Chinese that ran through all of Japanese culture. Because the meaning of most of the individual characters has remained largely the same in Japan and in China, many of these coinages were adopted into Chinese. In this sense, the nineteenth-century coinages can be regarded as landmark achievements in the history of cultural exchange between Japan and China.

(Continued in part two.)

(Originally written in Japanese on March 1, 2012.)

China culture history books Kanji Chinese characters language Heian writing Chinese