“Chinese” Writing in East Asia (Part Two)

Society Culture

(Continued from part one.)

In the middle of the nineteenth century, with the Western powers encroaching further into East Asia, Japan decided to open itself to the outside world. A process of Westernization and modernization rapidly ensued. When Japan entered the ranks of the world powers following victories in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5, people in China came to see their neighbor as a convenient model of Westernization.

Cross-Cultural Collaboration

On June 15, 1896, the Qing government sent 13 of its young subjects to study in Japan. The scale of this scholarship project grew rapidly, and by 1905 there were nearly 10,000 Chinese students in Japan. The time these young scholars spent in Japan was instrumental in helping them to develop the intellectual resources for rebuilding China. Influential figures who spent time in Japan included Lu Xun, the father of modern Chinese literature (1881–1936); the socialist leaders Zhou Enlai (1898–1976), Sun Pinghua (1917–97), and Guo Moruo (1892–1978); the warlord Cai E (1882–1916); the artist Zhang Daqian (1899–1983); and the scientist Li Siguang (1889–1971).

The early years of the twentieth century were a period of labor pains for education in China, as the system began to move into the modern era. In the early stages, the Chinese system was inspired by the methods used in Japan, and students who had spent time in Japan translated Japanese textbooks into Chinese. This was made possible by the East Asian writing system, in which much of the basic vocabulary was mutually intelligible when written down, even if the Chinese students were not familiar with the readings of the characters in Japanese. Terms from Western philosophy and the arts and sciences had been translated into Japanese using Chinese characters, and many of these neologisms were then adapted back into Chinese through these translations. This cross-cultural collaboration between Japan and China dramatically enriched the resources of the written languages of East Asia. This revolution in writing was led by a joint team of Chinese and Japanese scholars, and can be regarded as the fourth stage of processing undergone by Chinese characters in Japan, dating back to the introduction of the writing system in the early fifth century.

Made-in-Japan Characters Adopted in China

Some characters continue to be used in Japan, even though they are all but obsolete in China. Examples include 雫, meaning “droplet,” and 圀, a variant of the character for “country,” normally written as 国 or 國. Although there were perhaps cultural reasons why these characters became obsolete in China, from another perspective we can assume that there must have been a cultural context in Japan that allowed the characters to survive there.

In recent years, increasing numbers of made-in-Japan characters have been adopted into Chinese too. The bestselling Chinese dictionary Xinhua zidian, for example, includes the made-in-Japan character 畑 (cultivated field), with the gloss, “used in Japanese family names.” That made-in-Japan characters like this are now being included in the major Chinese dictionaries is a significant development.

There have been two main periods in history during which Japanese vocabulary has been absorbed into the Chinese language as loan words. The first was the period between the Meiji Restoration and World War II; the second is the present age, since the turn of the new millennium.

The new coinages include words like 特萌 (super cute) based on the distinctly Japanese slang sense of the character 萌 (moe), meaning “to sprout.” Like many other recent coinages, this term traces its lineage to the manga tradition. Another new compound is 我倒 (I fall), used almost like onomatopoeia to convey a sense of shock in manga. Both of these usages would have been unthinkable within the context of the traditional Chinese writing system. They demonstrate the potential of Chinese characters to symbolize an organic connection between abstract and concrete representation.

The more closely a word is connected to its cultural background, the harder it is to convey an image. For instance, no suitable Chinese equivalent has been found yet for kagerō (heat haze), a term that can be found in the Japanese classics. Conversely, even though Chinese expressive and literary models concerning the “full moon” were adopted in Japan, the names for the waxing and waning of the moon are made-in-Japan vocabulary. From ancient days the Japanese language has always borne the traces of being able to find a happy balance when it comes to accepting and adapting kanji.

Conclusion: Kanji as Global Writing

As people in Japan become more internationalized, it has apparently become quite common for couples who have spent time living in the West to carry out their arguments in English when they disagree about something. And even Chinese people who can speak Japanese quite well tend to prefer Chinese when it comes to argument or debate. Chinese debate calls for logic, and the syllogistic method of advancing an argument is one with very deep roots in the Chinese psyche and culture.

Japanese is at the opposite pole from Western languages and Chinese. The Japanese language is well suited to a culture that sets great store by the emotions. This is symbolized by the Japanese aesthetic of imperfect, intransient beauty often expressed by the terms 侘び (wabi) and寂び (sabi)—both, incidentally, written with made-in-Japan characters.

When the strongly logical Chinese writing system encountered the emotional Japanese culture, a chemical reaction took place. But this was not a simple case of two opposites clashing. Instead, the reaction involved correlation, harmonization, melding, blending, solubility, mutual attraction, and affinity. It is perhaps this blending of the two cultures that represents the future for kanji—as a symbol of East Asian cultural affinities and a signpost in the direction of a new global standard capable of facing up to the overwhelming influence of English.

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

Meiji Zhou Enlai Qing East Asia culture history Kanji writing Chinese Japanese characters nineteenth century Westernization Sun Pinghua Wang Min Guo Moruo Cai E Zhang Daqian Tsai Ao Sino kokuji