Within the last ten years or so, the concept of "Sinophone" (obviously modeled on "Francophone," "Anglophone", etc.) has come to be very much in vogue. To the best of my knowledge, the term was coined by UCLA professor Shu-mei Shih, but it was soon picked up by many other scholars and quickly became one of the hottest topics of discussion in Chinese studies.
I've been in the thick of the Sinophone revolution and have mentioned it several times on Language Log (e.g., here), but now I've become acquainted with another new term, "Sinosphere," and wonder how they are related.
Apparently "Sinosphere" was invented by UC Berkeley professor James Matisoff, but it seems to have taken on a life of its own which goes way beyond what he intended by it.
First of all, it is doubtful whether Jim Matisoff — who is a sophisticated etymologist and phonologist — would have given pride of place to character usage in the Sinosphere, but that is how the concept is viewed popularly.
I will discuss this adventitious aspect of Sinosphere at much greater length below. For now, I also suspect that Matisoff did not intend to link Sinitic language, much less Chinese character usage, with Confucianism, ethnicity, nationalism, and so forth. On this point, the following blog post is relevant: "'Inside the Sinosphere': A Response," by Michelle Tsai, who was responding to Joel Kotkin's "Inside The Sinosphere: China's New 'Diaspora' Economy."
I asked a number of colleagues, some of whom where Matisoff's former students, what they think of "Sinosphere" and its popular misrepresentations.
Gene Buckley began with this observation: "Interesting that it's mainly, but not entirely, defined by the use of characters. I saw an Australian website that was using it to refer to the Chinese sphere of economic influence in Asia."
Julie Wei remarked,
I don't think the Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc. will like this word. "Sinosphere" suggests to me political dominance. The Wikipedia definition says the word means, above all, the use of Chinese characters and the prevalence of Chinese-based culture — Confucianism, etc. The Wikipedia map does not include the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, or Indonesia. I feel that these countries should be included if the use of Chinese characters and culture is the main point. The Chinese are a strong economic force in these Southeast Asian countries, and when I was Singapore there was widespread evidence of Chinese characters on store fronts (I presume it's the same in the Philippines and Indonesia). Chinese people and Chinese culture were ubiquitous. The Philippine dish BOPIA is really Chinese BO-BIN 薄餅 (a name for spring roll), for instance. The "Laowai" (VHM: "[old] foreigner") website indicates that chopsticks should also be a marker of the Sinosphere. I agree, and I'd include the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, and Indonesia, where Chinese culture, though not necessarily dominant, is crucial.
Whereupon I chimed in, "If 'Sinosphere' really refers to places where Chinese characters are / were used, then I think it's a badly flawed concept, since there are many places where there are Sinitic speakers who do not know / use characters." But we shall see that Matisoff didn't mean that at all.
Matt Anderson observed:
I was surprised when I googled Sinosphere by what seems to be the consensus definition of the term — when I've seen this word before, I've understood it in some contexts as simply the Chinese sphere of influence (which would include all the countries listed in the Wikipedia article, but also others such as, e.g., Cambodia, certain African countries, etc.), and in other contexts as countries with a substantial population of Sinitic-speakers (i.e., China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, etc.). I'm not sure if I've previously misunderstood this term or if its meaning is somewhat more flexible in actual usage.
Having looked through the original Matisoff article*, it is clear to me that he definitely is not using the term simply to refer to places where Chinese characters were or are used. For example, he writes, "One of the most striking areal features of 'Sinospheric' SE Asian languages is monosyllabicity and elaborate tone systems. Tai, Hmong-Mien (Miao-Yao), and Vietnamese all have Chinese-type tone systems and thoroughgoing monosyllabicity, and all share a good-sized lexical component (including some core vocabulary) which corresponds more or less regularly in consonants, vowels, and tones." (p. 113). And he writes in a footnote, "I refer to the Chinese and Indian areas of linguistic / cultural influence in Southeast Asia as the 'Sinosphere' and the 'Indosphere'."
So he seems to be using "Sinosphere" sensibly (though I am skeptical about the monosyllabicity of the languages in question, and I haven't read the article carefully enough to evaluate his other claims). The passage quoted above is used in support of the argument that these kinds of similar features do not imply a genetic relationship between the languages in question, but may simply be the result of areal contact. And he has nothing to say (at least not in this specific article) about nationalism, Confucianism, etc., or anything related to the Chinabeat article you linked to.
So then the question is how the term came to be used as it is defined in the Wikipedia article (and how it came to be translated as Hànzì wénhuà quān 漢字文化圈 ("Sinograph cultural sphere"). I certainly agree that that's a badly flawed concept, and an even worse interpretation / translation of Matisoff's term (at least as he uses it in the 1990 piece). And then how use of the term leads to things like “Inside the Sinosphere."
*James A. Matisoff, "On Megalocomparison," Language (1990), 106-120. [VHM: This article is available on the internet.]
Zev Handel replied thus to my query about what he thought of "Sinosphere":
Based on the responses you've circulated from others, I do not think the term "Sinosphere" as Matisoff used it is equivalent to the Chinese (or, more accurately, Japanese) term "漢字文化圏", even though Wikipedia and other sites have presented them as equivalents. Matisoff was thinking primarily in terms of linguistic influence (which is of course dependent on cultural / religious influence, which obviously contains textual / writing influence as a component). He meant it it refer to those parts of the world which had sufficient influence from Chinese culture that their own cultures and languages received a measurable degree of historical influence. This was always meant to be a fuzzy concept for Matisoff, and was meaningful in being set explicitly against the "Indosphere" concept. The border between the Sinosphere and the Indosphere in Southeast Asia was always porous and shifting, with many places (such as Cambodia) receiving influence from both.
As for "漢字文化圏", this is a much more narrowly defined concept, intended to refer specifically to China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam — places where Chinese-character-based writing systems were official and widespread, and where Classical Chinese was the medium for the spread of Confucian and Buddhist thought, as well as other Chinese cultural and political concepts.
I don't see any meaningful connection with "Sinophone" = Chinese-speaking area. Both "Sinosphere" in Matisoff's sense and "漢字文化圏" are areas that encompass large numbers of people who do not and never have spoken any form of Chinese, although these peoples' spoken languages have been influenced by the Chinese language to greater or lesser degree.
If I were forced to come up with an English equivalent term for "漢字文化圏", I would not use "Sinosphere", which I think should be reserved for the sense Matisoff intended for it. I would say something like "Sinographosphere", awkward as it is.
Tom Bishop added:
Here is a sensible observation: "it is dangerous to equate ethnicity with nationality or allegiance."
Likewise, it's silly to equate the use of Hanzi with any of those things, or with Confucianism, etc. Apparently Jim Matisoff coined the term, but I doubt this is what he had in mind.
I wouldn't blame any of this on Jim Matisoff. The article where he supposedly first introduced the term doesn't even mention Chinese characters. The article is called "On Megalocomparison" and it's about genetic relationships (or lack thereof) between spoken languages, going back thousands of years. (He also coined another word: "columbicubiculomania — a compulsion to stick things into pigeonholes".)
The Wikipedia article has an interesting history, going back to 2005. Two Chinese translations of "Sinosphere" were added to it in 2006, "中華文化圈" and "漢字文化圏":
"In Chinese commentator circles, the term Chinese cultural sphere (zh-tw: 中華文化圈 zhonghua wenhua quan) is used interchangably for Sinosphere but covering a broader definition. Chinese cultural sphere denotes a grouping of countries, regions, and people with Chinese cultural legacies. This includes the Sinosphere under the Bennett definition plus countries that have extensive Chinese cultural heritage or are with significant Chinese populations in modern times, including Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Korea (South and North), and Japan. An alternative word coined is Chinese character cultural sphere (zh-tw: 漢字文化圏 hanzi wenhua quan ja:漢字文化圏 kanji bunkaken)."
In the current version of the Wikipedia article, the term "中華文化圈" is gone, leaving only "漢字文化圏"! Too many cooks spoil the broth.
Mark Hansell joined in:
As a longtime student of his (that shows you how long it took me to finish grad school!), let me clarify — Matisoff was talking about the languages of Southeast Asia, and wanted to distinguish between those languages and language families whose main external influence (cultural as well as linguistic) was Chinese civilization (such as Vietnamese, Zhuang, Hmong-Mien etc.), and those whose main influence was Indian civilization ("The Indosphere", such as Tibetan, Siamese, Khmer, etc.). Primarily it is a matter of where elements of "high culture" such as religion, literature, etc. came from, and of course one of those elements is which script played a role in disseminating that culture. Those areas in which subcontinental religion and literature were models adopted some form of Indic script, and imported a huge number of Indic loan vocabulary; those under Chinese cultural sway often adapted Chinese characters (e.g. Vietnamese chu nom, Zhuang, etc.)
Often members of the same family come down in different "spheres": Siamese and Khmer in the Indosphere, vs. Zhuang and Vietnamese in the Sinosphere. It's based on much more than script; in fact, some of the languages Matisoff talks about are not written in any script. If anything, which civilization is the source of learned loanwords is a much more important linguistic factor.
I think the confusion is based on a translation difficulty — Matisoff was using the term "Sinosphere" to refer to Chinese cultural influence on the structure of languages and not specifically about writing. The "Chinese character sphere", or however you want to translate that phrase, is something different entirely. I don't know who coined that phrase, but it has been quite popular in many Chinese publications.
You might add the caveat that this is "second-hand Matisoffism", since Jim himself has not weighed in.
Wolfgang Behr clarifies further:
Matisoff was of course talking about typological language features, not about the writing system, when he first used the term "Sinosphere" in the late 80ies. The article on "Indosphere" in Wikipedia captures what he meant by that term much better than the one on "Sinosphere", where the 汉字文化圈 concept has crept in. Now, it would be very interesting to know where the latter came from. My feeling is that the term became popular only in the mid-90ies in wénzì xué 文字学 ("philology") circles (indeed, the first CAJ [China Academic Journals] article which has it dates from 1996), but on the other hand it sounds as if it could have been coined much earlier, maybe even in the Republican period.
文化圈, incidentally, seems to first have made its appearance as a translation of Gräbner and Schmidt's "Kulturkreislehre" (an anti-Darwinistic Austrian brand of radical diffusionism in anthropolgy), which, however, reached China mainly in the early reception of Wilhelm Wundt's Völkerpsychologie. I once taught a class on the history of psychology in China at Bochum, and may still have some old notes on this somewhere in Frankfurt.
Wolfgang is right in suspecting that wénhuà quān 文化圈 ("culture sphere") goes back to the Republican period and is connected with Gräbner and Schmidt. Here's the first entry for that term in Huang Heqing's database:
1941年国立编译馆编订、教育部公布《社会学名词》：“Cultural circle（Graebner-Schmidt），文化圈。”（1941年，Shehuixue mingci，6）
As for 漢字文化圏 and 中華文化圏, both expressions seem to have come into existence with the famous Japanese historian Nishijima Sadao 西嶋定生 (1919-1998), illustrious professor of the University of Tokyo. These expressions were based on his advocacy of Higashi Ajia sekai-ron 「東アジア世界論 ("Theory of an East Asian World"), which formulated the model of a cultural sphere.
The Chinese were quick to adopt Nishijima's concept of a Chinese (character) culture sphere, of course, because the whole theory emphasizes the importance of Chinese cultural influence in East Asia, with China as the center of the sphere.
Finally, Shu-mei Shih declares that "the two terms [VHM: Sinophone and Sinosphere] are not at all collapsible, since Sinophone includes all Sinitic-language communities and cultures around the entire world." Inasmuch as it was Shu-mei who invented the term, she should know what it means. Perhaps Jim Matisoff himself will comment on "Sinosphere", and maybe even tell us what he thinks of "Sinophone". In the meantime, we've had very good input from his former students and various colleagues.
[Thanks to Nathan Hopson, Cecilia Seigle, Toni Tan, Bob Sanders, Stephen Dodson, James Unger, and Huang Heqing]