Sinophone and Sinosphere

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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 were 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]


  1. leoboiko said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 8:54 am

    > Primarily it is a matter of where elements of "high culture" such as religion, literature, etc. came from

    This reminds me of Jean-Nöel Robert’s term, hierogloss.

    Is the 漢字文化圏/sinographosphere such a flawed concept though? I mean, I think what it's trying to get at is, the set of regions and cultures where Literary Sinitic was historically an hierogloss. I think LS (as opposed to vernacular Chinese languages) can be reasonably said to be connected to the use of characters, right? And the fact that a culture adopted LS has important consequences; for one thing, they incorporated Chinese classics as part of their canon; and, as far as I know, LS was the main source of what Martin calls "Sino-Xenic" (the large Sinitic component of Japanese/Korean/Vietnamese vocabulary). Wouldn't a term like 漢字文化圏 make sense to designate this phenomenon? (or perhaps 漢文文化圏 or something ).

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

    I think I picked up Sinosphere and Indosphere from Matisoff too, and it seems like it would have been from before 1990. He must have used it in conversation. I definitely understood it in the areal sense, as Mark Hansell indicates. I was working on Burmese at the time, and one of the interesting features of it for me was that it seemed to be kind of at the intersection of the two spheres–its writing system, kinship system, religion and much of its vocabulary was from the Indosphere (via Mon) but it was Sinospheric in terms of its isolating nature, CV syllable structure, being tonal, heavy use of compounds and SEA-style serial verbs, etc. Compared to Tibetan, it looked more Chinese; compared to Lisu/Lahu/etc. it looked more Indian.

  3. JS said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

    Indosphere/Sinosphere appear in "On Megalocomparison" but are considered more fully at Matisoff, "Sino-Tibetan Linguistics: Present State and Future Prospects," Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 20, (1991), pp. 485-86. Interestingly, the "Indosphere" is defined there in terms of the penetration of Indian high culture (in the forms of religion, writing, "learned" vocabulary, etc.) into Southeast Asia; by contrast, the term "Sinosphere" is considered to capture the effects of early and extended contact in southern China between speakers of Sinitic and non-Sinitic languages, contact that would have resulted in "borrowing of material culture and vocabulary […] in all directions" (486). Thus, we need not think of Matisoff's "Sinospheric" phenomena as the result of unidirectional flow from a "Chinese" center.

    I find this interesting in part as I realize I have been guilty of using the term "Sinosphere" both in this Matisoffian sense and in the sense of the latter-day Hanzi wenhua quan composed most significantly of Vietnam, Korea and Japan. Clearly, it is actually this second phenomenon which is more parallel to M.'s conception of the "Indosphere," involving as it did essentially unidrectional flow of precisely such cultural products as religious ideas, writing, and learned vocabulary, and which is more consistent with the implications of the coinage Sinosphere.

    To me, anyway, it thus seems best to use Sinosphere in this newer, non-Matisoffian sense, and to reserve for the earlier phenomenon of linguistic typological convergence terms such as the "MSEA [Mainland Southeast Asia] linguistic area/sprachbund," within whose scope Sinitic languages have been considered to lie.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

    The somewhat parallel "Anglosphere" has been current for nigh on a decade and perhaps longer in some circles of political discourse to convey the notion that some assortment of predominantly English-speaking nations form a coherent set because of their (for historical but presumably non-Whorfian reasons) shared cultural/political/economic/legal institutions and values. The 2004 book "The anglosphere challenge: why the English-speaking nations will lead the way in the twenty-first century" is by a pundit fond of this theme. If by Sinosphere you want to capture a similar notion you may need to extend it beyond countries where Sinitic languages are spoken, but picking those countries, and only those countries, which somewhere along the way adopted/adapted (whether or not they still use it) the Chinese writing system for their non-Sinitic languages might be a decent first approximation.

    Of course, "sphere" in that part of the world echoes for me the controversial old proposal of a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere," which may have sounded more idiomatic in its original language.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 6:20 pm

    @J. W. Brewer

    You decide if it sounds better in Japanese:

    Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (大東亜共栄圏 Dai-tō-a Kyōeiken)

  6. Victor Mair said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 7:55 am

    From a friend in Taiwan:

    I use:

    individual : totality of speakers:

    anglophone : anglophonia

    hanophone : hanophonia

    I see 'anglosphere' in Wikipedia and think it's very silly (modeled after 'biosphere'? ) . 'Sinosphere', no matter what it means, is horrendous.

  7. leoboiko said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 10:18 am

    “Anglophonia” to me sounds like the condition of being an anglophone. Like "paraplegia" , "schizophrenia", "dyslexia", "anorexia".

  8. joanne salton said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 5:14 pm

    The different language links at the side of the Wikipedia page all lead you to pages which are entitled something like "Chinese character using zone" if you stick to the languages of the "Sinographosphere" (not a term likely to catch on, I suspect).

    French and Spanish meanwhile give "Chinese World" – at least "Sinosphere" has got to be an improvement on that!

  9. leoboiko said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 5:44 pm

    "Sinographic sphere"?

  10. John said,

    November 10, 2012 @ 5:09 pm

    Labels are like darts; it only counts if it sticks.

    If I asked anyone outside PRC and ROC whether they are "living in the sinosphere", I have a feeling I would get a rather virulent response every time.

  11. leoboiko said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 6:04 am

    Perhaps, but I bet if you asked a Japanese person, in Japanese, whether they're inside the "kanji cultural sphere", I bet you'd get a resounding hai. (I think the popular opinion tends to idolize kanji a bit, & make it a badge of national pride. Why, just the other day in Japanese class, our assigned reading was a dubious text about how the Korean opting-out of sinography was a sign of cultural decay…)

  12. Victor Mair said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

    Post – ICSTLL4 Handout – Nov. 3 2009

    Prosody and typological drift in Tibeto-Burman: Against “Sinosphere” and “Indosphere” (in some cases at least!)

    Mark W. Post
    Research Centre for Linguistic Typology

  13. Victor Mair said,

    November 15, 2012 @ 7:34 pm

    from Bob Ramsey:

    It seems to me that the idea of a “Sinosphere” is a slippery one, and part of what’s wrong with it is that terminology and much else continues to confuse, or at least not distinguish, the difference between the ancient, classical East Asian tradition and modern China, which is something completely different. The Chinese are particularly bad about conflating the two (you and I have talked many times about how the Chinese writing system plays a major role in obscuring the difference). I keep thinking that if, on the other hand, there were a terminological difference, something along the lines of the Italian vs. Latin/Roman difference, it would perhaps be easier to deflect the rather smug assumption among Chinese that they, and only they, are the rightful owners of the “Sinosphere” and all others are no more than followers, mere vassals, of the greater Chinese civilization. But at this point I’ve long since given up trying to convince people that the Chinese view is a distortion of what the civilization is all about.

    But now, just focusing on the use of Chinese characters, it seems to me (again, this is only my impression) that the Japanese simply take for granted the necessity for them, that their use is a good thing. The Japanese have never thought of kanji as somehow foreign—notice that they don’t hesitate to annotate the readings with hiragana and not katakana, as they do for truly “foreign” words (except maybe tabako and a few old loans like that). For the most part, the Japanese seem comfortable with kanji use.

    But Korea? Unlike Vietnam, I think you’re wrong in saying Koreans are no longer in the Sinosphere. Sure, a couple of decades ago 漢字 largely disappeared from Korean newspapers, and from most other printed materials as well. Moreover, for example, in Korea right now there is a silly controversy over whether to replace the signboard over the newly and carefully reconstructed Gwanghwamun (光化門) in the center of Seoul with a new signboard written entirely in hangul. That would of course be ahistorical, and it is especially ridiculous considering that the gate was so lovingly, carefully, and accurately constructed to be exactly the same as the original gate. But there are many hypernationalistic Koreans who do not think twice about reconstructing history along those lines. On the other hand, there is still that relatively powerful faction on the other side that continues to advocate continued and even increased use of Chinese characters. These advocates for Chinese characters are by no means restricted to the generation educated in a bygone era; there are also young scholars throughout the country who continue to use漢字and take pride in their knowledge of them. There is money involved, of course. I have colleagues who have in fact made a lot of money teaching Chinese characters to students whose parents desperately want their children to have that education, seeing it as a mark of the intellectual elite. And, as a sign of that affluence, I regularly receive a slick and expensive monthly publication written in the old-fashioned mixed script that more generally went out of style decades ago; and the publication of that magazine is funded by money derived from the income from those teaching academies. Moreover, there’s also a kind of electronic support for people who may be a little fuzzy about Chinese characters but find it too easy to put them into their writings with merely a click on their smart phone. So yes, it’s true that you now only find Chinese characters in a few headlines (e.g., 日 for Japan, 美 for America, or 中 for China), and that’s about it. But don’t think for a moment that those old battles between the advocates for Chinese characters and the militantly hangul-only forces are completely gone.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    November 26, 2012 @ 1:14 am

    It is very good to have this article on Wikpedia:

  15. Victor Mair said,

    November 30, 2012 @ 7:03 pm

    This blog post by Haun Saussy is worth pondering:

  16. Stephen Zweig said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 4:04 am

    I agree that there is a need to create a term that actually equate to the Chinese concept of 漢字文化圈, like Sinographosphere. On the other hand, although Sinosphere originally did not mean 漢字文化圈, it is now the conventional term in almost all research paper. Therefore, I propose using the term "Chinese cultural sphere" over "Sinosphere" when it's not referring to the concept of 漢字文化圈. While when one has to refer to 漢字文化圈 in English, I suggest using Sinographosphere instead.

    Anyway, I think the Chinese term 漢字文化圈 is not ambiguous at all, unlike the term Sinosphere. 漢字文化圈 is clear in that it refers only to those that have adopted both Classical Chinese and Chinese characters along with being under the Chinese cultural influence. Such cultural influences are also broken down into more specific and identifiable features. For example, those of 漢字文化圈 have a common feature of calendar (曆法), etiquette (禮儀), food, equipments, and infrastructures (建築) as well as confucianism. By this definition, Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, or Indonesia are not included.

  17. Stephen Zweig said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 4:06 am

    * I meant architecture instead of infrastructures.

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