Against Spherespeak and Sino-speak

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[This is a guest post by Ross King, replying to "On the origin of the term 'hanzi'" (2/3/21)]

This is very interesting. I am particularly pleased to see the caution against the term “Sinosphere.” In a related vein, and as a sort of teaser for the edited volume I am just now finishing (Ross King, ed., Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in the World of Wen: Reading Sheldon Pollock from the Sinographic cosmopolis. To appear in Brill’s new series, “Language, Writing and Literary Culture in the Sinographic Cosmopolis.” Approx. 600 pages.), here is an excerpt from my editor’s introduction (“Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in the Sinographic Cosmopolis and Beyond: Traditional East Asian Literary Cultures in Global Perspective”)


Against Spherespeak and Sino-speak

Bruce Cumings (1998) called out a tendency in 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s academic and journalistic writing to engage in a discourse of “Rimspeak” which he faulted for constricting the public discourse around questions of space, the state, race, and political economy in the “Pacific Rim.” When it comes to how we study and imagine premodern East Asia, the stakes are admittedly lower, but with the terms “Sinographic Sphere” and “Sinosphere” I wonder if we are coming dangerously close to a sort of Spherespeak as well, where the “sphere” in these terms carries little indexical, explanatory or theoretical weight.[1]

What is the trouble with Spherespeak? The term “Sinographic Sphere” started life in English as a translation of the Japanese term kanji bunkaken 漢字文化圈 (“Chinese character culture sphere”) coined by Japanese researchers like Kamei Takashi et al. in their Moji to no meguriai (Encounters with Writing; 1963, 88) and Nishijima Sadao in his Chūgoku kodai kokka to Higashi Ajia sekai (The Ancient Chinese States and the East Asian World; 1983, 586–594).[2] Thus, “sphere” here is simply an uncritical and mechanical adoption via translation of the sinograph ken 圈 while jettisoning the bunka 文化 for “culture.” Saitō Mareshi has modified this term to kanjiken 漢字圈, or Sinographic Sphere, on the sensible grounds that the earlier term insinuated incorrectly that the region was unified culturally, when in fact the key common denominator was not culture but the use of sinographic writing and texts (see Saito in press, xviii). A number of colleagues writing in English now are using the term “Sinographic Sphere.” In and of itself, this term is unobjectionable, but I think we can do better and defend “Sinographic Cosmopolis” further below.

            More problematic is the term “Sinosphere.” Joshua Fogel (2009, 4) claims to have coined it, but Matisoff (1990, 1991) seems to have been the first (he contrasts it with the “Indosphere”) and has been followed ever since by other Tibeto-Burmanist linguists. But “Sinosphere” is basically Sinocentric and repackages the old center-periphery model of the tributary system. An especially difficult problem with “Sinosphere” is that it is now used indiscriminately to refer to both the modern/contemporary region and to the older premodern cultural formation that is the subject of the present volume. A quick search for “Sinosphere” in Google Scholar turns up hit after hit on questions of contemporary East Asian politics, political economy, and security, among other topics that animate journalists, policy makers, and social scientists. Indeed, William Callahan has recently identified a problematic discourse of “Sino-speak” in this “mix of scholarship and policy-making” which he fears “provides discursive legitimacy for Sinocentric hegemony in the twenty-first century” (Callahan 2012, 51, 52).

An even bigger problem with the term “Sinosphere” is that it has no explanatory force: it tells us little and has no theoretical purchase. As the designation for a translocal cultural formation that persisted for more than two millennia, “Sinosphere” indexes nothing. Moreover, the term “Sinosphere” risks confusion or complicity with what Callahan (2012) has branded as “Sino-speak”—the “emerging dialect for the new orientalism” that “presents an essentialized Chinese civilization that is culturally determined to rule Asia, if not the world” (Callahan 2012, 33, 49). It is unfortunate that this term limps along even in recently published work on premodern East Asia: the two volumes Rethinking the Sinosphere and Reexamining the Sinosphere edited by Nanxiu Qian et al. are a case in point.[3]

For these reasons, I would submit that we need to distinguish clearly between modern/contemporary and premodern appellations for this region, and would suggest that we let our modernist and presentist colleagues keep “Sinosphere” (or find something better) while the premodernists work with “Sinographic Cosmopolis.”


[1] The only way I can envision in which “sphere” here might be tasked with any heavy theoretical lifting would be through an appeal to the work of Peter Sloterdijk on “spheres”: cf. Morin (2009), Sloterdijk (2011–2016), Nieuwenhuis (2014), Ernste (2018).

[2] Saitō (2014, 9) gives Kamei Takashi et al. as the locus classicus, whereas Denecke (2017, 512) cites Nishijima.

[3] Two other notable recent works that use the term “Sinosphere” as part of a broad translocal approach to scholarly and literary culture in the early modern period are Wu (2014) and Paramore (2018). Wu sketches out the creation of a “pan-East Asian literati culture” (247–251), while Paramore argues for “the existence of an intellectually Confucian-centered, Classical Chinese language delivered, trans-Asian Sinosphere archive of knowledge in the early modern period” and posits a “Sinosphere Archive of Knowledge” (2018, 288–289) in early modern East Asia. Besides Paramore’s mooting of a “Confucian Sinosphere,” we can also mention instances of scholars positing a “Buddhist Cosmopolis”: cf. Roddy (2016) and Sen (2018).



Callahan, William A. 2012. “Sino-speak: Chinese Exceptionalism and the Politics of History.” Journal of Asian Studies 71(1): 33–55.


Cumings, Bruce. 1998. “Rimspeak: or, the Discourse of the ‘Pacific Rim.’” In What is in a Rim? Critical Perspectives on the Pacific Region Idea, edited by Arif Dirlik, 53–72. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.


Denecke, Wiebke. 2017. “Shared Literary Heritage in the East Asian Sinographic Sphere.” In The Oxford Handbook of Classical Chinese Literature (1000 BCE–900 CE), edited by Wiebke Denecke, Wai-yee Li, and Xiaofei Tian, 510–532. New York: Oxford University Press.


Ernste, Huib. 2018. “The Geography of Spheres: An Introduction and Critical Assessment of Peter Sloterdijk’s Concept of Spheres.” Geographica Helvetica 74: 273–284.


Fogel, Joshua. 2009. Articulating the Sinosphere: Sino-Japanese Relations in Space and Time. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Kamei Takashi, Ōtō Tokihiko, and Yamada Toshio. 1963. Moji to no meguriai [Encounters with Writing]. Volume 2 of Nihongo no rekishi [History of the Japanese Language]. Tokyo: Heibonsha.


Matisoff, James A. 1990. “On Megalocomparison.” Language 66(1): 106–120.

______. 1991. “Sino-Tibetan Linguistics: Present State and Future Prospects.” Annual Review of Anthropology 20: 469–504.


Morin, Marie-Eve. 2009. “Cohabitating in the Globalised World: Peter Sloterdijk’s Global Foams and Bruno Latour’s Cosmopolitics.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27: 58–72.


Nieuwenhuis, Marijn. 2014. “Taking up the Challenge of Space: New Conceptualisations of Space in the Work of Peter Sloterdijk and Graham Harman.” Continent 4(1): 16–37.


Nishijima Sadao. 1983. Chūgoku kodai kokka to Higashi Ajia sekai [The Ancient Chinese States and the East Asian World]. Tokyo: Tokyo University Press.


Paramore, Kiri. 2018. “The transnational archive from the Sinosphere.” In Archives & information in the early modern world, edited by Liesbeth Corens, Kate Peters, and Alexandra Walsham, 285–310. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Qian, Nanxiu, Richard J. Smith, and Bowei Zhang, eds. 2020a. Reexamining the Sinosphere: Cultural Transmissions and Transformations in East Asia. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press.


Qian, Nanxiu, Richard J. Smith, and Bowei Zhang, eds. 2020b. Rethinking the Sinosphere: Poetics, Aesthetics, and Identity Formation. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press.


Roddy, Stephen. 2016. “Toward a Buddhist Cosmopolitanism: The Pan-Asian vision of Gong Zizhen.” In Cosmopolitanism in China, 1600–1950, edited by Minghui Hu and Johan Elverskog, 121–158. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press.


Saitō Mareshi. 2014. Kanji sekai no chihei: Watashi tachi ni totte moji to wa nani ka [Horizons of the Sinographic World: What is Writing to Us?]. Tokyo: Shinchōsha.


Saitō, Mareshi (author), Ross King and Christina Laffin (eds.), Alexey Lushchenko, Mattieu Felt, Si Nae Park and Sean Bussell (translators). 2020. Kanbunmyaku: The Literary Sinitic Context and the Birth of Modern Japanese Language and Literature. Boston and Leiden: Brill.


Sen, Tansen. 2018. “Yijing and the Buddhist Cosmopolis of the Seventh Century.” In Texts and transformations: Essays in honor of the 75th birthday of Victor H. Mair, edited by Haun Saussy, 345–368. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press.


Sloterdijk, Peter. 2011–2016. Spheres. Translated by Wieland Hoban. 3 vols. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).


Wu, Jiang. 2014. Leaving for the Rising Sun: Chinese Zen Master Yinyuan and the Authenticity Crisis in Early Modern East Asia. New York: Oxford University Press.



  1. Andreas Johansson said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 4:18 pm

    "Sinographic Cosmopolis" is more than a bit of a mouthful …

    If usage of hanzi is the defining property of this region, "Hanzisphere" suggests itself.

  2. Garrett Wollman said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 7:22 pm

    I am rather surprised to discover that OED, which does not have "Sinosphere" at all, can only date "Anglosphere" to Neal Stephenson's _Diamond Age_ (the 1995 novel); it seems like an utterly transparent bit of English word-formation and you'd think it would have been invented at some point in the 1950s if not a century earlier. But for this same reason, I would reject the OP's assertion that "Sinosphere" is a calque of a Japanese expression; English-speakers were and are perfectly capable of inventing neologisms on this pattern without reference to Japanese scholarship, particularly in the international relations field where "sphere of influence" is already a well-known phrase.

  3. Bathrobe said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 7:33 pm

    I don't have strong objections to the 'Sinosphere' to describe a historical sphere of cultural influence. It is a cultural and linguistic reality that certain areas of East Asia absorbed (often consciously and eagerly) the cultural products, political model, and written language of China. These areas mostly cover Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

    It still makes sense to speak of 'Sinoxenic' with regard to those languages that are not Chinese but absorbed China's traditional cultural canon, the use of Chinese characters, and prodigious amounts of vocabulary. Ironically, of these only Japan still makes heavy and active use of Chinese characters. The Vietnamese have pretty much completely abandoned them, and the Koreans have kept them but largely exclude them from their current writing system. More to the point, being part of the Sinosphere is a two-way street — the Japanese created a huge amount of vocabulary in the modern era that was willingly and often uncritically adopted by the Chinese.

    But if the objection is to the view of "an essentialized Chinese civilization that is culturally determined to rule Asia", there is a problem right there: large parts of China do not historically or culturally belong to the Sinosphere. Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia are just part of this. None of these can be described as "Sinoxenic" because none of them absorbed the entire Chinese literary canon and the use of Chinese characters as part of their culture. Nor have they systematically made the Chinese literary language an indispensable part of their languages' vocabulary. The same goes for many of the smaller ethnic groups in China, particularly of the north and the southwest. Of course they were influenced by China and have been politically a part of China (mainly since the Qing), but there is no way that they could be called part of the Sinosphere in the way that "Sinosphere" is normally used. Any effort to paint the entire country, let alone the entire region, as part of the Sinosphere, must take note of these deep fracture lines within China.

    That is changing, of course, because China is now engaged in a concerted effort to forcibly make these areas Chinese-speaking and to obliterate all but small symbolic traces of their original cultural heritage. That is, it is attempting to make them all "Han Chinese" and thus a de facto part of the "Sinosphere". Along with this is an effort to claim their traditional cultures for "China". The way that China now claims the Kyrgyz epic Manas as part of Chinese culture, with elaborate plastic Chinese-language productions of the epic in Beijing, is symptomatic of this effort. Similarly the insistence on prefixing "China" to everything that has a cultural tradition separate from China ("China's Tibet", "North China's Inner Mongolia", etc.). Chinese scholars are at pains to point out, for instance, that the Mongol epic Jangar, shared by Oirats in Russia, Mongolia, and China, originated in "China's Xinjiang".

    Outside of China, the Japanese are the most subversive element in any effort to describe a unified Sinosphere. They do not see any contradiction between having borrowed deeply and heavily from China and having their own vibrant, independent culture. Even a small acquaintance with the products of Japanese culture will show you that even though Japan has traditionally been steeped in many elements of Chinese culture, Japan is not China. Japanese intellectuals were the first to declare their independence of China, even though it was the Chinese philosophical and cultural background that formed the basis of many of these efforts. (I am speaking of the rise of 'kokugaku' in the 17th and 18th centuries.) It is true that many unsophisticated Chinese see Japan as nothing more than an offshoot of China, but any deeper scrutiny of such broad-brush terms as "Sinosphere" will quickly reveal how vacuous it is as an assertion of cultural hegemony.

  4. Twill said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 9:42 pm

    Have to agree with Bathrobe. Certainly in contemporary and especially any political contexts "Sinosphere" is going to be highly problematic, but "sinographic cosmopolis" conversely seems to insinuate that the major commonality was merely the choice of script, as we might speak of a modern-day "latinographic megalopolis", which is wrong-headed. The adoption of hanzi is incidental to the assimilation to and participation in the Classical Chinese literary culture, naturally centering on China, which inevitably drew these countries into a circle of over a millennium of shared culture extending from religion to philosophy to customs to technology, etc. The only way this would be misleading is if it were, as mentioned, misused to litigate controversial political claims or otherwise totalitized or vastly exaggerated (which applies to any concept).

  5. Hill Gates said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 10:56 pm

    Why wouldn't you begin at the beginning: with the exchange of goods that networks societies before their members get around to playing with the immaterial stuff that barnacles onto trade? No need to do history backwards.

  6. John Swindle said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 11:41 pm

    The English-language edition of Wikipedia currently lists five meanings for "Sinosphere," including among others the Chinese-speaking world and "Greater China, comprising Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and Taiwan." Some of these uses are perhaps worth preserving.

  7. Pamela said,

    February 8, 2021 @ 10:40 am

    "sinographic" is great –gets the idea across with very little baggage. why "cosmopolis"? seems to put everything back in that King wants to take out. a polis/poleis is an urban center –without the centrism in relation to outlying communities (particularly apokia), there is no polis. seems like "sphere" was doing it better. but "sinographic" is clearly a huge advance over "sino-"…

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 8, 2021 @ 12:11 pm

    To underscore the point that the common inheritance of Sinitic script and various co-occurring cultural features does not render the other societies involved mere appendages or vassals of some sort of central authority in Peking, may I modestly suggest the alternative term "Kanjisphere"? Or "Kanji Zone" if for some reason sphere itself is thought to be misleading, although I'm not sure I follow that point. (FWIW because I first encountered the characters in question in a Japanese context, "kanji" is the generic English word for them in my particular idiolect and I think of e.g. "hanzi" as just being the Mandarin word for kanji.)

  9. Krogerfoot said,

    February 8, 2021 @ 7:09 pm

    Hitting an imaginary "Like" button and raising an imaginary glass to Bathrobe's comment. I've always analogized China's place in Asian culture and history to the role of Rome/Latin in the West. The comparison is obviously pretty inexact, but it helps illustrate that the "Sinosphere" term can be a useful descriptor without having to accept the idea that China is destined to rule everywhere its writing and culture has influenced, any more than the Roman Empire's influence on European language and thought means that Italy rules the West.

  10. Luke said,

    February 8, 2021 @ 9:32 pm

    "Kanjisphere" sounds incredibly Japan-centric as it implies that Japan is the origin and centre of expansion for Sinographs. As previously stated by an earlier poster, the term "Sinosphere" in reference to cultures that use Sinographs appear to be the least politically charged term because all it does is describe the fact that these characters did originate from China.

  11. Bathrobe said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 4:20 am

    The interesting thing is that, yes, "Kanjisphere" is inaccurate, but more than that, it would REALLY get up the nose of the Chinese — an interesting window into the mentalities involved.

    I remember a Chinese TV program from many years ago which rehashed a little history: the Japanese (arrogantly) claimed that the oldest surviving wooden Buddhist temple in Asia was found in Japan (Hōryūji, I think). The program then took great satisfaction in revealing that a Chinese had debunked that by finding an older wooden temple on Wutaishan (if I remember correctly).

    There are also Chinese who feel offended that English borrowed the term 'tofu' from Japanese when it should rightly be 'doufu'.

    This kind of mentality — Chinese taking great pride in proving the ancientness or centrality of their culture compared with their neighbours — partly arose from the habit of pre-war Japanese of putting China down in various ways. There is a lot of emotional investment in these sensitivities.

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 5:34 am

    "There are also Chinese who feel offended that English borrowed the term 'tofu' from Japanese when it should rightly be 'doufu'". That I did not know. I spell the word "tofu", but pronounce it /dɒfu/, following the example of my Chinese/Vietnamese wife and her family.

  13. Luke said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 5:46 am

    The tofu/doufu conflict seems a lot more petty than the anger that'd arise from calling the Sinosphere the "Kanjisphere". In Wade-Giles 'doufu' is rendered as 'toufu', which is homophonous with 'tofu' in English, furthermore the American English pronunciation of 'tofu' /ˈtoʊfu/ isn't that far from the Mandarin pronunciation, other than aspirating the stop. It's certainly closer than the Japanese pronunciation.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 1:43 pm

    Frankly, one problem we have is the lack of a standard unambiguous way to talk about "sinographs" in English. "Sinograph" is far too specialized a term in terms of where/how it's used and who it's used by. I freely admit that the fact that "kanji" occupyies that niche in my personal lexicon is happenstance based on my having spent part of my childhood in Tokyo rather than in Taipei or Seoul or Hong Kong, but I find it convenient to have that niche in my lexicon filled yet irksome that my fellow Anglophones won't all understand what I mean the way they would if I said "tofu." If as with tofu the Japanese version of the word had already become standard in English to describe the referent in all East Asian contexts, I suppose certain Chinese nationalists would be grumpy but at least it would be a fait accompli..

    Is there a story to be told that "kanji" is closer to the reconstructed Middle Chinese pronunciation than the modern Mandarin "hanzi" is?

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 1:55 pm

    I should have added to my prior comment that one imho useful thing about the Japanese context is that one learns about kanji not just as contrasted with the Roman/English alphabet but also as contrasted with kana. Although presumably learning about them in Korea would have at least until recently given you some of that same benefit.

  16. Luke said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 4:48 pm

    As far as I'm aware, most Middle Chinese reconstructions of 漢字 often reconstruct 漢 as either /hɑn/ or /xɑn/, and 字 as some variant of /d͡zɨ/, which from an amateur's perspective resembles the Mandarin /xan t͡sz/ more than the Japanese /kan d͡ʑi/. The term "sinograph" may be more niche than either "hanzi" or "kanji" but it is the most politically neutral term while still accurately describing what 漢字 literally means.

    On a slight tangent, it's interesting how sinographs are frequently referred to as "Chinese characters" when referring to its use in Chinese but "Kanji" when referring to its use in Japanese. Are there any other examples where two terms that refer to the same thing are either calqued/romanised depending on whether it's in reference to China/Japan? "Bean curd"/"tofu" is one other pair of examples that I can think of, although the latter is frequently used in Chinese communities too.

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 5:31 pm

    Slightly related – I got a spam email today wishing me a happy "Chinese New Year" and suggesting that it would be a great time to employ the services of the business sending the email (services that don't seem particularly connected to the holiday although I guess they are potentially useful year-round). But in other contexts in the NYC metropolitan area I have seen others instead offering best wishes for a happy "Lunar New Year," presumably so as not to alienate or aggravate members of non-Chinese immigrant/ethnic groups who observe the same occasion. (The Japanese of course, deviated from Sinospheric unity in this regard way back in I think the Meiji era by transferring their traditional Lunar New Year celebrations to Gregorian-calendar January 1.)

  18. Bathrobe said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 6:39 pm

    I always use "Chinese characters" whether talking about kanji or hanzi. The use of the word "kanji" seems to have spread within my living memory, that is, since I started studying Japanese in 1972.

    "New Year": I prefer the term "Chinese New Year" to "Spring Festival". It had always been "New Year" in China, until someone decided that it needed to be differentiated from the Western (Gregorian) New Year, around the time China was considering switching to the Western New Year in the late 1920s. For better or for worse they eventually decided against it.

    In China I used to hear 元旦 yuándàn for the Western New Year and 春节 (春節) chūnjiéfor the Chinese New Year, but 新年快乐 (Happy New Year) can be used for either.

    Of course, I'm not celebrating Chinese New Year later this week, I'm celebrating Mongolian New Year (well, in spirit, we are in lockdown), which is mostly but not always on the same day as Chinese New Year. Mongolians would be offended if you told them that their Tsagaan Sar was actually the Chinese New Year. They maintain that theirs is Tibetan (hence the discrepancy in dates from time to time).

    But of course, it appears that way back the Tibetan New Year was celebrated somewhere around the time of the winter solstice but was later changed by a Tibetan king to match the Chinese date. (This is information that is very hard to find on the Internet. I managed to locate it once but have not found it again, so I can't vouch for its accuracy.)

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 10, 2021 @ 2:01 pm

    Interesting to see that in the multilingual New Year's message from President Tsai that VHM just included in a separate post she goes with "Lunar New Year" in the English part at the very end.

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