The birth of modern Japanese language and literature in the Literary Sinitic context

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Just out, a stimulating new book from Brill (2020):

Mareshi Saito.  Kanbunmyaku:  The Literary Sinitic Context and the Birth of Modern Japanese Language and Literature.  Series:  Language, Writing and Literary Culture in the Sinographic Cosmopolis, Volume: 2.  Editors:  Ross King and Christina Laffin; translators:  Alexey Lushchenko, Mattieu Felt, Si Nae Park, and Sean Bussell

From the author's Introduction, p. 1:

The chief aim of this book is to consider the language space of modern Japan from the perspective of what I am calling kanbunmyaku 漢文脈 in Japanese, translated here as “Literary Sinitic Context.”  I use  the term “Literary  Sinitic”* to designate what is often referred to as “Classical Chinese” or “Literary Chinese” in English, wenyan 文言 in Mandarin Chinese, kanbun 漢文 in Japanese (sometimes referred to as “Sino-Japanese” in English), and hanmun 漢文 in Korean.  The Context in Literary Sinitic Context translates the -myaku of kanbunmyaku, and usually implies a pulse, vein, flow, or path, but is also the second constituent element of the Sino-Japanese term bunmyaku 文脈 meaning “(textual, literary) context.”  I use the term Literary Sinitic Context to encompass both Literary Sinitic proper, as well as orthographic and literary styles (buntai 文体) derived from Literary Sinitic, such as glossed reading (kundoku 訓読) or Literary Japanese (bungobun 文語文), which mix sinographs (kanji 漢字, i.e., “Chinese” characters) and katakana.  In addition to styles I also consider Literary Sinitic thought and sensibility at the core of which lie Literary Sinitic poetry (kanshi 漢詩) and prose (kanbun 漢文), collectively termed kanshibun 漢詩文.

*For  the  term  “Literary  Sinitic,”  see  Victor H. Mair,  “Buddhism and the Rise of the Written Vernacular,” Journal of Asian Studies, 53.3 (August, 1994), 707-751.

I am pleased that the author and editors / translators have adopted the usages (e.g., "Literary Sinitic", "Sinographs") popularized on Language Log.

From the publisher's blurb:

In Kanbunmyaku: The Literary Sinitic Context and the Birth of Modern Japanese Language and Literature, Saito Mareshi demonstrates the centrality of Literary Sinitic poetry and prose in the creation of modern literary Japanese. Saito’s new understanding of the role of “kanbunmyaku” in the formation of Japanese literary modernity challenges dominant narratives tied to translations from modern Western literatures and problematizes the antagonism between Literary Sinitic and Japanese in the modern academy. Saito shows how kundoku (vernacular reading) and its rhythms were central to the rise of new inscriptional styles, charts the changing relationship of modern poets and novelists to kanbunmyaku, and concludes that the chronotope of modern Japan was based in a language world supported by the Literary Sinitic Context.

During the last two decades, since the promulgation of the concept of "Sinophone" by Shu-mei Shih in 2004, there has been a revolution in thinking about the history and nature of literature in East Asia.  The roots of the revolution, however, went back more than a century to Meiji Japan’s genbun itchi 言文一致 (lit., "unification of the spoken and written language") movement, which started in the early nineteenth century and sought to erase the discrepancy between oral and written languages to create a written language accessible to all. The genbun itchi movement can be interpreted as the socio-political movement to create a unified modern language or the cultural phenomenon of vernacularizing literature

In China, genbun itchi  was followed by báihuà yùndòng 白话运动 ("vernacular movement"), a key component of the May Fourth Movement, "an anti-imperialist, cultural, and political movement which grew out of student protests in Beijing on 4 May 1919".  According to the vernacular movement, "the use of the vernacular language (baihua) gained currency over and eventually replaced the use of Literary Chinese in literary works", under the slogan "wǒ shǒu xiě wǒ kǒu 我手写我口" ("my hand writes [what] my mouth [speaks]").  (source)


Selected readings

  • "The Sinophone" (2/28/19) — includes extensive bibliography of relevant works
  • "Sinophone and Sinosphere" (11/8/12)
  • "Language Diversity in the Sinophone World" (10/26/20)
  • 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.
  • Fogel, Joshua. 2009. Articulating the Sinosphere: Sino-Japanese Relations in Space and Time. Cambridge, MA: Harvard 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.


[Thanks to Rostislav Berezkin and Ashley Liu]


  1. Jim Breen said,

    March 29, 2021 @ 6:10 am

    A minor quibble: "genbun itchi 言文一致 […] movement, which started in the early nineteenth century".

    I thought the genbunitchi movement began in the second half of the nineteenth century. The quoted Wikipedia article agrees, saying the first formal proposal was in 1866.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    March 29, 2021 @ 11:38 am

    Intrigued by fact that in the Wikipedia article linked to by Victor from the text "May Fourth Movement" the characters for wǔsì (54) in the traditional and simplified hanzi, despite being seemingly identical, were nonetheless presented in a different font, I copied the traditional pair (五四), pasted them into Google Translate, asked it to translate them into English, and was surprised to see that it translated them as "fifteen". If I inserted a space between 五 & '四, the translation was then correct. Removing the space, I then asked Google to switch the source and translation panes, and it then correctly translated 'fifteen' as shíwǔ (十五). I am truly surprised that Google translate mistakenly 'thinks' that 五四 means "fifteen" in English, and wonder how it reaches this conclusion.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    March 29, 2021 @ 8:10 pm

    From Tsu-Lin Mei:

    I did further bibliographic work on the web, and this is the result. Edwin Reischauer (1955), Ennin’s Diary, the record of a pilgrimage to China in search of the Law, translated from the Chinese by Edwin O. Reischauer. But Ennin’s Diary is also listed under Late Old Japanese texts, and Late Old Japanese texts also included Genji. To mistake Ennin’s Diary as being written in Literary Sinitic is bad enough and Reischauer may be forgiven for not making the distinction between Early Vernacular (now called 近代汉语) and Literary Sinitic (文言)。 But American Japanologists managed to get the language wrong. That is inexcusable. All they need to do is to read. (Evidently they cannot understand why a 9th-century Japanese monk should want to write in a foreign language, namely Chinese.)

    The rectification of names is the beginning of wisdom.

  4. Tom Dawkes said,

    March 30, 2021 @ 7:42 am

    @Tsu-Lin Mei:
    The oversight noted on the 9th c. Japanese monk writing in a foreign language is all the more surprising considering that Christian monks in Northern Europe, Scandinavia and — not least — Ireland were writing in Latin for nearly 1,000 years.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    April 1, 2021 @ 6:54 am

    From Tsu-Lin Mei:

    “Late Old Japanese texts’ in Wikipedia includes Tenrei bando meigi, or Tenrei bansho myogi 篆隶万象名义by Kukai 空海。I know this text reasonably well. 周祖谟 showed that the Tenrei bando meigi incorporated the (lost) 玉篇 by 顾野王of 吳郡 and that the Yupian represents the 江东方言 whereas the 切韵 is a composite (of the 江东 & 河北 dialects of the time). I also own a copy of 篆隶万象名义, 中華书局 and can assure you that the text does not contain a single word of Late Old Japanese. I think Ennin learned to speak and write 近代汉语 during his pilgrimage in China. He probably learned it from the Chinese guides who accompanied him during his trip.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    April 1, 2021 @ 8:50 pm

    From Tsu-Lin Mei:

    In my last comment, I surmised that Ennin learned to speak and write Early Vernacular or 近代汉语 while he was in China, and I think I have found the evidence. First, Ennin’s Diary is full of constructions such as V了or VO 了。 These constructions are not found in 文言 [VHM: "Classical Chinese / Literary Sinitic] but they occur in Dunhuang Bianwenji and 祖堂集。Ennin was in China from 838 to 847, or almost ten years. He was accompanied by two disciples 惟正 & 惟晓。Weixiao died in China in 843. But Weizheng returned to Japan with Ennin, and in Japan, he was telling his students the phonetic features of Four Tones。 See Mei “Tones and Prosody in Middle Chinese and the Origin of the Rising Tone”, HJAS 1970. Only spoken Chinese has Four Tones, whose phonetic values vary from dialect to dialect. So we can conclude that Weizheng ‘s Vernacular Chinese was quite good and Ennin’s Diary may have incorporated his notes and Ennin, having spent 10 years in China, must have been quite proficient in 近代汉语。

    [VHM note: What Tsu-Lin calls Jìndài Hànyǔ 近代汉语 (Recent Sinitic) I refer to as Middle Vernacular Sinitic.]

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