By Tom Booth
Chinese characters are perhaps the most identifiable feature of the Chinese language. The huge number of characters, in addition to their complexity, makes remembering them an imposing challenge for any aspiring learners of Chinese.
The first concrete evidence of character usage in China is from the late Shang dynasty (c. 1250–1050 BC) and is found as inscriptions carved on bronze vessels and oracle bones. By the end of the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) these pictograms had evolved and been standardised into a script that is similar to that which we have today.
The Chinese writing system gradually spread throughout East Asia on official seals, letters, swords, coins, mirrors, and other decorative items imported from China. Scholars travelling from China brought with them texts and knowledge of characters: by the fifth century AD China, Korea and Japan were all using Chinese characters in their writing systems. As expressions of meaning rather than sounds, Chinese characters became a useful tool in allowing peoples from different cultures and languages to communicate, thus resulting in increased trade, diplomacy and exchange of knowledge.
The major difficulty facing countries with a shared writing system is how to adapt that writing system to one’s native language. If we look at Chinese and Japanese as examples, while both use the same writing system, they are radically different languages. One of the biggest differences is sentence order: Chinese syntax is ‘subject – verb – object’, whereas Japanese is ‘subject – object – verb.’
As an example, let’s take the easy English sentence ‘I eat bread’. In Chinese it is the same: ‘I eat bread’ wo chi mianbao 我吃面包, whereas in Japanese it is ‘I bread eat’ watashi wa pan o taberu 私はパンを食べる.
As such, Chinese characters do not necessarily ‘fit’ neatly into the Japanese language. To overcome this problem Japanese has developed a native method of adapting Chinese characters to spoken Japanese by using kana. These symbols act as a phonetic alphabet and are primarily used as particles and conjugations.
Although this kana system was developed in the tenth century, it remained unpopular amongst Japanese educated literati all the way up until the twentieth century. It was only used by women of the Japanese court who wrote poetry and letters to one another. Japan’s educated class continued to write in Chinese characters as a sign of sophistication and intelligence.
Japanese scholars went to great lengths to retain a Chinese style of writing, despite the difficulty of fitting it to the Japanese native language. Scholars continued to write essays and letters only using Chinese characters, and even went as far as adopting the ‘subject – verb – object’ syntax of Chinese. However, they developed several techniques to make them more accessible to Japanese readers, such as Japanese punctuation and reading marks.
Here is a very standard example of Japanese kabun or Chinese-style writing. The numbers, added later, indicate the order in which the characters should be read so as to fit the Japanese sentence order. So much effort to keep a Chinese style of writing!
Those with a knowledge of Chinese characters can probably understand most of what is written by these Japanese scholars, but it would appear non-standard, and probably a bit strange. The question, then, is this: are these Japanese scholars writing in Chinese or in Japanese? Are they thinking in Chinese or in Japanese? Ultimately, who can claim authority over these characters? We should think of Chinese characters not only in a Chinese context, but in a East Asian context and a shared Sinitic scriptworld.
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