Written Chinese as a scripta franca for cross-border communication in early modern East Asia: How brushtalk (漢文筆談) allowed literati of Sinitic to conduct ‘silent conversation’ face-to-face

Authors: David Chor Shing Li, Wong Tak-Sum, Reijiro Aoyama (Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong)
Speakers: David Chor Shing Li, Wong Tak-Sum, Reijiro Aoyama
Topic: Anthropological Linguistics
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2020 Colloquium Session

Panel Abstract

This colloquium outlines the background to the use of Literary Sinitic (written Chinese, hereafter Sinitic) as a scripta franca (or written lingua franca) for cross-border communication, interactively face-to-face in sinographic East Asia until the 1900’s, which geographically corresponds with today’s China, Japan, South and North Korea and Vietnam. As such, the scripta franca function of Sinitic represents a unique modality of communication between humans in addition to the two known modalities to date, namely, speech and (tactile) sign language. Since the most commonly used writing instrument and stationery were brush, ink and paper, that modality of communication came to be called ‘Sinitic brushtalk’ or ‘brush conversation’. In the first paper, David C.S. Li gives an overview how literati of Sinitic conducted silent conversation through brushtalk. It will explain the historical background to the literacy conditions in sinographic East Asia that allowed for brushtalk in cross-border communication, and briefly introduce four recurrent contexts in which brushtalk data have been found: two transactional contexts involving strangers (boat drifting brushtalk 漂流筆談; travelogue brushtalk 遊歷筆談), and two interactional contexts between acquaintances (official brushtalk 公務筆談; poetic brushtalk 詩文筆談). In the second paper, Wong Tak-Sum provides instructive illustrations for each of the four recurrent contexts identified, suggesting that conducting silent conversation through Sinitic brushtalk was a viable and effective modality of cross-border communication when speech was not an option owing to a lack of a shared vernacular and the absence of an interpreter. In the third paper, Reijiro Aoyama exemplifies less common situations in which meaning-making through Sinitic brushtalk was a preferred modality of communication despite the fact that speech was clearly an option. That preference was sometimes motivated by a concern for secrecy and a need to guard against eavesdropping. Other contexts are more symbolic, in that the preference for brushtalking was driven by a desire to compose poetic verses and/or calligraphy using brush, ink and paper, with a conscious intent to collect the elegant and artistic outputs thus arising for subsequent appreciation, sharing or exchange.

Keywords: brushtalk, East Asian literati, Sinitic, cross-border communication