Beyond a Method of Written Communication: The Value and Power of Chinese Characters in Japanese Socio-historical Domains

Author: Reijiro Aoyama (The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong)
Speaker: Reijiro Aoyama
Topic: Language Ideologies
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2020 General Session


Written character is not a mere tool for communication and its value has been aesthetically appreciated in the art form of calligraphy in many locales throughout history. Depending on whether characters are phonographic or logographic, however, the sorts of values attached to written characters differ fundamentally. Focusing on historical interactions between China and Japan, this paper explores how the Japanese assigned socio-cultural values to Chinese characters other than their obvious linguistic ones and argues for the need of a logographically-oriented approach to understand the ways Chinese characters functioned in East Asia.

Regarding Japan’s adaption of Chinese characters in Yayoi period, David Lurie poses a fundamental question whether Chinese characters were regarded as writing or merely talismanic marks for the Japanese Queen and her officials in the Yamatai Federation. The line in sanguozhi cited below has often been considered as evidence that Japanese people read and wrote Chinese characters based on the fact that the line included the word文書 or the documents.

傳送文書賜遺之物詣女王 不得差錯

[The official] sends the documents and bestowed items to the Queen, so it is impossible to tamper with them.

Against this common interpretation Lurie argues that the Japanese in the Yamatai Federation regarded the documents as artifacts not writing. Using this as an example, Lurie introduces the conceptual dichotomy between legible and alegible texts, where the latter refers to a graph or set of graphs that is seen but perhaps not necessarily read. In the ancient Japanese archipelago, alegible texts such as the documents with Chinese characters were often used to enhance the power and authority of the owner.

Alegible impact of Chinese characters in Japan is not confined to ancient times nor to political ends. In 1854, Luo Sen, Chinese assistant to Samuel Wells Williams, chief interpreter of Commodore Perry’s expedition, received hundreds of requests from the Japanese to inscribe Chinese characters on their fans in every port he visited, including Shimoda, Yokohama and Hakodate, proving that Japanese people from vastly differing backgrounds from educated samurai to illiterate ladies set a great value on Chinese composition and poetry written on fans.

By examining records produced in key historical moments involving Japanese encounters with the Chinese characters, this research aims to develop a typology of values assigned to Chinese characters as well as the social class and cultural background of the people who embraced them for their political, aesthetic, and commercial appreciation.

Keywords: Chinese characters, logograph, allegible texts, socio-cultural values, historical interaction