Yi Saek’s Chinese.

I had meant to write about Krista Ryu’s Imperial miscommunication Log post ages ago, but it got lost among the tabs. The centerpiece is this great anecdote from The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, which she describes as “The story of failed communication between a Goryo Dynasty diplomat and the Hongwu Emperor (1368-1398; r. 1328-1398) of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)”:

Yi Saek (이색, 李穡), a great Confucian scholar from the Goryo Dynasty of Korea, was an expert in “Chinese” language and culture. [KR: I have put “Chinese” inside quotation marks because there was no standard Chinese during this time (end of the 1300s).] He had studied “Chinese” during the Yuan Dynasty since he was 10 years old because of his father who had a position in the Yuan Dynasty government. At the age of 20, he went to Beijing and studied at Guozijian (the imperial college at the time), and even worked at the Hanlinyuan (Hanlin Academy) of the Yuan government. Based on his credentials and knowledge of “Chinese”, he was considered the best expert of “China” in Goryo.

So, when the [Mongol] Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) fell and the Ming Dynasty was established, King Chang of Goryo decided to send Yi Saek as envoy to meet the new Ming Emperor and establish diplomatic relations. When Yi Saek went to address Emperor Hongwu of the Ming, Hongwu said, “I hear that you studied in Guozijian, and were working in Hanlinyuan. So you must know ‘Chinese’.”

Then Yi spoke to the Emperor in “Chinese,” which was clearly his forte.

Unfortunately, the Emperor couldn’t understand Yi’s Beijing topolect! The Emperor was from Central China (around Anhui province now).

The Emperor was confused and then said, “Your pronunciation of Chinese is like that of Naghachu (納哈出– Yuan Dynasty general, a Mongol; d. 1388).”

According to records, Yi Saek was greatly embarrassed and was made fun of for many, many years when he came back to Goryo for what happened.

Krista adds: “So already in the late 1300s, topolects were a real problem, even for foreign diplomats who were speaking Pekingese!! Also, when the Dynasty changed, the new elites probably spoke a different topolect from that of the previous Dynasty’s elites. This change would have meant all the diplomats of China’s tributary states had to learn a new language.” There are references in the post, and a surprise appearance by the (apparently legendary) Endymion Wilkinson in the comment thread.

Comments

  1. Damn, Anhui is supposed to be a Mandarin-speaking province just like Beijing.

    Perhaps we need to put “Mandarin” in quotation marks too.

  2. Mandarin has spread quite a bit. The extreme case is in Sichuan, which didn’t become Mandarin-speaking until Ming times, when Mandarin-speakers streamed into a province that had become depopulated by disease and invasion. The result is a variety of Mandarin heavily influenced by the now-extinct Old Sichuanese language, enough so to be quite different from Standard Mandarin, which is now beginning to displace it. In particular, the vocabulary of Sichuanese Mandarin is closer to Hakka and Gan than it is to the standard.

  3. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Zhu Yuanzhang was from what’s now Chuzhou prefecture, northeast of the provincial capital. Apparently they speak a Beifanghua (=Mandarin the dialect family not Mandarin the standard language) dialect there now. I wonder if something else might have been spoken there 700 years ago. If it was a Wu- or Hui-speaking area back then, then whatever Yi Saek was speaking would have sounded really different than what Zhu spoke with his mom. Of course, it’s very unlikely that Zhu expected everyone to speak to him in his village dialect. Furthermore, it’s strongly implied that Yi Saek’s Chinese sounded familiar enough that the emperor had an opinion about the “weird” accent, it was just pure gibberish to him.

    As far as I know, there was never a question of introducing anything non-Beifanghua as the Ming court language. They ended up using Nanjing (the nearest big city and new capital) Mandarin, not place-that-is-now-Chuzhou Mandarin (if there was such a thing at the time).

  4. The result is a variety of Mandarin heavily influenced by the now-extinct Old Sichuanese language, enough so to be quite different from Standard Mandarin, which is now beginning to displace it. In particular, the vocabulary of Sichuanese Mandarin is closer to Hakka and Gan than it is to the standard.

    In fact, there is precious little Old Sichuanese (a language closer to Bai or Min dialects, one of the first branches to branch off mainstream Chinese) that survived in Sichuanese Mandarin. The non-Mandarin sub- and adstrates in Sichuanese Mandarin are mostly, as you say, Hakka, Gan and Xiang.

  5. precious little Old Sichuanese

    Well, one of the marks of Mandarin lato sensu is the disappearance of the checked tone (syllables ending with a stop in Middle Chinese) into one of the other four tones. (Which tone you get in the Standard is lexically specific, which is generallyl attributed to dialect mixing in Beijing.) Most of SIchuanese is “normal Mandarin” in this sense. But Minjiang topolect, which is otherwise closely related to the rest of Sichuanese Mandarin, preserves the checked tone in the form of tense final vowels, sometimes followed by a glottal stop, and this can only be a substrate effect from Old Sichuanese.

    Bai or Min dialects

    I take it from this that you agree with the view that Bai is either Sinitic or the immediate sister group to Proto-Sinitic?

  6. disappearance of the checked tone

    The disappearance is early in Northern Mandarin (earlier than 12th century), but in Jianghuai Mandarin, the lexifier language of Sichuan Mandarin (Sichuanese is essentially 16th century Nankinese spoken with a heavy Xiang accent), checked tones are there even today. Their disappearance is at any rate very late in Sichuan, resulting in the checkered dialect pattern of 1) merger with tone 2 (mainstream, my native language) 2) merger with tone 4 3) Minjiang-type, with independent tone and special RTR vowels.

  7. Sichuanese is essentially 16th century Nankinese spoken with a heavy Xiang accent

    Another entry for Essentialist Explanations!

  8. Thanks for the details. WP claims that Ya’an and Zigong topolects merge the checked tone with 1 and 4 respectively.

    Hat: Added to the queue.

  9. Bai is either Sinitic or the immediate sister group to Proto-Sinitic

    That’s what I think. Another view that I do not hold myself but consider plausible is that Bai is a Lolo-Burman language heavily influenced by Sino-Bai, a Chinese dialect, in which case s/Bai/Sino-Bai/ and most arguments will stay the same.

  10. Another idea is that it is TB, but that all the vocabulary is Semitic loans, all the way down to the bottom. I don’t see how anyone can possibly tell which of these theories is true.

  11. -it is TB, but that all the vocabulary is Semitic loans

    Now, that would have been an interesting language! ;-))

  12. The original record in Literary Chinese in case anyone is interested:

    至京師, 天子素聞穡名, 從容語曰: “汝仕元爲翰林, 應解漢語。” 穡遽以漢語對曰: “請親朝。” 天子未曉曰: “說甚麿?” 禮部官傳奏之。 穡久不入朝, 語頗艱澁。 天子笑曰: “汝之漢語, 正似納哈出。”

    The Ming emperor’s response, 說甚麿?, is apparently in the vernacular (baihua 白話) style as opposed to literary Chinese. I don’t know how much to read into that, but I wonder if part of the communication problem was due to the register, not just pronunciation. Was he not as used to the expression 親朝?

    Historical context is also useful. Koreans were divided between pro-Yuan and pro-Ming factions, and an army sent out to fight against the Ming in support of the Yuan had just retreated under its pro-Ming general in the past year. So we can read some subtext into comparing a Korean envoy’s Chinese to that of a Mongol.

    As Korea was also about to go through a dynastic change, and as a loyalist to the old regime, Yi Saek might not have been treated entirely fairly in the annals either.

    In addition, the Hongwu Emperor seems to have consciously shaped language policy to differentiate the Ming from the Yuan, as seen in the publication of the rime dictionary Hongwu Zhengyun 洪武正韻. A lot of Yuan-era Chinese records are written in a style that looks like a literal rendering of Mongol. Even if this was probably confined to writing, Yuan-era spoken officialese that Yi Saek was familiar with may have been representative of a style of speech that the new Ming emperor rejected, especially if there were influences from non-Han peoples such as Jurchens who were present in Yuan officialdom.

    it is TB, but that all the vocabulary is Semitic loans

    I was all excited for a second before realizing this probably meant to say Sinitic loans…

  13. yes 🙂

  14. David Marjanović says:

    On Bái, the most detailed argumentation in existence (without a conclusive outcome, of course) is in this thread and the next, both in French, though the last comment in the second thread links to the “no limits to borrowing” paper, which is in English.

  15. pour moi l’hypothèse nulle est que le bái est un dialecte chinois. De toute manière, les poux, la main, le pied, l’anatomie masculine et féminine, уби́ть et вы́ебать sont tous chinois de la plus ancienne couche phonologique

    Damn, minus273! 😉

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