Joel of Far Outliers has a thought-provoking post discussing the question “Why are there so many writing systems in India and and so few in China?” He describes a 1994 article by Victor H. Mair from the Journal of Asian Studies:

The premise of Victor H. Mair’s wide-ranging article is that written Chinese emerged not as transcribed speech, but rather as a special, radically shortened cipher with its own grammatical and expressive conventions. He calls this written form Literary Sinitic (LS) and finds the disparity between it and any form of spoken Chinese, which he refers to under the general heading of Vernacular Sinitic (VS), is of a wholly different nature than the contrast between written Latin and any modern written or spoken Romance language. Indeed, he argues, Literary Sinitic remained incapable of serving as a means of recording spoken Chinese or any other language. Thus, for Mair, the question becomes: How did vernacular written forms emerge in a milieu in which Literary Sinitic dominated intellectual life? He finds the earliest instances of written Vernacular Sinitic occur typically in Buddhist texts. He believes the Buddhist emphasis on teaching through the local dialect (desa bhasa) was a major impetus for the development of written vernacular, but concludes it is difficult to determine exactly which aspects of Buddhism had the greatest influence on the slow maturation of written Vernacular Sinitic.

This provides a convincing answer to an interesting question. Mair goes on to say that the Manchus’ proclamation of kuo-yü [= guoyu, Mandarin] as the official written language of the nation “marked the formal end of the multimillennial separation between book language (shu-mien-yü [= shumianyu]) and spoken language (k’ou-yü [= kouyu]) in China.”
Addendum. Be sure and read xiaolongnu’s extremely interesting comment about the chain of spoken translators sometimes required in order to render sutras into Chinese, resulting in translations that “read more like the transcripts of lectures — complete with reports of the audience response — than like the translations of written texts.”


  1. I have read that the writing system (which produces a uniform elite above a diverse population) was partly responsible for the existence of China as such. To geographers Chinese unity is unnatural. During periods of weakness China disintegrates into anythwere from four to twenty smaller states (Canton area, Szchuan, Yangtze area, Yellow River area are the four.) To geographers these are the natural states in the area; in Europe or India or the Middle East that’s the kind of pluralism you’d expect. But at least half the time since 200 BC China has been more or less united.
    CAVEATS: Geographers don’t actually use the word “unnatural”. And they don’t say that the writing system is the only or even the main cause. But “China” is a elite political unity, not an ethnic or geographical one.

  2. xiaolongnu says

    Many readers here probably know that *before* about 200 BC (the date Zizka is referring to is the Qin conquest that ended the Warring States period, technically in 221 BCE) Chinese bronze inscriptions are actually highly regionalized in form, though the different versions of each character appear to be related — as though the already rather idiosyncratic and nonstandardized oracle bone script had diverged into different writing systems for the different states. Each state also had its own system of weights and measures, and its own musical scale (as we know from inscriptions on bronze bells; see the work of Lothar von Falkenhausen for MUCH more on this subject). The First Emperor of Qin (this is the guy who was buried at Lishan with the terra-cotta army and scads of other stuff) was a Legalist reformer and standardized the heck out of everything — weights, measures, chariot axles, road widths, and of course the writing system. Mair doesn’t work in the pre-Qin period, but it’s interesting to note that there is some precedent for a regionalization in Chinese scripts that would seem to reflect regional differences in vernacular, despite the fact that early bronze inscriptions don’t read like any form of spoken language any more than later Literary Sinitic texts.
    Second, I heard at a recent conference (held in Mair’s honor, now that I think of it) that the translations of several Buddhist sutras read more like the transcripts of lectures — complete with reports of the audience response — than like the translations of written texts. This is not true of the sutras I work with, so I can’t testify to it myself; but it makes sense given that we know that most translations were accomplished by teams of translators who had in common *spoken* languages like Sogdian, the lingua franca of the medieval Silk Road, rather than written languages. In other words, when monks in China set out to accomplish a translation from Sanskrit or Prakrit into Chinese, it wasn’t the work of a single person who could read both; rather, they would bring together people who could read Indian languages and people who could write Chinese, together with whatever chain of spoken translators was required to link them. It seems that a lot of discussion was sometimes required to settle on a translation. Apparently some of this translation work was carried out in public, like a sutra lecture (or if not in front of the masses, at least before an invited audience). So built into the translation process was a kind of orality that would be uncommon to most formal written Chinese, but that would be part of both the Indian philosophical tradition (since a sutra is a lecture) and the informal tradition of philosophical discussion and poetry-writing that was an important part of the social lives of Chinese intellectuals.

  3. Neat! I knew you’d have something interesting to say about this!

  4. There’s some interesting things about the sutra translation biz in the below source. In one case a Christian translator pitched in and helped out a Buddhist translator whose Chinese language chops weren’t up to snuff.
    Kumarijiva had a team-translation operation going and cranked them out diligently. (One of the many great figures in world culture who came from the general neighborhood of Samarkand, along with Avicenna as well as Fa-tsang, the greatest of the Buddhist ohilosophers.) During the T’ang dynasty, somewhat like the present US, there was a market for exotic religion — monks would literally kill to get a unique new sutra.
    Pelliot, Paul (ed. Antonin Forte), L’Inscription Nestorienne de Si-Ngan-fu, Italian School of East Asia Epigraphical Studies II, 1996.

  5. I’m going to have to look around for my reference, but I had the impression that there was always a significant tension between written and spoken Chinese – that no classical writer was ever capable of completely ignoring the spoken language, and that classicisms constantly made their way into the spoken language.

  6. Well, sure — it’s hard to imagine how the two could be hermetically sealed off, and educated people always like to show off their education (and others to imitate them) — but the difference in pre-20th-century China was really extreme. You literally could not “write as you speak.”

  7. Speaking of Kumarajiva, one shouldn’t ignore the important contribution made by Xuan Zang (the monk portrayed in the Chinese novel Journey to the West) in the history of the translation of Buddhist texts into Chinese.

  8. Beyond simple archaism, the Chinese also developed a sort of coded language, not quite as absurd as Cockney rhyming slang, but almost. Every phrase had to be understood allusively rather than at face value, based on the assumption that all readers had read and memorized the same 30-volume library. Only a few highly-trained Chinese are able to read that particular style of writing any more. It went extinct with the Confucian examination system.

  9. A few highly-trained Chinese and a former girlfriend of mine, one of the most learned and intelligent people I’ve ever known. She could have been a major factor in explaining China and its civilization to Americans; instead, she’s teaching elementary school because the academic world ground her up and spit her out. It really is harder being a woman in academia, in case anyone asks.

  10. One of the best people in Mongol studies, Paul Buell, has never had a full-time appointment, as I understand. He still writes and publishes freelance. He does his research in at least eight languages.

  11. It was always my impression (based on little more than James Liu’s The Art of Chinese Poetry and similar, popular sources) that a great deal of classical Chinese poetry is allusive to one degree or another, and that whole layers of meaning have been lost through the death of the Confucian exam system (which chewed and spit out non-conformists far more readily than our own system, I fear). This makes intuitive sense: we know how easily poets could be exiled for a few incautious lines, so how could they effectively comment on the political scene without a well elaborated system of allusions? I often wonder how many of our favorite Chinese “nature poems” also functioned as satire or parody . . .
    Xiaolongnu wrote, “The First Emperor of Qin . . . was a Legalist reformer and standardized the heck out of everything — weights, measures, chariot axles, road widths, and of course the writing system.” True, but to use the word “reformer” for a criminal psychopath may do him more honor than he deserves. As the anonymous author of Chapter 10 of Zhuangzi recognized, instituting standard weights and measures tends to be the first action of a tyrant who wishes to standardize his theft.

  12. xiaolongnu says

    For what it’s worth, I was using the word “reform” in its neutral sense as a synonym for “restructure.” I don’t think the word’s positive valence is all that strong anyhow. Qinshihuang was a “Legalist reformer” in the sense that he remade Chinese institutions of governance in a Legalist model.
    Speaking as an academic, I think that if anything’s been lost to Chinese poesy through the death of the Confucian exam system, it’s the ability to WRITE allusive classical poetry. Reading the poems and picking apart the allusions is the stock-in-trade of a whole raft of China scholars in China and elsewhere. Entire dissertations are devoted to it. It is true that the manifold layers of meaning are not accessible to your average Zhou, but they weren’t at the time they were written, either. But then as now, people with the proper training could do it. *Composing* poetry — learning actively to deploy the system of allusions and metaphors in a way that would be considered appropriate in the rarefied social circles of the Chinese literati-officials — that’s beyond most of us specialists, as far as I know. When we go to a party these days we bring a bottle of wine like everybody else.

  13. The things which I regard as unreadable are the little letters and memorials that the literati sent back and forth to one another. They are just as allusive as the poems, but not as weighty. I am willing and able to spend an hour reading the various decipherings of a 28-word poem, but the collected letters of a public official would be almost equally difficult to read even though most of it is just invitations to lunch, congratulations on promotions, suggestions about policy, etc. A friend of mine (American in culture but a China buff, half-Chinese in descent) tried to get her grandfather’s letters translated — he was a friend of Sun Yat-sen, Hu Shih and other major figures. She took it to a local PhD in Chinese and it proved to be too difficult, probably because the PhD had not specialized in that area.
    In reading poetry I tend to zero in on the relatively more naive authors, e.g. early yueh-fu and Three Kingdoms shih. Granted that this is **still** elite literary poetry and you **still** have to bear the tradition in mind, you don’t have the attempt to construct a poem entirely out of allusions. And to me it is actually fun to look up a phrase in one of the references and find out that poem I’m reading is the first use of a given cliche — the Ur-cliche, at it were.

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