Theses Doctoral

Contemporary Spoken Chinese in Eighteenth-Century Japan: Language Learning, Fiction Writing, and Vocality

Yuan, Ye

In the early modern period, literary Sinitic (also known as classical Chinese) was a shared
writing system and cultural asset in East Asia. The Sinitic text, while being voiced in various
local languages, remained largely the same across the region. The shared Sinitic writing enabled
educated people in East Asia who spoke different languages to engage in conversation through
writing. It was the silence of literary Sinitic that enabled it to be a trans-local communicating
system. However, where is the place for the Chinese sound in the neat picture of the Sinitic
writing system versus its various local vocalizations in different countries?

Focusing on the effort of Japanese scholars in restoring Chinese sound to the Sinitic text,
this dissertation brings the conceptualization and practice of spoken Chinese in the eighteenth century
Japan into the supposedly silent Sinitic culture. The early modern Japanese learners of
contemporary spoken Chinese intended to vocalize the written Sinitic. When they realized that
contemporary spoken Chinese and literary Sinitic writing were actually not compatible, they
solved the problem by resorting again to writing. One solution was to propose a new form of
Sinitic writing using colloquial expressions, the zokugo (colloquial [Chinese]) writing. The other
was to retreat to the comfortable zone of how to pronounce individual sinographs and Sinitic
terms—the phonological study of tōon (contemporary Chinese sound).

This dissertation studies vocality as the interrelation and interaction of speaking and
writing, to illuminate an early modern East Asian concept of language that cannot be contained
in the modern, Western phonocentric view. Through examining the language learning and fiction
writing that related to contemporary spoken Chinese in eighteenth-century Japan, this
dissertation argues that spoken Chinese and literary Sinitic were not the two opposites of a
binary, nor was the spoken language the preliminary to the colloquial Chinese writing. In both
the spoken language and the colloquial writing, vocality was a spectrum of speaking and writing,
the proportion of which was attuned to the preferences of different speakers, social settings, and
literary genres.

The chapters of this dissertation delineate the trajectory of early modern Japanese
engagement with contemporary spoken Chinese in relation to writing. It begins with chapter 1 on
Chinese popular fiction—the primary learning material for the study of contemporary spoken
Chinese—and its colloquial style that imitates storytelling performance. Chapters 2 and 3 are
devoted to the study of contemporary spoken Chinese in early modern Japan. Chapter 2
contextualizes the study of contemporary spoken Chinese in the early to middle Tokugawa
(1600–1868) period—a time when Chinese language study gradually gained attention. Chapter 3
reconstructs the learning of tōwa (contemporary spoken Chinese) in eighteenth-century Japan by
pointing out its spectrum of vocality.

Chapters 4 depicts the contemplation of the incompatibility of contemporary spoken
Chinese and literary Sinitic writing, as well as the transformation from the language learning
tōwa to the phonological study tōon. Chapters 5 and 6 deal with the other transmutation of the
tōwa study from language study to the zokugo writing, as showcased in the spread of colloquial
Chinese fictions in early modern Japan. Chapter 5 examines how Chinese popular fiction was
conceptualized and approached in early modern Japan. Chapter 6 shows how eighteenth-century
Japan witnessed a gradual increase in the attention paid to the literary format of colloquial
Chinese fiction, despite a general emphasis on the colloquial vocabulary. The epilogue discusses
colloquial Chinese fiction in nineteenth-century Japan.

Together, these chapters delve into the vocality of early modern Japan, as a fascination
with speaking that is complexly entangled with writing. The early modern era offers illuminating
cases of vocality, with fiction writing intending to capture the essence of oral performance and
spoken language, and speech making full use of the literary Sinitic to enhance its cultural flavor.
Whereas the eighteenth-century study of contemporary spoken Chinese did explore the spoken
language, it was not based on modern phonocentric concepts but to seek to vocalize the written
language in its most authoritative version. The multiple efforts to invite speaking into a
conversation with writing reveal an early modern perception of language that could not be fully
comprehended without considering writing-centered literacy.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Shang, Wei
Shirane, Haruo
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 18, 2020