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date: 26 March 2017

Language and Linguistics in Pre-Modern China and East Asia

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

Traditional Chinese linguistics grew out of two distinct interests in language: the philosophical reflection on things and their names, and the practical concern for literacy education and the correct understanding of classical works. The former is most typically found in the teachings of such pre-Qin masters such as Confucius, Xunzi, and Gongsun Long; the latter, in the enormous number of dictionaries, textbooks, and research works, which, as a reflection of the fact that most Chinese morphemes are monosyllabic, are centered around the pronunciations, written forms, and meanings of these monosyllabic morphemes, or zi (“characters”) as they are called in Chinese. Apparently, it was the latter, philological, interest that motivated the bulk of the Chinese linguistic tradition, giving rise to such important works as Shuowen Jiezi and Qieyun, and culminating in the scholarship of the Qing dynasty. But at the bottom, the philosophical concern never ceased to exist: the dominating idea that everything should have their rightful names just as they should occupy their rightful places in the universe, for example, was behind the compilation of Shuowen Jiezi and many other works. Further, the development of philology, or xiaoxue (“basic learning”), was strongly influenced by the study of philosophical thoughts, or daxue (“greater learning”), throughout its history.

The above picture, in which Chinese philosophy and philology are combined to form a seemingly autonomous tradition, is complicated, however, by the fact that the Indic linguistic tradition started to influence the Chinese in the 2nd century ce, causing both a remarkable progress in analyzing techniques (especially regarding character pronunciation) and a tension in the underlying philosophy. On the one hand, scholars began to realize that syllables had internal structures, and that the pronunciation of one character could be represented by two others which shared the same initial and rhyme with it respectively. This technique, known as fanqie, laid the basis for the illustrious 7th-century rhyming dictionary Qieyun, the rhyme table Yunjing, and a great many works that followed up. These works, besides providing reference for verse composition (and, consequently, for the imperial examinations held to select government officials), proved such an essential tool in the philological study of classical works, that many Qing scholars, at the very height of traditional Chinese linguistics, regarded character pronunciation as central to xiaoxue, and ultimately to the restoration of ancient ideas. On the other hand, the Chinese never developed a real alphabet for the characters, and despite their continued efforts to interpret the Indic-inspired techniques with Chinese notions, were generally unsuccessful in subsuming these techniques under traditional Chinese philosophy. Thus, the key to understanding the ancients was itself beyond the tradition that the ancients established. This tension facilitated the epistemological changes of Chinese scholarship from the pre-modern to the modern era, when the Chinese came into contact with Western ideas.

Chinese, with its linguistic tradition had a profound impact in ancient East Asia. Not only did traditional studies of Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese show significant Chinese influence, under which not the least achievement was the invention of the earliest writing systems for these languages, but many scholars from Japan and Korea actually took an active part in the study of Chinese as well, so that the Chinese linguistic tradition would itself be incomplete without the materials and findings these non-Chinese scholars have contributed. However, some of these scholars, most notably Motoori Norinaga and Fujitani Nariakira in Japan, were able to free themselves from the character-centered Chinese routine and develop rather original linguistic theories.