Socio-political Background in Hanji Sphere

Hanji cultural areas, such as Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and China, used Han characters and the classical Han writing style before the twentieth century. However, there were great changes before the advent of the twentieth century. In Vietnam, Han characters and its derivative characters, Chu Nom (字字 ), which had been adopted as writing systems for more than a thousand years in Vietnam, were officially replaced by the Romanized Chu Quoc Ngu in 1945, the year of the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam. The Chu Quoc Ngu was developed on the basis of Romanized Vietnamese writing, which was originally developed by missionaries[1] in the seventeenth century. In Korea, Han characters were finally replaced by Hangul (諺文) after World War II. Hangul, the Korean script, which analyzes syllables into three parts including initial, middle, and final sounds, was originally designed and promulgated by King Sejong in 1446. In Japan, the syllabary Kana (假名) system was gradually developed after Japan's adoption of Han characters; although Han characters are not completely replaced by Kana, the number of Han characters used by Japanese decreased from thousands to 1,945 frequently used characters in 1981. As for China, although writing reform has been in process since the late period of the nineteenth century, Han characters are still widely used and taught in the national education system. It seems that Han characters will still be the dominant orthography at least for the present (cf. Chiung 1997; Defrancis 1950, 1977, 1990; Norman 1991; Hannas 1997).

Regarding the orthographic reforms in Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, we may examine them in two respects. First of all, from the perspective of domestic literacy and anti-feudalism: China’s main influences on these countries included the use of the Han character, Buddhism, Confucianism, the imperial examination system (科舉制度), and an official government system (文官系統). According to the Han characters and the imperial examination system, the books of Confucius and Mencius were accorded the status of classics among scholars and mandarins who assisted the emperor or king in governing his people. Everyone who desired to become a scholar or mandarin had to learn to use Han characters and read these classics and pass the imperial examination, unless he had a close relationship with the emperor. However, the classics were not only difficult to read (i.e., Han characters) but also hard to understand (i.e., the text), because the texts were written in classical Han writing (文言文wenyan) instead of colloquial speech (白話Baihua). In other words, because most of the people were farmers who labored in the fields all day long, they had little interest in learning Han characters. As a consequence, a noble class and a peasant class were formed and the classes strengthened the feudal society. This complication of Han characters could be well expressed with the old Taiwanese saying “Hanji na thak e-bat, chhui-chhiu to phah si-kat (漢字若讀會bat, 嘴鬚就打死結).” It means that you can’t understand all the Han characters even if you studied until you could tie your beard into a knot. In short, the demand for widespread literacy was the advising factor pushing reform of writing systems.

In contrast with the internal factor of literacy, the external factor was the political interaction between China and those countries. Historically, both Korea and Vietnam were once occupied by China. As for Japan, even though she was never directly occupied, Japan was forced to adopt many things from China under the influences of the grand Han dynasty (漢朝) and Tang dynasty (唐朝) in the history of China. That is to say, the Chinese people had the dominant status in Han cultural areas. Consequently, the reform of written language against classical Chinese writing would be considered as a violation of the Chinese Empire. For instance, while Korean Hangul was designed, Mal-li Choe (崔萬里), the chief of scholars, opposed the new writing system. He wrote a voluminous letter to King Sejong, as follows:

我朝自祖宗以來  至誠事大  一遵華制  今當同文同軌之時  創作諺文  有該觀聽  儻曰諺文  皆本古字非新字也  則字形雖倣古之篆文  用音合字盡反於古  實無所據  若流中國  或有非議者  豈不有愧於事大慕華

In the first place it is a violation of the principle of maintaining friendly relations with China, to invent and use letters which do not exist in China. (Lee 1957: 4)

In the second half of nineteenth century, Western colonialism came to the Han cultural areas. As a result, China was no longer able to dominate these areas. She was even unable to defend herself from the Western invasions. On the other hand, the rise of modern nationalism against the Western colonialism in these areas, forced those people to consider their national transitions from a feudal society to a modern society. To achieve this purpose, considering a writing reform to reduce the population of illiterate people became an important job. In addition, the nationalism against colonialism also caused Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan to reconsider their relationships with China. That is to say, they had to maintain the vassal relationship with China or become a politically and culturally independent country. Under the influence of literacy and independence, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan were successful in the great changes from Han character to Chu Quoc Ngu, Hangul, and Kana. However, in China, although there were many proposed orthographic designs since the late period of the nineteenth century, such as Qie-yin-zi[2] (切音字), Quan-hua Zi-mu[3] (官話字母), and Latinization, Han characters have been only successfully simplified so far. The pattern of writing reforms in Asia is the same as Gelb mentioned in his famous book about the world's writing reforms, "in all cases it was the foreigners who were not afraid to break away from sacred traditions and were thus able to introduce reforms which led to new and revolutionary developments" (Gelb 1952: 196).


[1] Usually, Alexandre de Rhodes is referred to as the inventor of Vietnamese Romanization.

[2] Designed by Zhuang-Zhang Lu (盧戇章) in 1892 in Amoy. See Png (1965: 8-10).

[3] Designed by Zhao Wang (王照) in 1900. See Png (1965: 10-13).

Selected References

DeFrancis, John. 1950. Nationalism and Language Reform in China. Princeton University Press.

DeFrancis, John. 1977. Colonialism and Language Policy in Viet Nam. The Hague.

DeFrancis, John. 1990. The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. (Taiwan edition) Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Gelb, I. J. 1952. A Study of Writing. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Hannas, William. C. 1997. Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. University of Hawaii Press.

Lee, Sang-Beck. 1957. The Origin of the Korean Alphabet Hangul, According to New Historical Evidence. Seoul: Tong-Mun Kwan.

Norman, Jerry. 1988. Chinese.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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