In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Chinese Texts in Pre-Modern East and South-East Asia

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Ryukyus, Manchus, Mongols, Tanguts, Tibetans

Chinese Studies Chinese Texts in Pre-Modern East and South-East Asia
Peter Kornicki
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 April 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0112


Chinese texts travelled far and wide in antiquity, and they had a particularly profound impact on Japan, Korea, and Vietnam—an impact that lasted up to the 20th century. Chinese texts had a dominant position partly because Japan, Korea, and Vietnam had no script with which to inscribe their own vernaculars, and for centuries they knew no writing other than the Chinese script and no texts other than those imported from China. In time they gradually began to use Chinese characters phonographically to inscribe proper names and then vernacular words, but and only much later did they develop independent vernacular scripts (kana in Japan in the 9th century, chữ nôm in Vietnam in the 11th century, and han’gŭl in Korea in the 15th century). For centuries, therefore, Chinese was the only available written language, and even after the development of vernacular scripts, Sinitic (literary Chinese) was the written language of esteem, particularly for male writers, and particularly in the context of Buddhism, Confucianism, medicine, and other fields where writers outside China considered that they were contributing to a discourse that covered much of East Asia. However, Sinitic was simply a written language, and very few Japanese, Koreans, or Vietnamese ever learned to speak any form of Chinese. For reading aloud, therefore, and to ease comprehension, they devised methods of construing Sinitic texts in ways that would allow them to be read and understood in their vernaculars, and hence they rarely resorted to translation. The strategy was quite different in other societies—such as Tibet and the Tangut Empire, and among the Uighurs, the Manchus, and the Mongols—where vernacular scripts were developed early and translation was commonplace. Most scholarship in this area hitherto has tended to focus on bilateral textual relationships (e.g., those between Japan and China), and nationalistic emphases on vernacular literature have tended to understate the extent and importance of writing in Chinese. On the other hand, recent scholarship in this field published in China tends to focus exclusively on texts in Chinese and to ignore, for example, adaptations and translations in the vernacular. In Chinese, more work has hitherto been done on Japan than on Korea or Vietnam, but new studies are beginning to redress the balance. Here the focus will be on literature, but some attention will be paid to other kinds of texts, especially medical texts, which are often neglected.

General Overviews

Partly because this is a huge field and involves a large number of different languages, there is as yet no comprehensive overview, though Huey 2006 and Kornicki 2008 sketch the outlines. However, in 2005 a new journal called Yuwai hanji yanjiu jikan, which is devoted to Chinese books outside China, was launched in Beijing under the editorship of Zhang Bowei 張伯偉. There are also a few collections of essays which range over much of East Asia, such as Isobe 2004 and Salmon 1987; Salmon 1987 focuses on the reception of Ming and Qing fiction outside China, particularly in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Mayanagi 2010 concentrates on medical texts, and Robinson 2001 on Buddhist texts.

  • Huey, Talbott. “Chinese Books as Cultural Exports from Han to Ming: A Bibliographic Essay.” Studies on Asia, series III, 3.1 (2006): 85–101.

    This essay discusses overall patterns of transmission and critiques existing scholarship on the subject.

  • Isobe Akira 磯部彰, ed. Higashi Ajia shuppan bunka kenkyū - kohaku (東アジア出版文化研究—こはく). Np: np, 2004.

    This collection of essays was produced as the output of a Japanese government research grant and so was not published commercially; it contains essays, some in Japanese and others in Chinese, on book culture in East Asia and the movement of Chinese books.

  • Kornicki, Peter. Having Difficulty with Chinese? The Rise of the Vernacular Book in Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Sandars Lectures. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Library, 2008.

    This is the annotated text version of the three Sandars Lectures given in 2008, and it constitutes a preliminary attempt to investigate the uses of Chinese books in Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

  • Mayanagi Makoto 真柳誠. “Nikkan’etsu no igaku to Chūgoku isho (日韓越の医学と中国医書).” Nihon ishigaku zasshi 日本医史学雑誌 56.2 (2010): 151–159.

    This is the first attempt to examine the traditions of Chinese medicine as practiced in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, and it is based on extensive bibliographic research in all three countries. An enhanced version with color illustrations is available online.

  • Robinson, Kenneth R. “Treated as Treasures: The Circulation of Sutras in Maritime Northeast Asia from 1388 to the Mid-Sixteenth Century.” East Asian History 21 (2001): 33–54.

    In the premodern world, Buddhist sutras in the form of Chinese translations initially circulated centrifugally from China, but the later production of printed editions of the Chinese Buddhist canon in Korea and elsewhere, which were often highly sought after in other parts of East Asia, complicated the pattern of circulation, and it is this that is the subject of this article.

  • Salmon, Claudine, ed. Literary Migrations: Traditional Chinese Fiction in Asia, 17–20th Centuries. Beijing: International Culture Publishing Corporation, 1987.

    The focus of this pioneering collection of essays is the reception of Ming and Qing fiction elsewhere in East Asia.

  • Yuwai hanji yanjiu jikan 域外漢籍研究集刊. 2005–. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju.

    This journal is devoted to Chinese texts outside China, and so far it has been dominated by articles focusing on Japan, Korea, Ryukyu, and Vietnam.

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