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date: 03 June 2020

(p. 471) Early and Medieval China and the World

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter gives a chronological sketch of China’s past as a real and imagined part of a culturally larger history. It addresses the significance of the historiographic paradigms of colonization and Sinicization, highlighting the literary genres and frontier contexts that complicate linear narratives of empire and literary practice. The final section on the “Polyscriptic Northwest” introduces the diversity of literatures in foreign scripts and languages that flourished alongside Literary Chinese texts in eastern Central Asia (China’s Northwest). Throughout the first millennium ce, mass migration across the politically polycentric Northwest led to different practices of acculturation. This included the adoption of non-Chinese and Chinese writing for religious and secular purposes. Given the traditional prestige of writing in China as a signifier of civilization (wen), this encounter with foreign (non-Sinographic) scripts, and not simply foreign languages, marks a watershed; hence the heuristic emphasis here on “polyscriptic” rather than multilingual.

Editor’s Introduction (Wiebke Denecke)

China studies, like the master narratives of Chinese history, tend to follow a powerfully centripetal force, streamlining stories of engagement with the world beyond China, of colonization and “Sinicization,” of ethnic diversity and foreign rule, and of native cultural creativity and outside “influences” into a suitably coherent story of China’s hegemony and centrality, even in its weaker moments. Thus the problem of Sinocentrism has typically been a problem of China’s neighbors, both geopolitically and ideologically.

But recently the expanding horizons of our experience of the world and globalizing trends in the study of history have led scholars to embark on a search for the interconnectedness of the Eurasian continent, engaging questions of migration, ethnic diversity, and hybridization and uncovering the dynamics of peoples, languages, beliefs, and state power in cultural contact zones. This has produced outside-in histories of how nomadic peoples, in particular on the northwestern frontier, have shaped China (rather than the traditional other way around); it has produced a new incarnation of “Silk Road studies” sensitive to the complex interplay of ethnic and religious diversity; and it has inspired a resurgence of interest in the functioning of Literary Chinese as a (p. 472) lingua franca in East Asia, bringing attention to the distinctive literatures produced in Chinese outside of China proper, mainly in the “Sinographic Sphere” including Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

This section takes up early and medieval China in the world. How did various Chinese dynasties and regimes shape, and how were they in turn shaped by, the specific cultural geography of their peripheries? How did people communicate across languages and borders, and what role did translation play in Chinese cultural history? How did imaginations of the periphery figure in the Chinese literary tradition? What was China’s role in the historical experience as well as in the imagination of its neighbors and their literary traditions? How did the major East Asian literary traditions outside China, namely those of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, unfold in creative dialogue with Chinese models? And, for the purposes of this handbook, what can we learn about Chinese literature from their distinctive literary cultures?

The first chapter of this section, “Colonization, Sinicization, and the Polyscriptic Northwest,” sketches different modes of political encroachment and cultural interaction in early and medieval China. “Colonization,” “Sinicization,” and the “acculturation of Buddhism” are all concepts coined to capture cultural interaction processes beyond and within China. Each simplifies very messy historical developments recalcitrant to easy generalization; worse yet, “Sinicization” tends to imply Chinese cultural superiority. Yet they all go some way to describe China’s complex being in the world during the early and medieval periods. Chinese military expansion, the adoption of Chinese models by others—in the form of writing and administration, law codes, social norms, literature, various arts, and court culture—and the spread of Buddhism from India and Central Asia into China all had dramatic effects on literary production. From the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 ce) on, it inspired the interest of writers in the frontier zones and found expression in the “biographical accounts” of foreign people in the official histories; in lists of new exotic fauna, flora, and gems that appeared in Han Dynasty rhapsodies; and in the spoils of imperial expansion brought to the capital and exuberantly celebrated in literary recitations at court. During the medieval period, the complex dual geopolitics of both southern dynasties and “Sinicized” regimes in the north claiming legitimacy led to the flourishing of the genre of “frontier poetry,” which evoked the grim war experiences of soldiers on the bleak northwestern frontier and was particularly promoted by southern poets; the frontier appears also in “transformation texts” from the northwestern oasis of Dunhuang, which dramatize the lives of Han Dynasty figures tragically associated with the Northwest, such as general Li Ling or the Han princess Wang Zhaojun who was married off to a Xiongnu chieftain.

The polarity between “north” and “south” was just one coordinate on the cultural map of medieval China. The old hierarchy of “Chinese versus barbarian” was now complicated by the encounter with a culture that in one aspect at least, namely Buddhism, was deemed more venerable: that of India. At the same time, China came (p. 473) to acknowledge former “barbarians,” like some of the Korean states and Japan, as “countries of Confucian gentlemen,” a facelift in status that brought states within the Sinographic Sphere (Korea and Japan to the east and Vietnam to the south) into the generous fold of Chinese civilization. Against the politically and linguistically much more stable Sinographic Sphere, this chapter sets a “polyscriptic Northwest,” where a host of non-Chinese scripts and languages flourished alongside Literary Chinese: the Indic script Brāhmī and its derivative Tibetan, as well as the Aramaic-derived Kharoṣṭhī, Sogdian, and Manichaean scripts.

The Northwest and its manifold languages were the principal vector of entry for Buddhism into China. The second chapter, “Translation,” begins by tracing the encounters with ethnic and linguistic others in the early period and reminds us of the sudden urgency of cross-border communication as the Han Dynasty was facing the formidable foe of the Xiongnu steppe empire. The chapter also maps various hypothesized interlinguistic contacts, with Austroasiatic speakers to the east, Paleosiberian speakers to the north, Indo-European speakers to the west, and Tibeto-Burman speakers to the southwest. But it moves then to the lion’s share of China’s experience with translation, the feverish translation of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese during the medieval period. This extraordinary enterprise is certainly among the longest and largest-scale translation projects in world history. It involved thousands of people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds who were employed in translation bureaus carrying out complex translation work based on rounds of oral recitation, linguistic transposition, and cross-checking, sponsored by successive dynasties over roughly a millennium. Beyond changing the intellectual, religious, and material culture of China and East Asia, the encounter with Buddhist texts, in phonographic scripts, constituted a significant cognitive change and stimulus in Chinese cultural history. This was the first time Chinese took non-Chinese scripts and languages seriously, and the encounter with Sanskrit meter in gāthā verses of Buddhist sutras as well as with the prosimetric style of Buddhist literature inspired the emergence of prose narrative and fiction and the development of Chinese “regulated poetry.”

Translators employed various methods for various purposes; the early translations of Buddhist scriptures resorted to native Daoist terminology to translate Buddhist technical terminology and “familiarized” Buddhism, thus reaffirming native culture at a time when the deep linguistic and intellectual foreignness of Buddhism produced anxiety and cultural self-consciousness. In contrast, the short-lived strategy of “matching meanings” based on lists of Indic terms and presumed Chinese equivalents granted Buddhism the status of an independent tradition, with its own technical expertise. In an ultimate compromise, as seen in master translators like Kumārajīva 鳩摩羅什 (334–413), translators settled on a mixture of semantic translation and transcription of Sanskrit terms that struck a balance between familiarizing and foreignizing Buddhist texts. Translation could even be used for domestic legitimation in China; (p. 474) most famously, Wu Zetian managed to insert prophecies of the coming of a female monarch into the translation of Indic scriptures, and the authority of the institution of Buddhist translation covered up her manipulations. In closing, the chapter discusses translations in other directions. There were, for example, translations from Chinese into Sanskrit, most famously the Heart Sutra, which, though traditionally assumed to be a Sanskrit text, was probably a Chinese text eventually retranslated into Sanskrit. This is a stunning example of how some texts could and did move against the stream, from China to India, but it only underlines the fact that the greater part of China’s experience with translation flowed from India to China.

During the first millennium ce, Buddhism connected the various emerging states of East Asia: as text in the form of translations of the Buddhist canon produced originally in China, as the international community of monks traveling and studying throughout Asia, and as ritual practice and its material culture—complete with sculpture and temple building, ritual calendars and their implements and relics. The remainder of this section is devoted to the “Shared Literary Heritage in the East Asian Sinographic Sphere” (Chapter 33), discussing countries that built their own textual traditions based on the Chinese script and textual heritage. Chapter 34–36 further elaborate on the distinctive developments of Sino-Korean, Sino-Japanese, and Sino-Vietnamese literatures.

While the cultural transfer of Buddhism into China had to proceed through translation of languages in non-Chinese scripts into Literary Chinese, with early and medieval East Asia we are practically in a “world without translation,” a world in which educated people who did not share a common language could still read the same text, in the lingua franca of Literary Chinese, and, unlike in regions dominated by phonographic script languages, knowledge of any form of spoken Chinese or translation was not needed for mutual understanding within the Sinographic Sphere. In particular, Korea and Japan developed reading techniques that allowed readers to voice a text in their vernacular language without the intermediary of any form of Chinese. Learning these techniques was part of basic elite education. Therefore a text like the Analects or the Chinese version of the Lotus Sutra was no more “Chinese” than it was “Korean,” “Japanese,” or “Vietnamese,” to Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese readers.

Thus the logographic nature of the Chinese script (as well as the possibility of using it in mixed form, for both logographic and phonographic inscription) created distinctive modes of cross-cultural communication and textual culture in the Sinographic Sphere. With the early modern period, translation of Chinese texts into vernaculars did become an important tool for the education and entertainment of women, children, and commoners, but this does not change the fact that, within the Chinese script world, translation was an option rather than a necessity, unlike with phonographic languages, which require cosmopolitan foreign language skills or translation for mutual intelligibility. The logographic script also enabled the distinctive phenomenon of “brush talk,” which (p. 475) diplomatic envoys without a shared spoken language relied on when passing written notes back and forth and writing Chinese-style poetry for each other; and it created a distinctive biliteracy, with textual production in both Literary Chinese and various local vernaculars (rather than the bilingualism in medieval Europe, where the educated class both wrote and actually spoke Latin alongside the local vernaculars).

The peripheral states in the Sinographic Sphere came to adopt a number of political and social institutions based on Chinese precedents: central government structures and law codes, administrative record keeping and the compilation of historical chronicles, Confucian academies and an education system devoted to the Chinese Classics, as well as, with the exception of Japan, a civil service examination system linked to government service. They also shared certain literary institutions and practices, sustained by the flourishing book trade in the region: a canon of textual knowledge, based on extensive commentarial literature and exegesis; the Confucius cult,which connected the academy, the scholarly community, and the state; training aimed at honing fluency in administrative genres, often written in ornate prose forms, and at applying one’s knowledge of the Classics to policy questions; and a literary corpus produced in Literary Chinese that strongly valued certain forms of self-expression and self-cultivation, emphasized the duty of both obedience and remonstration, found solace in the trope of the unsuccessful scholar whose talent goes unrecognized, and developed a counter-discourse justifying retreat from society during politically corrupt times.

The shared Chinese literary heritage remained a central reference point for the literary cultures of the various states in the Sinographic Sphere throughout the premodern period. But the emergence of written vernacular literature and eventually of vernacular scripts, such as Japan’s hiragana and katakana syllabaries, Vietnam’s invented chữ nôm characters, like Korea’s han’gŭl script promulgated by King Sejong 世宗大王 (r. 1418–1450), led to a complex dynamic unfolding between Chinese-style and various vernacular literary modes. Despite differences depending on place and period, vernacular scripts and languages were generally associated with female reading and writing, private and personal concerns, love and romance, and popular genres. Often men were also prominently involved in the production and consumption of vernacular literature, beyond their domain of writing in Literary Chinese, but women had often no, and certainly less, opportunity to participate in the community and world of Chinese-style literature.

The presentation of the stories of Sino-Korean, Sino-Japanese, and Sino-Vietnamese literatures in this Handbook of Classical Chinese Literature is programmatic. We are standing at a crucial historical inflection point, where East Asia, which for almost two millennia was connected through the Chinese script, the lingua franca of Literary Chinese and its literary heritage, has lost its cosmopolitan language and is increasingly growing distant from its shared heritage. The past century has seen the rapid death of Literary Chinese in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, and English is catching (p. 476) on as a new cosmopolitan language that will forever change the face of East Asia. As we are confronting this new phase in world history, the Chinese-style literatures of East Asia can provide us with a sense of the region’s distinctive cultural commonalities. And they tell stories of creative engagement with and distance from Chinese literary history—sibling stories—that can teach us much about Chinese literature.