This post begins to examine and critique the book titled Realms of Literacy, Early Japan and the History of Writing.
Mr. Lurie is another associate professor at Columbia University.
As usual, I have a lot going on--not to mention a full-time job--and aim to expedite this first post, maybe coming back to it later to correct, edit and expand. There will be one or two more posts on this book, with the next one within a week or so.
Although the author demonstrates that he has read widely on the topic, and the book presents an overview of the present state of scholarship, it does little to advance that, and I actually found it to be somewhat regressive on certain points, in a manner similar to the work of Bialock and Como.
As with the books by Como and Bialock, in this book, too, there are unsupported assignments of credit to Koreans for developments in Japanese culture, and that is where I will start, as it is the easiest point to illustrate while staying on theme.
There is a parallel movement of a divide and conquer with respect to the presentation of the internal development of respective countries, on the one hand, and a countervailing move toward imparting a false overarching unity on the basis of an amorphous fallacy that disintegrates, in the final analysis, on the other hand. A core element around which he tries to support his thesis is found in the assertion of “multiple literacies”, which is seen in the title of the book, “Realms of Literacy”. That concept relates to the divide-and-conquer aspect of the rhetoric of this book.
Since the title is a good place to start, I’ll point out one basic contradiction in his thesis. At the beginning of his book he posits a model of ancient Chinese society in the form of a series of concentric circles, with the court at the center. He mentions this model in relation to the events in Japanese society related to the adoption of Chinese character based writing system and a centralized Chinese state. With respect to the study and adoption of a writing system, however, he basically posits a hypostasization of literacy into separate categories—“multiple literacies”—that would seem to negate the agency of the individuals with respect to learning and language, while ignoring the dynamic process of the adaptation of a writing system in a society. That would seem to be inconsistent with the concentric model.
That is to say, instead of individuals with varying degrees of literacy corresponding on their respective position within society vis-a-vis the court of the court-centered concentric model, he posits a balkanized social order that doesn’t even correspond to a system of occupational-based literacy, for example. He also does not treat the “literacies” as stages of learning in an individual or stages of development in a respective segment of the population.
This book is a rhetorically sophisticated, and I don’t have a lot of time to spend on explicating many details, so I will try to limit my review to two posts. Today, I will simply lay some ground work and address aspects of his presentation of the relationship of writing in Japan to Korean influence. In a subsequent post I will examine his overblown explication of the concepts and practices associated with the Japanese term “kundoku”. There is a third issue relating to Shotoku Taishi, which I will try to touch on briefly. In light of the fact that all three of these authors associated with Columbia University have chosen to ignore the substantial body of work on Shotoku Taishi by accomplished American scholars from the previous generation, I intend to write a substantial post on Shotoku Taishi incorporating the writings that can be found in the following two volumes. The first volume, ironically, is published by Columbia University Press.
Sources of Japanese Tradition, Volume One: From Earliest Times to 1600
The Cambridge History of Japan, Volume 1: Ancient Japan
To begin with, a couple of quotes from the book in relation to early examples of writing found in Korea.
On p. 84, Lurie writes:
Historical and archaeological sources attest to the spread of writing in the peninsula during the Three Kindoms period (ca. 300 CE-668 CE)… the King Kwanggaet’o’ stele on the Yalu River (near the modern border between China and North Korea) was erected by the state of Koguryo in 414 and bears an inscription of more than 1800 characters… Writing seems to have gained importance in Paekche at roughly the same time, but the comparatively remote Silla was the last of the three states to make this transition, showing few signs of the use of inscription until the mid-sixth century.
On p. 85:
The late fourth century was a period of dramatic victories for Pakche King Ch’ogo… It makes sense that during this period Ch’ogo would also have “solidified his international position by makin overtres to the Eastern Chin state in the Yangtze river region and to the Wa people in Japan” (K. Lee 1984, 37). The former contact is attested by a description of Paekche accepting tributary status in 372 in the seventh century Jinshu (the dynastic history of the Jin [265-420]); the evidence for the latter is a badly damaged, and highly controversial, inscription that is a landmark in the early history of Japanese writing as well as diplomacy.
He goes on to describe a sword as the abovementioned “evidence” on p. 86:
In the Nara basin a few kilometers from the Todaijiyama mound is Isonokami Shrine, which has been famous since antiquity as a depository for weapons with religious significance. Among its treasures is the Seven-Branched Sword… Both the characters of the inscription and their meaning are controversial, so the following rendering, which draws on over a dozen decades’ worth of scholarship… remains provisional.
In the 4th year of the Great Harmony era , in one […] month, on the 16th day, the 43rd of the cycle, at noon, [I] made this seven-branched sword of multiply refined iron. [With it?] [you] will avoid injury in battle; it is suitable for a marquise or a king. […] made it.
From ages past there has never before been a sword like this one. The Crown Prince of Paekche, Sagely [?] Kusu, had it made especially for King Zhi of Wa. Pass it on and display it to later generations.
And on p. 87:
…The Seven-Branched Sword specifies a diplomatic relationship, proclaiming itself an object given to a particular Wa king by a particular king (or prince) of Paekche. There are long standing arguments over the nature of this relationship: Is Wa or Paekche subordinate, or is there parity between them? And to what extent does this contact take place under the auspices of the Jin state?
On the basis of the forgoing discussion, it can be concluded that writing had been introduced to the Korean peninsula form during the latter half of the 5th century, probably via different conduits into both kingdoms of Koguryo and Paekche.
On p. 88 Lurie makes an unsupported claim in relation to scribes “from the Korean peninsula”
The fifth century is an epochal moment in the history of writing in Japan: a handful of inscriptions on swords, found over a surprisingly wide geographical area, are the earliest substantial texts known to have been composed within the archipelago. These epigraphs show how writing first came to be used by scribes from the Korean peninsula who were employed by Yamato kings, and possibly also by vassals or associates of those kings.
There is a high likelihood that there were scribes from Korea and probably China, too, but how long would the service of scribes be needed once Japanese individuals became literate? Furthermore, as discussed below, even in the face of evidence possible indicating that a “scribe” is from China, Lurie insists on speculating that the scribe is from Korea.
Moving along to a discussion of an important example of such a sword, on p. 92:
The Eta-Funayama sword…discovered in 1873 from a mound dating to the late fifth or early sixth century… Along the narrow back of the blade, a 75-character inscription is inlaid in silver in a single line from the tip down…
In the age of the Great King Wa […] ru who ruled all under heaven, the master of ceremonies who served him, named Murite, during the 8th month used a great iron kettle to alloy a four-foot court sword. Eighty-times refined and ninety-times beaten, it is a three-inch excellent [sharp] sword. Who bears this sword will live long, have many descendants, obtain […the king’s?] favor, and not lose that which he governs. The name of the sword maker is Itawa, and the writer is Zhang An.
Locating itself (and the sword that carries it) in the temporal and spatial domain of the “great king”, the inscription adapts the literary Chinese term “ruled all under heaven” to a new archipelago context.
Continuing on p. 93
The final section identifies the swordmaker, and then attributes the inscription itself to one Zhang An, a Chinese style name that most likely belongs to an immigrant from the Korean peninsula, perhaps with a claim to Chinese ancestry. This, the oldest known signature from the Japanese archipelago…
Here, even though Lurie has to admit that the oldest known signature on an artifact from the Japanese archipelago is “a Chinese style name”, he refuses to even entertain the possibility that the “scribe” was from China, continuing to insist on assigning Korean origin without any basis in reason. That is simply shoddy scholarship and presentation of the facts.
I have already touched on the earliest records of Japan found in the Chinese historical accounts, including that dealing with the Kingdom of Yamataikoku ruled by Himiko. In that account, once more, the Chinese agreed to provide Himiko military assistance against a rebellious faction that threatened her kingdom and society. In effect, that established a military alliance, and a tributary status of Yamataikoku with the Chinese court. The account in question further mentions that the Chinese had interpreters on hand, so they were apparently studying Himiko and her people, and could speak Japanese. In consideration that the Chinese later bestowed a large number of cultural artifacts, such as the esteemed mirrors, onto Himiko, it is not inconceivable that they also bestowed some rudimentary text and taught a few Japanese some Chinese characters in the course of their interactions. If there were texts on paper or the like, they probably would have survived, even if entombed with Himiko; however, since Himiko’s tomb has not been examined, there may be discoveries made someday, should the decision be made to recommence some study of the archaeological remains at burial mounds from the Kofun period of ancient Japan.
In either case, on the basis of the historical records to the effect that there were friendly relations between Japanese kingdoms and Chinese dynastic courts in ancient Japan, there is no reason to believe that there were no Chinese immigrants in Japan when the Eta-Funayama sword was made.
In fact, according to the Wikipedia page on the Shinsen Shojiroku, which was a genealogical record from the year 815, there were 1182 registered families, of which 326 were foreign in origin, comprising 163 from China, 104 from Paekche (Korea), 41 from Koguryo (Korea) , 9 from Silla (Korea) and 9 from Gaya (Korea).
The Wikipedia page for the Kofun period has sections on the immigrant populations in Japan that came from both China and Korea.
Based on the above-described information, it is would seem that there were as many Chinese immigrant families in Japan as Koreans.
Accordingly, there would appear to be absolutely no basis in reason for the assertion that the writer of the inscription on the Eta-Funayama sword was Korean instead of Chinese, as his name would apparently seem to indicate. Furthermore, aside from the Chinese name of the scribe, there is also the appearance of the Chinese literary phrase “ruled all under heaven”, which might also support the scribe’s being from China.