Friday, September 14, 2012

Lurie 5: kundoku, Chinese characters, East Asian culture

I did decide to print this post out and correct typos and other mere oversights. After doing, I discovered that Frellesvig, with respect to whom I finally got around to searching for publications, had published a book on the history of the Japanese language as a whole in 2011, called: 

A History of the Japanese Language

After that, this morning one point occurred to me in regarding and issue in the discussion in this post, an issue related to both the assertion of "an unexpected compatibility" and the assertion of kundoku as a writing method, so I have revised the paragraph in which that point occurred, resulting in the addition of a couple of paragraphs and a passage from the earlier paper by Frellesvig paper referred to in the previous post. That has been rendered in neon green text again for easy reference.

Needless to say, i have ordered the above book by Frellesvig, and won't be posting anything more on this topic until I've had the chance to go through the relevant portions of that, to which I'm looking forward--not without some trepidation...

Here is yet another post that has expanded to more than 5,000 words on the same topic, because there are so many fields attempted to be covered in the book that is the subject of this critique. 

It has been a number of years (decades, in fact) since I've done any serious thinking about linguistics, so this has been something of an exercise that reinvigorated my interest and appreciation of that field. I have tried to keep the analysis of rhetoric to a minimum and turn to linguistics and science wherever possible.

This is only half of the number of pages of text that I have written, but I need a break from this as I have work to do and other things that to which I should be paying some attention. 

I started trying to find strategies to circumvent the need to address aspects of this book in detail, but that proved a futile effort thanks to the editorial staff at Harvard. That is not intended as a compliment. At any rate, in this post I have been able to provide some of the most succinct critique of the text thus far, because I have had to go back and go through it in more detail.

By way of summary I should preface this by saying that in my estimation Lurie has attempted to assert that kundoku is a method of writing as a way to present a novel theory that is counterintuitive, when in fact it is simple incorrect, and to a certain extent a misrepresentation of the facts. But I will leave that for you to ascertain. 

While this post is also being uploaded in a somewhat unfinished state, shall we say, it is not as rough or disjointed as other posts have been when I first uploaded them, and I don't foresee a need to do any substantial editing of this. I may revisit it in the future, as there is a significant amount of overlap in these posts, but I would only need to integrate the posts in order to put out something more cohesive and perhaps more professional, for which there is not an immediate need apparent on the horizon. It may in fact turn out that I return to the Prince Shotoku research before editing the remaining pages of the text associated with this post.

In touching on the issue of the East Asian cultural sphere in earlier posts, I’ve referred to the book by Lee (Japanese only, 2000), which is cited by Lurie in an emphatic manner, but discussed no further whatsoever. In this post, seizing upon Lurie’s calling into question the ‘Chineseness’ of the Chinese writing system, that issue is examined in more detail. 

It is necessary to revisit the issue of kundoku in relation to this issue, too.

On p. 175 Lurie introduces the concept of kundoku, as follows:

…one would tend to assume that they [Japanese] would have had to learn the unfamiliar spoken language of China to read the Chinese texts, and that only by adapting the Chinese script to spell out the sounds of Japanese would they be able to write their own language. Both of these strategies did play a major role in the growth of reading and writing in early Japan, but another, more comprehensive method of linking the new writing system with the local language proved to be more important. As it turns out, an unexpected compatibility of reading with writing, and of Chinese script and Japanese language, provides the key to understanding the history of writing in Japan. This compatibility is the product of a complex of writing and reading practices known as kundoku 訓読, literally, “reading by gloss”.

First, Chinese was not a new writing system to the Japanese, it was the only writing system that they had ever encountered; writing itself was new to the Japanese. As Borgen states, however, there were Japanese who did master the system, and as Frellesvig states, such people were basically bilingual, at least with respect to reading.

The Chinese writing system had been in existence for more than 1,000 years before Japanese began the formal study of texts in the 5th century according to the account in the Nihon shoki. This is significant in light of the assertion by Lurie relating to “an unexpected compatibility…”, which he characterizes in the subsequent sentence as a “product”. This is another example of a turn of phrase that misses the mark. By definition, a point of compatibility is a relationship that exists between inherent qualities of entities; that is to say, it is not a product of something external to the entities that are said to be compatible in some way. There is nothing that is “unexpected” and there are no entities between which a relationship of “compatibility” can be found in relation to the statement.

Note the somewhat revelatory phrasing with which the so-called compatibilities are introduced; that is to say, “As it turns out”. This would appear to be another rhetorical device aimed at leading the reader astray, and in this case it preys on a somewhat religious predisposition with respect to authority and the truth. That is to say, why does the author of this presumably scholarly study not avail the reader of the material that was evaluated and the thought processes involved in the evaluation to arrive at the conclusions prefaced by the statement. In a report of findings of a scholarly pursuit based on intellectual endeavor engaging the mind and imagination over a sustained course of inquiry, that is what one expects to be presented with as a reader, if not concrete facts that can be subjected to the scientific method to assess their truth value. As it turns out, however, it seems that we’re supposed to accept what Lurie claims at face value, without any explanation at all, simply because Harvard says so.

Rather, there are two fundamental factors that influenced the course of the adoption of Chinese characters by the Japanese at the outset. The first factor is that Chinese characters are logographic, and the second is that the spoken Chinese language is a tonal language. Since the characters are logographs, they each represent a word. Here, it is informative to turn to the etymology of the compound kundoku [訓読], as in the case of Lurie’s translation “reading by gloss”. Because the Chinese language is a tonal language, if the phoneme corresponding to a character is rendered in an approximate Japanese pronunciation, the character would be rendered without the tonal inflection found in the Chinese pronunciation. Without the presence of tonal differentiation, many more homonyms would be produced as a result than found in spoken Chinese. Pronouncing Chinese characters according to the Chinese pronunciation without its corresponding tonal inflection in Japanese is referred to as the Sino-Japanese reading (onyomi) of the character.

Because the Chinese characters are logographs, however, they harbor a latent capacity to be appropriated for rendering their associated meaning in a spoken language other than Chinese. This is what is meant by “gloss” reading. In other words, Chinese characters can be appropriated as meaningful symbols onto which the spoken language of another country can be mapped for use in providing a written representation of that language. The characters are meaningful by virtue of their status as logographic signifiers in the comprehensive Chinese writing system.  More than one gloss is possible for many of the characters.

Because the Chinese characters were already a fully functioning writing system that had been developed over the course of a millennium before being adopted by the Japanese, it represented a comprehensive lexical body of knowledge associated with a highly evolved language, writing system, and culture. In other words, the Chinese characters were a core component of a highly developed, systematic method for written representation of the Chinese language. The culture of the Chinese was by far the most advanced in the region, so the lexicon of Chinese characters was rich, and offered a wide range of expressive possibilities to the countries on the periphery of China that first encountered writing in the form of the Chinese characters.

The Chinese characters were a ready-made complete lexical system that was available as a resource that could be exploited in a manner such as to facilitate other languages to be represented in writing using the lexicon of Chinese characters. Kundoku is the Japanese term for the common practice of gloss reading that was developed by various countries that adopted Chinese characters for writing their languages. 

In light of the foregoing explanation, the inherent latent possibility for gloss reading of Chinese logographic characters was the condition that enabled countries on China’s periphery to adopt Chinese characters instead of developing a writing system from scratch.

In this sense, one could just as easily map the English language onto Chinese characters. That is why I have tried to direct the line of inquiry in this regard toward a simple linguistics treatment of logographic writing systems. Therefore, there is no “unexpectedly compatibility” between Chinese characters and Japanese language or reading and writing per se as asserted by Lurie.

Accordingly, if kundoku gloss reading can be seen as having a more universal applicability in terms of the science of linguistics as applied to the learning of logographic writing systems in general, Lurie’s appeal to a nonexistent “unexpected compatibility…” would appear to be an attempt to resort to some sort of unspecified particularism that is empty and without merit.

Accordingly, that makes it even more unclear what to make of the assertion that kundoku “provides the key to understanding the Japanese writing system” means.

On the same page (p. 175), he continues:


Approached initially in terms of reading only, kundoku can be defined as a complex of practices that:
(1) associate logographs of Chinese origin with Japanese words
(2) transpose the resulting words into Japanese word order while
(3) adding grammatical elements,

thereby producing an actual or imagined vocalization in Japanese.

Except for the possible lack of clarity regarding the definition of (3) “adding grammatical elements” I don’t see any problems with these statements. It dawned on me that since this passage relates to reading only, the inclusion of (3) may in fact point to what is actually a problematic that exists between trying to read one language written in a script originating in another language, as in the case of kundoku.  

That is to say, with respect to Lurie’s assertion of "compatibility", it dawned on me that the question of grammatical elements points at the writing techniques that were developed to facilitate the kundoku reading of Chinese characters in a manner such as to vocalize the written text in spoken Japanese. If this issue points at a lack of coherence in his argument with respect to compatibility, it would therefore also represent another reason against characterizing kundoku as a method of writing, because the written addition of punctuation marks and the like are adaptive techniques applied in the course of overcoming the aforementioned problematic. 

This question perhaps involves looking at specific junctures where writing came up against a situation in which a sentence could be read one way or another due to a lack of clarity with respect to the grammatical structure. 

Even if it is the case that particles such as subject markers (wa, ga), object markers (wo) and the like could be inferred and inserted on the basis of knowledge of a simple kundoku protocol, such as switching the order of characters from SVO to SOV, the eventual need to include written representations of some sort serving as indicators of grammatical structures to facilitate the correct reading of a string of characters point to steps along an evolutionary trajectory from kundoku influenced writing to a self-sufficient Japanese writing system at which problems were solved by developing new writing techniques.

This might be a method that can be used to define points where "kundoku" reading techniques end, due to inherent limitations of kundoku, in order to determine the junctures at which tangible aspects of the Japanese writing system as such were developed. It seems to me that it should be possible to assess specifically where kundoku reading practices applied to Chinese character-based texts ends and Japanese writing incorporating Chinese characters begins.

At any rate, I’m going to have to wait until I have finished reading Frellesvig’s book (2011) until I have a better understanding of what types of grammatical elements were added in kundoku reading as such; that is to say, without the addition of written indicators of grammatical elements for facilitating correct grammatical reading (not necessarily characterizable as a "kundoku reading"). 

In the meantime, the following is a passage which seems to address related issues that is found in the earlier paper by Frellesvig on Old Japanese that I referred to in the last post.
On pp.14-5, Frellesvig writes:

In any case, the language of these texts is probably in some aspects quite far removed from contemporary spontaneous and informal spoken language. In addition, there are Japanese vocabulary items and proper names in texts written in Chinese or in hentai kanbun, in the form of phonographically written items inserted directly into the texts, or explanatory notes written as part of the original text (as opposed to later additions).
Needless to say, this in the main provides information about the OJ lexicon, not its grammar. Notes and glosses added onto Chinese texts in order to facilitate their interpretation and translation into Japanese, the socalled kunten shiryô, constitute important material for the study of EMJ. Although the practice probably caught on already towards the end of the Nara period, surviving materials from that time are insignificant…

The depth and complexity of these question would also seem to be attested to by these two recent publications:

Note that in the above-quoted passage by Lurie it would seem that the word “Japanese” could be substituted by any other language. To reiterate, it seems to me that the Chinese characters are a pre-constituted comprehensive lexical system that is capable of being appropriated to map any spoken language.

Moreover, what some of his statements seem to imply is that as a result of kundoku, the ‘Chineseness’ of Chinese characters is called into question. On p. 203 he starts a new section entitled,
where he writes:

…it now appears that during the expansion of writing as a mode of language-based communication, the reading and writing techniques of kundoku were a decisive aspect of this Korean influence.
    This means we need to revise the traditional assumption that Chinese-language writing was gradually adapted to the Japanese language. Like Buddhism, the technology of writing took off in seventh-century Japan because it was already pre-adapted to both Sinitic and non-Sinitic environments… when practices of literacy expanded and diversified in the seventh century, they did so via a system of writing/reading that was already a multilingual package. The final chapter of this book will show how this leads us to reconsider the notion of a ‘Chinese script’: it might make more sense to think in terms of an East Asian writing system spanning linguistic and cultural boundaries.

I don’t know what exactly to make of the incongruous analogy to Buddhism in the above-quoted passage; however, the basic assertion being made is that kundoku in the form introduced by Koreans into Japan represents a sort of fully developed and self-contained, “pre-adapted” multilingual system of writing/reading. At least the multilingual aspect of this assertion would seem to support my assertion that one could just as easily map the English language onto Chinese characters.

It seem that in attempting to expand upon kundoku as a method of writing, however, Lurie goes awry, because the trajectory toward the establishment of the Japanese writing system is obscured. Kundoku is presented as an end in itself instead of a means that facilitated adoption of the Chinese character system for writing and the adaption of those characters in the development of the Japanese writing system. That would seem to be the import of his argument that writing in Chinese characters was “already pre-adapted”, if I’ve understood the above-quoted passage correctly.

Lurie basis his claim that the Chinese writing system was not gradually adapted to the Japanese language on the basis of the notion of a kundoku system from Korea that had already completed all of the adapting that needed to be done. This represents both a gross overstatement and an equally gross understatement.

It is a gross overstatement because the Japanese development of kundoku practices and the application of those practices in writing was largely a self-motivated project undertaken in Japan from at least the seventh century. The distinctness of the artifacts attests to this fact. So not only is there a gross overstatement in terms of kundoku being “pre-adapted”, there is an exaggerated assignment of credit to Koreans for work that was carried out in Japan. Some of that work was undoubtedly carried out by immigrants from Korea and China, but the practices were developed in Japan and took on a life of their own here, which most likely later provided input into subsequent developments in Korea with respect to writing.

It is a gross understatement because the adaptation of Chinese characters to the Japanese language was not confined to the bounds of a hypostasized notion of kundoku; the development and application of kundoku was an integral part of the sustained effort that lead to the eventual development of the Japanese writing system incorporating the phonetic kana syllabaries. To assert anything less is simply ludicrous.

Here I should expand on a point I touched on only briefly in the last post, which relates to Lurie’s assertion that kundoku is “invisible” (e.g., p. 180-1). It would seem to be simply contradictory to claim that kundoku is both a method of writing and invisible at the same time. As a method of reading, kundoku could be performed by someone familiar with the appropriate protocol of glosses to be used for vocalizing in spoken Japanese a passage composed of a string of Chinese characters. Meanwhile, to assert that kundoku was invisible as a method of writing is simply a logical contradiction.

For ease of reference I’ll repost part of the passage from p. 180:

Much of the remainder of this book is devoted to the implications of kundoku for the history of writing, but there are four particular points to emphasize here: it is interlingual, reversible, productive, and in many cases, invisible. The interlingual difference of kundoku means that linguistic difference need not be reflected in writing, difficult though it is for us to overcome the assumption that all texts must be written in one and only one language, in the sense that this sentence is written in English.

This is one aspect of Lurie’s argument that cannot be sustained under the scrutiny of logic. Even if we were to entertain the notion of kundoku as a method of writing, it would have to be visible to count as writing, because writing is a visually manifested representation of language. A simple reversal of word ordering from SVO to SOV would satisfy the requirement, but absent even that minimal degree of manifest representation, kundoku can only be logically asserted to be a method of reading.

This is another reason why it is necessary to characterize kundoku as representing a body of practices that continued to evolve in tandem with the expanding mastery of the Chinese characters that were adopted to map out an approximation in writing of the language spoken in Japan, culminating with the  development of the full-blown Japanese writing system. That is to say, it would seem to be more appropriate to surmise that:
1) at first Koreans and Japanese simply learned to write Chinese characters according to literary Chinese grammar and to read them in Sino-Japanese pronunciations;
2) followed by a stage of learning glosses and substituting some Sino-Japanese readings with vernacular glosses;
3) followed by introducing SVO to SOV word re-ordering;
4) followed by changing the order of the written characters to reflect the switched word ordering;
5) and so on.

Moreover, after making the statements on p. 203, on the basis of the rationale contained in those characterizations he indicates that, by extension, maybe Chinese characters aren’t so Chinese after all. Those Chinese are very tricky indeed!

He makes his intention to call into question the “Chineseness” of Chinese characters explicit on p. 334:

The history of writing outlined in this book calls into question the inherent “Chineseness” of Chinese characters and texts written with them.

At face value, it is difficult to find grounds for taking his declaration seriously. If I were to see such a statement quoted in isolation, I would immediately assume that the author must be delusional. And what, exactly, does the adjective “inherent” mean in this statement? Considering that we have gained a little knowledge by plodding through the kundoku swamp in search of wisdom, we may be poised at a vantage from which to assess the above-quoted statement against a background that reveals aspects not normally apparent to the naked eye.

First of all, as a student of East Asian languages, I feel confident in stating, based on personal experience, that there is no question that the Chinese character writing system does add a dimension to the experiences related to the transmission and reception of cultural texts. Reading a text in Japanese with kanji and reading it’s translation in English differs in more registers than, say, reading a text that has been translated between German and English, for example. Of course, that is not the same as saying that the use of Chinese characters to transmit cultural texts limits the cultural significance of the text to the orthographic system in which it was written. That might be analogous to missing the forest for the trees, so to speak.

However, taking that metaphor one step further, perhaps we should drop the level of analysis down to the science of linguistics, and address this forest in a more abstract sense in terms of a forest of logographic trees. Metaphors aside, at that level it should be possible to determine whether there are cognitive phenomena associated with reading and writing in the complex representational system constituted by a logographic script as opposed to the simpler yet equally comprehensive representational system constituted by a phonetic syllabary or alphabet.

I am inclined to believe that researchers in the relevant fields of cognitive science, neurolinguistics, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics and the like would be able to find concrete indications of differences in brain activity related to cognitive processing of texts composed in the respective scripts, for example. At present the scope of the study with respect to the subjects examined for cognitive processing of logographic texts would necessarily be limited to subjects who are literate in Chinese (purely logographic system) and Japanese (mixed logograph and phonograph system), as they are the only extant logographic systems in wide use today.

The reason I suggest at this point a shifting of the focus to more scientific forms of inquiry relates to the slew of rhetorical questions relating to the more obtuse, shall we say, issue of culture posed on p. 348 of Lurie’s text as discussed below. While I do address issues related to culture, here, in light of the rhetorical deflection inherent in some of the questions posed by Lurie, it is necessary to recuperate for science the aspects of the subject matter at hand that the rhetorical nature of the mode of questioning would seek to divert away from science.

Linguistics is a multidisciplinary science, and anyone not familiar with the field need only look at the paper by Aldridge referred to in the previous post to see an aspect of it at work.

Back to the quote at hand, for all intents and purposes, Lurie’s statement would seem to be aimed at denying the Chinese of one aspect of their country's linguistic heritage in the form of the Chinese character writing system, which represents one of humankind’s most valuable cultural artifacts; in fact, it is an artifact that is still with us today. Furthermore, it also denies the influence of the Chinese writing system on neighboring countries, as Chinese characters constituted the first writing system that was adopted by a number of countries on China’s periphery.

By implicitly denigrating that system in the eyes of the East Asian countries that had first encountered writing in the form of Chinese characters, it gives vested interests in those countries a basis in what would appear to be reason--in the form of statements in a text published by Harvard--to deny a cultural connection between their country and China, maybe even attempting to erect a partition where there had been a tangible cultural relationship.

The above-quoted statement therefore evokes a line of reasoning that seems to lead to a divide-and-conquer mentality by creating psychological fissures among the respective populations.

Here it bears calling attention to the fact that in Korea there are nationalists that want to “purify” the Korean writing system by dropping the use of Chinese characters completely, and the Vietnamese nationalists adopted the script based on the Roman alphabet script that had been developed by missionaries to transcribed their language, in spite of the fact that the script itself had been imposed by the French colonial administration. In the case of Korea, at least, the reasoning is based in part on a nationalistic reaction against Chinese characters precisely because of their ‘Chineseness’. In Vietnam it was in all likelihood simply the most expedient means for the Vietnamese resistance to educate people to a minimum degree of literacy in order to facilitate national unity in the face of foreign aggression.

One could also call attention to the fact that in both Korea and Japan the respective terms hanja and kanji (both written with the characters 漢字) translate as “Chinese characters”, or “characters of the Han Chinese”. The Japanese and Koreans do not recognize a rationale for denying the ‘Chineseness’ of Chinese characters. In Japan, in fact, there is a term for specifically designating characters that have been developed in Japan on the basis of the Chinese characters, as there formerly was in Korea, too. Neither of the countries in questions found it necessary or appropriate to deny the ‘Chineseness’ of the Chinese writing system.

Here is the link to the Wikipedia page for the History of Writing:

The page states:

It is generally agreed that true writing of language (not only of numbers) was invented independently in at least two places: Mesopotamia (specifically, ancient Sumer) around 3200 BC), and Mesoamerica around 600BCE. 
Chinese characters are most probably an independent invention, because there is no evidence of contact between China and the literate civilizations of the Near East, and because of the distinct differences between the Mesopotamian and Chinese approaches to logography and phonetic representation.

Here is the link to the Wikipedia page for “Chinese Characters”:

The very first paragraph, the page states:
… Chinese characters constitute the oldest continuously used system of writing in the world.

There is little question that the Chinese writing system developed independently, or that it is not only one of a very few of the most unique yet fully fledged systems of writing that has been developed by human beings in the course of their evololution on the planet earth; it is the oldest system that has been in continuous use since its inception. That makes Chinese characters the medium of human written communication that has the longest continuity, which can be traced back to the second millennium BCE, or about 4,000 years.

On p. 338:

… This putative unitary writing system, the so-called Chinese script, comprised many systems, both synchronically and diachronically. Even at the point(s) it appeared in Japan, it was already a system with multiple temporal layers, based on multiple principles, with multiple uses and linguistic connections. The ‘same’ set of characters, perhaps, in a system of relations among visual forms, but in terms of function there were (and are) multiple sets of differing components in quasi-systematic relation with one another.

Chinese characters are a unique part of the cultural heritage of the Chinese people that have been adopted and adapted by neighboring countries to create related writing systems. It is hard to resist the impulse to dismiss Lurie’s degrading assertions outright, but we can learn something even from such misguided characterizations such as “so-called”, which borders on outright bigotry.

What strategy does Assistant Professor Lurie chose to attempt to disabuse the Chinese of their cultural heritage and render the Chinese writing system as a postmodern fragment of their imagination; for that matter, of our imagination?

To start with, Lurie proposes to examine different moments in the history of Chinese characters and writing in isolation, and to hypostatize those moments into permanent fixtures that negate the continuum. The result is a sort of Frankenstein continuum; that is to say, a monstrously false discontinuous continuum. He then attempts to assert that aspects of the language that occurred at different stages of its development or that were promoted by one faction or another at different times taken together add up to a disjointed set of components in a “quasi-systematic relation with one another”.

He then takes that logic of fragmentation and converts it into a rational for understanding the system as an open system that was available for appropriation, and thus transformation. In terms of linguistics, it can be said that Chinese characters have indeed been appropriated and adapted to form new, if related, writing systems. That does not, however, mean that the Chinese script was thereby transformed into something other than the Chinese script. An analogy can be drawn to the Roman alphabet, which is still the Roman alphabet even though it has been appropriated and adapted for use as a writing system in languages as disparate as Vietnamese and English.

Here, with regard to the Japanese writing system, it could be said that the kana syllabaries represent transformative elements derived from Chinese characters, as they are based on cursive reductions of the Chinese characters that had been adopted to represent pronunciations based on their phonetic content. It must be emphasized, however, that there is no other transformative dimension of the Chinese writing system involved in the development of the Japanese writing system. The semantic content of some Chinese characters may have been “glossed” in a manner such as to deviate somewhat in Japanese from the original Chinese usage, but I would still consider such minor adjustment to be of negligible import, with the meanings of the thus adapted characters in all likelihood still falling within the scope of normalcy with respect to the definitions in a Chinese character dictionary or synonyms in a thesaurus.

Although the Chinese script is rich enough in resources to have been adopted and adapted by several countries throughout history, Lurie’s statements seem to indicate that such occurrences should be seen as signs that point to a disunity that calls into question the integrity of the Chinese writing system as a system per se. On that rationale he calls into question the ‘Chineseness’ of the Chinese writing system, which would seem to be an affront to scholarly etiquette in the form of a somewhat bigoted suggestion enveloped in folds of quasi-philological pseudo-scientific exegetical rhetoric.

The Chinese writing system is the Chinese writing system, and the Japanese writing system is the Japanese writing system. The relationship of the Japanese writing system to the Chinese writing system is a concrete historical fact, and a valid field of study. But there is nothing inherent in the fact that Chinese characters have been adopted by other countries that calls into question the integrity of the Chinese writing system.

And back to p. 348:

If the ‘Chinese’ script “the crucial vehicle” for East Asian culture as it spread, was it a necessary, irreplaceable vehicle? Was it alone sufficient? Could any other have substituted for it? Is this influence to be attributed to the characters qua characters, or to the Chinese language with which they are—incompletely, I have argued—associated? Or both? In this context can we conceive of a separation between the language and the characters? Are “notions of philosophy, cosmology, and statecraft” untranslatable? (If so, one assumes that they would not remain long influential in a society that abandoned the writing system, but if there is any value to the notion of an East Asian cultural zone, it would have to include Vietnam and the Koreas all of which have generally abandoned character-based writing.)

One would have preferred such a rambling bunch of inchoate rhetorical questions with something of a revisionist ring to them to have been posed by the author one at a time, and then answered one at a time, if answering them proved to be worthwhile.

First, his expression, “Is this influence due to the characters qua characters, or to the Chinese language…?” Well, of course the Chinese had been speaking their language for a very long time before they found themselves trying to write it down. Here, considering that Lurie has emphasized the term logographic throughout his text, it is incomprehensible that he fails to draw a connection here between Chinese characters qua logographs with respect to the Chinese language. He does introduce that Latin term “qua”, however, which maybe we can consider to be an ostentatious display of erudition.

In this regard, as I have discussed above, there is a scientific basis in neurolinguistics, cognitive science and the like for examining whether the use of a logographic writing system involves cognitive effects that may have a bearing on subjectivity, which may produce cultural effects. For example, there could be measurable effects related to the process of learning a complex system of representation employing logographic symbols instead of a system of direct representation of speech by means of a phonetic alphabet.

To reiterate, the Chinese language is a tonal language, and because it is also the case that the Chinese writing system is logographic, there is a strong correspondence between spoken and written language that has evolved over a period of approximately 3,000 years. One aspect of the correspondence is the fact that many words have the same phoneme but are pronounced with a different tonal inflection. In countries like Korea and Vietnam that had originally developed their writing systems on the basis of Chinese characters, abandoning Chinese characters has been problematic because of the large number of homonyms that appear as a result when representing the words in phonetic as opposed to logographic writing.

Kundoku practices were developed because of the logographic nature of the Chinese characters that people in countries on China’s periphery were trying to adopt as a writing system. In this regard, instead of using the concept of kundoku to segue into a broader scientific discussion in linguistics related to logographic writing systems (“characters qua characters”), Lurie appears to wield it in an obscurantist manner, and he never brings it full circle in terms of defining its concrete relationship to the history of writing, though he proclaims that to basically be the primary object of the remainder of the book from p. 180 of the approximately 400 pages of text comprising the book in question.

For emphasis and ease of reference, I’m going to again post a portion of the above-quoted passage from p. 348:

… In this context can we conceive of a separation between the language and the characters? Are “notions of philosophy, cosmology, and statecraft” untranslatable? (If so, one assumes that they would not remain long influential in a society that abandoned the writing system, but if there is any value to the notion of an East Asian cultural zone, it would have to include Vietnam and the Koreas all of which have generally abandoned character-based writing.)

Here, however, the more important point to be considered is what Lurie omits. The question of the influence of Chinese characters on the formation of an East Asian cultural sphere is first and foremost a question of the content of the Chinese cultural corpus that was transmitted via texts written in Chinese characters.

On the other hand, he subsequently calls for the inclusion of Vietnam and Korea in the East Asian cultural zone, without examining the relationship between the writing systems currently in use in those countries and the traditional culture of East Asia. It should be pointed out that while there has been intensified interest in the study of Confucianism in the West, and Buddhism is the fastest growing religion in the USA, South Korea is the most Christian country in Asia, unless one includes the Philippines, perhaps, while Western colonization of parts of China and SE Asia have severely damaged the traditional cultures of those countries and resulted in the spread of communism. Confucianism is making something of a comeback in China.

It could be said that although Chinese character and the several writing systems in East Asia that have been developed on the basis of Chinese characters represent the only extant logographic systems currently in use on the planet, instead of bringing that into the fold of linguistics as a topic for study, he attempts to discount the entire Chinese writing system and all associated writings systems, proposing an "East Asian writing system" instead.

Note that Lurie indicates in the above-quoted passage that the Vietnamese and Koreans have abandoned Chinese characters, yet fails to make a statement of how that relates to the status of his so-called East Asian writing system. Lurie makes no statement regarding the adoption of the Roman alphabet by the Vietnamese, but I fail to see how that could be related to the East Asian writing system he proposes. It is possible that this contradiction opens up a space for entertaining the concept of the Chinese character cultural sphere, as discussed by Lee and others and in general, in further critiquing Lurie’s proposal of an East Asian writing system. But I won't consider that in this discussion.

I would say that East Asia is a geographically defined entity, first of all, comprising China, Korea and Japan, and that Confucianism is the primary source of the cultural tradition, accompanied by Buddhism and Taoism. With respect to linguistics, the use of Chinese characters at some point during the development of the country is a defining characteristic.

Since Confucian texts written in Chinese characters were introduced relatively early into Vietnam, too, that would certainly speak in favor of considering it for inclusion as well. I don’t know enough about the history of Buddhism in Vietnam and the relation between the Vietnamese and the Theravada Buddhist communities in the neighboring countries of SE Asia, but Vietnam is a country that straddles both NE and SE Asia. That may be of significance with respect to the Mahayana Buddhist tradition of NE Asia. Furthermore, considering the growth of Christianity in Korea and moves toward greater integration with the West and the USA in particular, there are internal strains on the East Asian cultural sphere defined in the classical sense.

But as I’ve indicated with respect to the growth of Buddhism in the USA and the serious consideration being afforded to Confucianism in Western academia, there is also a migration of influence of the East Asian cultural sphere to the West. For an example of the type of philosophical treatment of Confucianism that approaches ethics from an perspective of subjectivity in Confucianism, the following text is one I found interesting, for example:
Ethics in the Confucian Tradition: The Thought of Mengzi and Wang Yangming
Philip J. Ivanhoe

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