[English Text & 今天试试用简体中文输入，往下看]
What’s A Chinese Cultural Circle?
Even until today Chinese characters are present in the Japanese and the Korean writing systems although they actually sound quite different. If you happen to speak some Chinese, you might be able to find quite some connections among them.
Before we go further, let’s forget about borders as they are right now and imagine a time where a border was not so controlled and there are only regions, people, and their languages.
In the middle ages, China was the most influential kingdom in the world. With its territories expanding and economic power raising, all the neighboring areas adopted Chinese writing. Keeping the formal writing somewhat the same enables official communications with Chinese. Even Vietnam was using Chinese characters before 1919. It’s not hard to imagine, what it represents behind using the same language. These regions must have been trading a lot with China, not restricted to goods but including people coming and going, information, and cultural exchange.
Similarly, around the same time in the West, there’s Latin. Writing in Latin was common due to the spread of Christianity. Using languages from the Latin language group was popular among the aristocracy as it showed a connection with the church. Despite that Latin is a dead language now and only exists in some old scripts, the related languages like French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese are still widely in use today.
Did you know?
One of the oldest universities in Europe, the University of Leuven in Belgium was only teaching in French until the protest in the 60s.
Below languages are all similar yet different to a certain extent:
- British, American, and Australian English
- French in Canada, Belgium, France, and parts of Africa
- Spanish in Spain and Central/South America
The Italian and Spanish language for instance, both share Latin roots. People from those two countries could indeed more or less understand each other. The English language on the other hand also took in lots of Latin to form their words. When these languages are written down you can find clues from the so-called cognates, words that share the same root. Sometimes even when you don’t know the language, you might still be able to get some grasp on the content with the prefix and suffix. That’s the power of cognates! And they work exactly the same way as the Chinese characters in the Chinese Cultural Circle. In other words, the counterpart of The Chinese writing system in the East would be The Latin Language in Europe.
Okay, as I promised in the title, let’s dig deeper about the Chinese Characters used in different countries.
In Japan, is called Kanji while in Korea, it’s called Hanja.
Japanese Kanji, introduced from China after 618 A.D. along with the Buddhism scriptures but Korean Hanja was introduced much earlier back in 108 B.C. for political purposes. That’s 700 years apart. But that’s actually quite logical if you think about the geography, it was easier to expand to the Korean peninsula than having to cross the sea to reach Japanese islands.
When Chinese was first introduced in other places, it was the mainstream Chinese language in mainland that got carried over at the time, not the Mandarin Chinese we speak today. Because there were and still are many dialects in China and depends on the prosperity of certain regions, and of course the emperor’s preference, a dialect could be rolled out as the standard language for the entire area. But Chinese did not entirely replace the local languages that existed in Japan and Korea. The purpose was mainly to enable the essential written communications. As a result, you could still find traces back to the original sounds of spoken Korean and Japanese.
The Present & Future Of The Chinese Writing
Fast forward to the 19th and 20th century, Korea decided to ditch the Chinese characters only decades ago and now only use phonetic symbols to write. But they keep giving babies names with Chinese characters as each character has a special meaning and it’s not something you can express with only sounds when having no context. Young people can’t write Chinese characters anymore. Similarly in Japan, they tend to use more Katakana and Hiragana to avoid the complicated Kanji. The same happening with Chinese like me, people can’t seem to remember how to write as much especially when we have been typing everything on the computer.
韩文漢字: Hanja (自汉朝，西元前108年由中国传入)
就好像学英文的时候，好像有听过拉丁语系、日尔曼语系等等。欧洲在中古世纪时，因为宗教的关系，一直是以拉丁语的文字做为贵族、政商名流的书信方式。我自己熟知的比利时虽然有多种官方语言 (荷、法、德)，但大学在60年代没抗争前，还一直只用法语上课，也是因为法语与拉丁文书籍资源丰富的关系。因为时间长了，住在不同地方的族群发展了自己使用那种语言的方式。就好像如果有可以书写的方言，后来因为城邦兴起，战争后自成了一个国家，那他们用的语言也就不再是方言而是他们的国语了。拿拉丁语系来说，有法语、西语、意大利语、葡萄牙语…因为文字的根源很近，今日说西班牙语的人可以轻易地猜懂意大利语的意思，但是听就比较难。就好像南方听不懂北方口音，我小时候根本听不懂我外公在说什么，但是都是中文呀，但是中文就存在很多种…譬如说为什么中文又叫Mandarin/满语，字典说是官话/普通话？ 是当时中国和西方开始多接触后，所认识的中文。虽然现在离满清政府已经很久了，大家还是常常这样使用这个字，就像欧洲还是普遍知道台湾又叫Formosa一样。