What’s A Chinese Cultural Circle Or Sinosphere?
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 similarities among them. Before we go further, I would like to invite you to forget about borders as they are right now just for a moment 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 all the silk, tea, and porcelain that the rest of the world longed for. 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 The Chinese Empire. Can you 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, that contribute to the spread of religion 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 and royalty. 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.
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, it is called Kanji while in Korea, it’s called Hanja.
Japanese Kanji, introduced from China after 618 A.D. along with the Buddhism scriptures and still used in everyday Japanese.
Korean Hanja was introduced much earlier back in 108 B.C. for political purposes and finally got replaced in 1970.
That’s 700 years apart! But it’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.
In Vietnam, it was believed that Chinese characters got spread across during the 1st century and stayed in use until 1919.
When Chinese was first introduced in other places, it was the mainstream Chinese language in the mainland at the time that got carried over, for sure not the Mandarin Chinese we speak today but an old form of a certain Chinese dialect. Depending 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 cultural sphere. However, Chinese did not entirely replace the local languages that existed in Japan, Korea, nor Vietnam. The purpose was mainly to enable the essential written communications. As a result, the distinct uniqueness of each language still shines through at present.
The Present & Future Of The Chinese Writing
It wasn’t long ago that Korea decided to ditch the Chinese characters in their writing system. It was only decades ago in 1970 and now only use phonetic symbols which were developed in the 15th century to write. But they keep giving babies names with Chinese characters as each character represents a deep meaning which can’t be expressed with merely sounds. Many young people can’t really 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 all the time with our computerized systems.