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Classical Chinese culture fundamental to East Asian civilizations

CAI MEIHUA | 2021-02-04
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Calligraphy of Chinese characters by Korean epigrapher, calligrapher and poet Kim Jeonghui (1786–1856) Photo: Yan Yong/CSST


The extensive and persistent dissemination of classical Chinese culture in East Asian countries led to the formation of the East Asia Cultural Sphere, the Cultural Sphere of Chinese Characters, or the Confucian Cultural Sphere. With Chinese characters as the linguistic tool, Confucianism as the core value, and Chinese literature as the perceptual form, classical Chinese culture was spread throughout East Asia in ancient times, gradually fostering a collective unconscious cultural prototype in society and advancing the construction of the East Asian cultural system. Even now, the presence of classical Chinese culture remains substantial in the realms of literature, history, philosophy, and arts in East Asia. 
 
Chinese characters
Chinese characters are the only remains of self-derived writing and ideograms among all extant languages in the world. They are the most distinctive feature of the Chinese culture, and also an important reason why the culture has sustained till now. Meanwhile, the writing system serves as a major vehicle which carries and promotes the Chinese culture. 
 
To a certain degree, traditional Chinese material, spiritual, and institutional cultures swept East Asia exactly due to the characters' unique communication functions. Historical archives show that Chinese characters, together with the Chinese culture, were introduced to East Asian countries a long time ago. 
 
The Korean Peninsula embraced Chinese characters wholesale in the 2nd century BCE. Gradually, the writing system became officially adopted. Although such scripts as Hyangchal were created in the 4th century, the Korean language was transcribed from Chinese characters. In the 15th century, the local alphabet Hangul was announced, but Chinese characters remained the medium for official writing until the end of the 19th century. 
 
In the ancient peninsula, state titles, government offices, basic systems, and literary works were all recorded in Chinese, which indicates the writing system’s extremely high degree of dissemination and use in the peninsula.  
 
Japan began using Chinese characters later than Korea, but artifacts unearthed in Japan, such as the King of Na gold seal which dates to the Chinese Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220) and coins of the late Han period, suggest that Chinese characters were brought to Japan in the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE). 
 
The Man'yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), the oldest extant collection of Japanese waka, were completely compiled in Chinese. Moreover, the Japanese language borrowed Chinese pronunciation and modeled the major components of the current Japanese writing system, katakana and hiragana, on Chinese characters. This reflects the widespread use of Chinese characters in the country. 
 
The status of Chinese characters was even higher in Vietnam. Before any script was produced for the Vietnamese language, Chinese characters were the only official writing system. All ancient historical documents were recorded and passed down in Chinese. Not until the 11th century was its native writing, Chữ nôm, invented. This script was also based on the structure of Chinese characters. In ancient Vietnam, Chinese characters were the medium for state policies, codes and laws, historical classics, literary works, and even genealogies. 
 
The dissemination and adoption of Chinese characters in East Asia made the writing system an irreplaceable cultural symbol connecting China and East Asia. The characters were much credited with the spread of classical Chinese culture in the region. 
 
Confucianism 
The core philosophies of classical Chinese culture, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, have had an undeniable influence in East Asia, particularly Confucianism. The values of Confucianism on individual and state levels, such as rites and music; similar structures of family, clan, and state; and benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom and trust, greatly facilitated the construction of the spiritual and institutional cultures of ancient Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. 
 
People in the Korean Peninsula began reading Confucian classics like The Analects in the early 1st century. By the 4th millennium, Baekje, a kingdom located in southwestern Korea, instituted the Five Classics Doctorate (Wujing Boshi) system, a typical Confucian practice which taught the Book of Songs, the Book of History, the Book of Rites, the Book of Changes, and the Spring and Autumn Annals. The 6th century saw the rise of Confucianism in Silla, a kingdom in the southern and central parts of the Korean Peninsula. 
 
Following the Silla unification of Korea, a national institute (the Gukhak) was set up to teach Confucian classics. During the Goryeo period (918–1392), the Chinese-style Imperial College (Guozi Jian) was installed on the central level along with territorial branches to offer Confucian education. In 958, the civil service examination system (Keju) was implemented to test candidates’ familiarity with Confucian classics, which quickly popularized Confucianism across the Korean Peninsula. 
 
Confucian education, especially Neo-Confucianism, was even more valued in the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910), when official and private schools were operated to universalize Confucian thoughts, thereby maintaining and consolidating the dynastic rule. 
 
In Japan, Confucian classics were imported via Baekje in the late 3rd century. In the 6th century, Baekje regularly sent Five Classics Doctors to Japan to preach Confucianism, which led to the wide proliferation of Confucianism. 
 
In the early 7th century, Prince Shotoku, a politician of the Asuka period (592–710), carried out political reforms by establishing the Twelve Level Cap and Rank System to distinguish superior officials by twelve colors of caps, and enacted the Seventeen Article Constitution, which was largely grounded upon Confucian classics. 
 
In the early 8th century, the Taiho Code (of the Taika Era Reforms) stipulated that The Analects and The Classic of Filial Piety were required courses in imperial colleges and state-run schools. During the rule of Edo bakufu, official education in Japan included Chinese Southern Song philosopher Zhu Xi’s theory, and Confucian classics were textbooks at multiple levels of schools in each vassal state. 
 
After the 17th century, Chinese Ming-Dynasty philosopher Wang Yangming represented the dominant thinking, whose ideas, such as the unity of knowledge and action, advanced Meji Restoration and fueled the development of capitalism in Japanese society.
 
Confucianism had reached present-day Vietnam after the Qin regime unified China in 221 BCE. During the Three Kingdoms period (220–280), a host of Chinese Confucian scholars went to ancient Vietnam to teach Confucian ideas. In the Sui and Tang dynasties (581–907), Sino-Vietnamese cultural exchange thrived, substantially promoting the dissemination and development of Confucianism in Vietnam. 
 
In 968, Vietnam was unified. Although Confucianism was suppressed in favor of Buddhism in the early years of the new nation, the spread of Confucianism was not discontinued. From the 11th to 14th century, the Ly and Tran courts gave equal respect to Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, but Confucianism remained the foundation for state governance. From 1400 onwards, Confucianism enjoyed increasing influence. The dominance continued till the last feudal dynasty in the country. 
 
After nearly a thousand years, Confucianism has become integral to Vietnamese society, influencing ways of thinking, behavioral models, and cognition, as well as local customs. Moreover, it became the ideological source for social development in modern Vietnam. 
 
Chinese literature 
Initially the transmission of classical Chinese culture, via Chinese characters and Confucianism, was limited to the elites of East Asia. The extension from the upper class to the general public was realized by Chinese literature, a powerful narrative tool. 
 
Chinese literature in East Asia refers to all literary phenomena presented through the medium of Chinese characters in East Asian history. Outside China, its geographical scope covered ancient Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, and the development roughly went through the following stages. 
 
From the 7th to 9th centuries, Chinese literature grew in popularity in East Asia. Literary creation during this stage was marked by studying Chinese culture, and absorbing and imitating literature of the Jin and Tang dynasties (266–907). Silla poet Choi Chi-won's Chinese poetry and the Kaifūsō (Fond Recollections of Poetry), the oldest known existing collection of Chinese poetry by Japanese authors, were both based on the Book of Songs and verses composed in the Tang Dynasty (618–907). 
 
Chinese literature developed quickly between the 10th and 14th centuries in East Asia, as a great number of literati emerged, literary works mushroomed, and genres diversified. Scholars mainly focused on literature of the Tang and Song dynasties (618–1279), while the literary critique system basically took shape. 
 
In the 15th-17th centuries, Chinese literature grew to maturity in East Asia, and the creation of lyric and narrative works reached new heights. The creation of Chinese prose prevailed, such as Yeonhaengrog (Record of Travels to Ch'ing China) and Jocheonrok (Record of Envoy Travels to Ming China), which documented people-to-people exchanges between East Asian countries at that time. 
 
The 18th-19th centuries represented a peak of Chinese literature in East Asia, manifesting in expanding groups of authors, numerous academic schools, rich works, diverse forms, and flourishing critical theory. The boom of Chinese literature in each country was inseparable from their politics, examination systems, and cultural exchanges. During the period, literary creation still pursued the Confucianism-led world of values.
 
From the late 19th century to the early 20th century, Chinese literature was gradually replaced by new literature. Despite its decline, the historical and cultural traditions Chinese literature contained were carried forward, laying the foundation for the development of modern literature in East Asia. 
 
Generally, Chinese literature played an immeasurable role in the wide spread of classical Chinese culture, especially Chinese characters and language, in ancient East Asian society. 
 
Classical Chinese culture is essentially an integration of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Although their paths are different, all the three philosophies ultimately pursue the full realization of individual life values. Through Chinese characters, Confucianism, and Chinese literature, classical Chinese culture was disseminated widely and lastingly in ancient East Asia, contributing to an East Asian cultural value system with Confucian moral cultivation, rites, order, and the ethics of loyalty and filial piety at the core. 
 
Cai Meihua is a professor and director of the Research Center for Northeast Asian Studies at Hunan Normal University. 
 
Edited by CHEN MIRONG