Commonalities in the Popular Literature of East Asia

Social Sciences in China (Chinese Edition)

No.5, 2015


Commonalities in the Popular Literature of East Asia



Wang Xiaodun


The traditional cultures of the East Asian region can be divided into three depending on their relationship to the Chinese writing system: institutional literature or literature in the classical language; folk or oral literature; and popular or vernacular literature. The last includes both the records of Chinese vernacular literature and non-Chinese vernacular literature recorded in the Chinese writing system or one of its derivatives. At one time, Chinese vernacular literature was rapidly transplanted beyond its borders, with the kind of literary works found in Dunhuang being popular in Japan, Vietnam and the Korean peninsula. However, the vehicle of this popular literature was written using a simplified Chinese-derived script; that is, it was a vernacular literature written in variations of the Chinese script, such as Japanese kana literature, Vietnamese nom literature, and the Korean peninsula’s hyangchal and eonmun literature. Not only do these types of literature have rich expressive forms, they also have profound commonalities. Their first productions were hymns for ceremonial use, and they were initially spread through royal households. Their writers were cultivated people who had a liking for oral literature, and those who disseminated them were bilingual both in the classical and the vernacular language and in the writing system of vernacular Chinese and its local derivatives. Their writings recorded both rural customs and recondite knowledge; they tended to be in opposition to the system, describing women’s lives and the fate of the lowly; their artistic tastes inclined to criticism and humor; they valued exchanges and improvements and wrote classics of their own; and they established specific cross-border channels of open communication, thus constructing an intellectual world of mutual understanding. These facts prove the existence of a vernacular literary community in antiquity in East Asia.