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Why are there so many different scripts in East Asia?

You don’t have to learn a new script when you learn Norwegian, Czech, or Portuguese, let alone French, so why does every East Asian language require you to learn a new script as well? In Europe the Roman script of Latin became standard, and it was never seriously challenged by runes or by the Greek, Cyrillic, or Glagolitic (an early Slavic script) alphabets. You still have to learn the Greek alphabet for Greek, or the Cyrillic alphabet for Russian, Bulgarian, and Serbian, but they are the only exceptions. On the other hand, in East Asia today, the logographic script based on the Chinese characters is used in China, while Korean uses the indigenous han’gŭl alphabet, Japanese uses a mixture of Chinese characters and two different syllabaries, Vietnamese uses the roman alphabet, and Mongolian uses the Cyrillic alphabet.

There were even more scripts in earlier times. The Vietnamese used their own indigenous characters known as nôm, the Mongolians used their own vertical script, which was also used by the Manchus in north-east China, the Tanguts in western China invented their own characters, and so did the Khitans in the north-east. So, the first puzzle is the profusion of scripts in East Asia: why are there so many? The second is why none of these scripts actually replaced Chinese characters, at least until modern times. These days, the han’gŭl alphabet is used exclusively, without any Chinese characters, in North Korea, and South Korea is rapidly moving in the same direction; and in Vietnam both Chinese characters and nôm characters have been replaced by an adapted form of the roman script. But before the 20th century every society in East Asia with an indigenous script also used Chinese characters. Sometimes, as in Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese, the writing system used both Chinese characters and the indigenous script in the same sentence; in other cases, such as Manchu and Tangut, they were kept apart but both were in use. What is the explanation for this state of affairs?

Khitans using eagles to hunt (berkutchi) by Hu Gui. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

We can start with the assumption that the Chinese characters were the first form of writing known in East Asia. In all societies on the periphery of China therefore, writing was first encountered in the form of Chinese characters and the literary Chinese that they were used to inscribe. Consequently, the earliest texts produced in Vietnam, Japan, and Korea were written using Chinese characters. Local place-names and personal names were written using Chinese characters phonographically, just for their sound alone, and this principle was then taken further, using Chinese characters to inscribe the local vernacular languages. So why was it necessary to invent vernacular scripts?

Although the circumstances in which the various East Asian scripts were invented or developed are different in each case, the scripts are united by one fact. This is that they all owe something to Chinese characters, or at least to their ‘ideal square’ shape. This is obvious in the case of the characters invented in the Tangut empire or in Vietnam, while in Japan the two kana syllabaries represent either abbreviations or cursive forms of Chinese characters. The best explanation for the profusion is that provided by Elena Berlanda, who has attributed script plurality to ‘dissociation’, the desire to be different. For the Tanguts, who were at odds with China, the invention of their own script was a political act, an assertion of independence from the dominant power in the region. Elsewhere, vernacular scripts empowered the spoken vernaculars by enabling them, too, to partake of the prestige of writing that hitherto only Chinese had enjoyed. So in fact the plurality of scripts in East Asia reflects what Kubilai Khan is reported to have said in the 13th century when urging the creation of a script for Mongolian: ‘Every state has its own writing.’

This is certainly true of East Asia now, but before the 20th century every state had its own writing for the vernacular, while at the same time Chinese writing retained its prestige, and for most intellectual writing—on medicine, philosophy, and Buddhism—literary Chinese continued to be used. It had the advantage of being a universal literary language, but when the vernaculars came to the fore in the 20th century, East Asia lost its common language. That was the price to be paid for empowering the vernaculars.

Featured image credit: Page from a 11th-13th century chrysographic manuscript edition of the “Golden Light Sutra” (Suvarnaprabhasottamaraja Sutra) written in Tangut by BabelStone. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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