Composing Vernacular Chinese Literature: An Early-Modern Japanese Effort

Ye Yuan

Columbia University, New York, United States

During the Tokugawa period (1603–1868), despite the predominance of literary Sinitic (or classical Chinese), there was a growing interest in a linguistic and literary form of composition that came to be known as vernacular Chinese in modern times. Elite scholars of the Tokugawa period studied contemporary spoken Chinese and composed texts in this style. As a cultural phenomenon, vernacular Chinese became an object of study not only for those who had mastered spoken Chinese, but also for those had not.

The present study focuses on Yamamoto Hokuzan’s 山本北山 (1752–1812) Sakubun shikō 作文志彀 (Mastering the Prose Composition, 1779) as a means of exploring the manner in which vernacular Chinese was then conceptualized. Hokuzan, who did not study contemporary spoken Chinese, has left us with a short story, meant to serve as an example of composition in vernacular Chinese. By juxtaposing this short story with similar examples written by masters of spoken Chinese, this study proposes a multifaceted view of vernacular Chinese that drew deeply from the premodern tradition of Sinitic literacy while, at the same time, actively expanding the scope of Sinitic education and literary practices in early-modern Japan.


Ye Yuan’s research examines the textual transmission and knowledge transformation in premodern East Asia, with a special focus on “vernacular Chinese” language and literature in early modern Japan. She is currently working on the impact of translation on the Sinographic sphere.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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