(563) Classical Chinese
One of the defining features of old Korea was its millennia-long integration into what can be described as the “East Asian Confucian civilization,” which spread from the mountains of Hokkaido to the paddy rice fields of the lower Mekong.
Apart from Korea, a number of states belonged to the same Confucian world. The largest Confucian state of this civilization was, of course, China, but Japan and Vietnam as well as a number of minor “statelets” were important parts of this culture as well.
What do these countries have in common? Above all, it was the tremendous role played in their high culture, administration and politics by the classical Chinese heritage and, especially, Classical Chinese language (known in Korea as hanmun).
Classical Chinese, the language of Confucian texts, is incomprehensible to modern Chinese and is largely based on the dialects spoken in the first millennium B.C. Until the late 19th century, it remained the major or even sole language of high culture, law and administration across the entire region.
Not everyone is aware that in Korea (and, for that matter, Vietnam) until the late 19th century virtually all state documentation was compiled not in vernacular Korean, but in Classical Chinese. The remainder of this situation is an exceptionally high share of Chinese loanwords in the vernacular languages of East Asia.
The culture and history of Ancient China was seen as the object of admiration and emulation ― the situation reminiscent of long-time European attitudes toward the traditions of ancient Rome and Greece. The structure of government and administration, the titles of government officials and military officers, the school curriculum and many other things were based on ancient Chinese patterns.
Interestingly, such emulation of the glories of ancient China does not necessarily translate into actual admiration for contemporary China. Confucian civilization existed for nearly 2,000 years, and during this long period the political relations between China and its neighbors were not necessarily peaceful or cordial. Japan tended to ignore China politically (while busily emulating its culture), and Vietnam, to a very large extent, defined itself in terms of its struggle against Chinese political and military domination (but not against Chinese cultural expansion).
This situation meant that traditional and early modern East Asia constituted a unified cultural space. Since more or less every Korean scholar or writer of note would write and publish in Classical Chinese, his or her works could be immediately appreciated not only in his native country but also in China, Japan and even distant Vietnam.
In the first millennia, when political and interpersonal exchanges were easier than in later times, it was not uncommon for a Korean (or, say, a Japanese) youngster to travel to China to study and then pass the Chinese civil service exams in order to become a Chinese official. Some of famous generals of the Chinese Tang Dynasty (7th-10th centuries) were migrants from Korea and the most prominent Chinese governor of what is now northern Vietnam was born in Japan.
Another part of the era was a remarkable lack of interest at an elite level in local languages and traditions. Koreans today are proud of their native writing system, but it is remarkable that the first attempt to create a functional writing system for spoken language took place as late as the 15th century (earlier systems known as Yidu and Hyangchal existed but were rarely used). We should not see this as a sign of exceptional neglect since the Vietnamese developed a writing system for their own language even later.
It is not incidental that the Korean phonetic script (now known as Hangeul) for centuries had a derogatory name of “female writing.” It was implied that writing in such a primitive script would be fitting for females and other lesser beings while educated men should learn the proper language of high culture, that was, Classical Chinese. Only in the 1600s did this arrogant attitude begin to soften a bit, but it did not disappear completely until about a hundred years ago.
This type of Sino-centric culture plunged into a deep crisis in the late 19th century. The countries of East Asia faced Western imperialist expansion. It soon became clear that traditional institutions were powerless in the face of invaders from the faraway West. The tradition was rejected; and education and culture began to switch to the languages of the masses ― Korean, Japanese, modern Chinese. The need for mass education also played a role in this switch, since compulsory schooling is really possible only in native tongue.
So Sino-centric civilization with its two-millennia-long history disappeared within the life span of one generation, between 1860 and 1920. Now, in many a Korean house one can find letters and diaries once written by great-grandfathers. Those are composed in the language which once was the lingua franca of the educated elite across East Asia. For the majority of Koreans, including the great-grandchildren of the author, the text is incomprehensible.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.