Language and Literature
Written Chinese was widely used among literati of Chinese as a lingua franca or ‘scripta franca’ in sinographic East Asia (Sinosphere), which broadly comprises China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea, and Vietnam today. That time-honored lingua-cultural practice is generally known as 筆談 (Mand.: bĭtán; Jap. hitsudan ひつだん; Kor. pildam필담, Viet. bút đàm), literally brushtalk or brush conversation. While brushtalk has been reported in these East Asian languages since the Tang dynasty (618–907), in this paper brushtalk data will be drawn from secondary sources involving inter-ethnic cross-border communication from late Ming dynasty (1368–1644) until the 1910s. Brushtalk tended to occur in four recurrent contexts, comprising both transactional and interactional communication: (i) coastguards checking the identities of alien seamen whose vessels were wrecked after being blown off course; (ii) foreign visitors asking locals for factual information; (iii) deep conversations between diplomats, courtiers or scholars; and (iv) exchange of poetic verses and artistic improvisations. Despite being written communication, the functional equivalent of speech acts like complimenting and (dis)agreeing appears to be enacted seamlessly by brush and ink on paper. As a written lingua franca, Sinitic brushtalk using 漢字 hànzì (Jap. kanji; Kor. hanja; Viet. chữ Hán, chữ nho, Hán tự, or Hán văn) in premodern East Asia seems to be sui generis and under-researched linguistically and sociolinguistically. We will assess its degree of uniqueness by briefly comparing the lingua franca functions of Latin in medieval Europe.