Birth of the Chinese script and its adoption in Japan

The birth of written language is an important hallmark of the dawn of human civilization.

The Chinese script was invented in China. These intriguing uniquely square-block shaped characters, have been used to denote objects morphologically, convey meanings or function as onomatopoeias for thousands of years.

It is one of the oldest forms of written languages in the world and the only ancient language still in use today. Inscriptions carved by knife on animal bones are the oldest-known Chinese characters. The inscription of Chinese characters on oracle bones (tortoise shells) has left a precious legacy to world civilization and propelled the course of history.  

Different materials were used at different times to record events: oracle bones; bronze; bamboo wood slips; silk-woven products called “jian bo”.  

The brush is a unique Chinese writing and drawing instrument that was already in use 3,000 years ago. The inkstone has a long history. Over 3,000 years, the form of inkstick has evolved and changed from a handmade pellet to mould casting and become highly artistic pieces.

The adoption of the Chinese script in Japan

Although Chinese characters inscribed on swords and bronze mirrors are the only surviving physical evidence that writing existed in the Kofun period, the find of two inkstone slates excavated in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture dating further back to the Yayoi period between A.D. 100 and 200, suggests that writing may have been first introduced in those early times.   Inscriptions on 5th century swords show that the first writing in Japan was in the Chinese language and that Chinese characters were used to spell out Japanese names.

The Nihon shoki chronicle also makes references to officials holding the title of scribes so that we know that their writing and recording skills were highly valued during the Yamato and Kofun periods. The developing centralized state of Yamato required accurate records of various types in order to increase its income and state control over its people. At first, writing in Japan was carried out by immigrant scribes who wrote Chinese, but during the 7th century, a small number of Japanese scholar-aristocrats also started reading and writing Chinese, for official and business purposes and also for the study of Confucian classics and Buddhist texts. The beginning of literacy is ascribed to the arrival of the scholar Wani from the Korean kingdom of Paekche during the late 4th or early 5th century. Wani is recorded as having arrived in the sixteenth year of Ojin, and was appointed tutor of the crown prince, supplementing another man from Paekche called Achiki who had accompanied a gift of a stallion and a mare in the preceding years. Achiki had recommended Wani as the superior scholar upon which the Japanese court had asked for Paekche to send him.

Wani, who is said to have arrived with 11 volumes of Chinese writings, including the Analects and the Thousand-Character Classic, stayed on in Japan and became the ancestor of a specialized occupational be or group of scribes, the fumi no obito. The establishment of  a special secretariat service for the Japanese court suggests that literacy remained at a marginal level during the 5th and 6th centuries and the skills were likely confined to immigrant groups and their descendants. Writing and learning of the Chinese classics had thus been introduced to Japan by early 5th century.

The real push for literacy is likely to come in the 6th century in connection with the introduction of Buddhism and Confucianism. The need to read, understand and study the Buddhist scriptures and to copy the sutra texts gradually turned the elite and nobles of Japanese society into a literate class.  In the 6th century, the Japanese court set up a system of visiting professors in various aspects of Chinese learning via the Korean state of Paekche.

Eventually, a literary culture evolved following increasing mastery of kambun Chinese prose and the urgent need to represent Japanese words. Japan’s earliest scholar-statesman Prince Shotoku (574-622) had composed the text of his Seventeen Injunctions of 604 in kambun Chinese prose and displayed familiarity with 15 different Chinese works.   In 7th century – interest in chronicling work and codifying laws intensified.  In 620, Shotoku together with Soga no Umako compiled the first Japanese history of which is recorded in the Nihon shoki – the history was lost partly in the fires of the coup d’etat of 645 and partly in the disturbances of the Jinshin war of 672. In 680s, Emperor Temmu ordered the work of the writing of histories to begin again … which culminated in the production of two surviving history chronicles, the Kojiki (712) and the Nihon shoki (720).

At about the same time (7th century), poetry that was traditionally in oral form began to be written down – this composition of Chinese poetry (kanshi) in Japan contributed to a more sophisticated phase in the development and evolution of the Japanese writing system. Poetry, some of which had their beginnings in the Asuka-Nara periods, have survived in two works of the 8th century: the Kaifusho (751) and the Manyoshu (759), the earliest extant anthology of Japanese verse. The numerous poems of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki are spelled out character by character, each graph with a phonetic value – so that ancient songs are preserved in the exact phonetic notation and with the original sound value. However, during this phase, the early works, especially evident in the Manyoshu work, the use of phonetic characters was highly variable and changeable showing the early evolution of the Japanese writing and language. 


Source references:

Adapted from “From Bones to Bytes: Chinese Script Decoded”  October 25, 2006 to January 8, 2007 Hong Kong Museum of History 

Download the museum’s educational pdf pamphlet

“Asuka and Nara Culture: Literacy, Literature, and Music”, Chapter 9 of The Cambridge History of Japan, Volume 1 (Ancient Japan), Cambridge University Press

4 responses to “Birth of the Chinese script and its adoption in Japan

  1. How did it get to Japan?

  2. Via the various waves of immigrants, traders, from the Korean Peninsula and Chinese mainland continent. Main groups responsible could have been any or all of these a. Koreans; b. Chinese fleeing the collapsing commanderies and wars; c. proselytizing Buddhist monks and Taoist mountain ascetics from northwest China and Tibet / Yunnan; d. Sinicized Indo-Saka (who were also related to and admixed with or ruled by the Xiongnu-Wusun-Ashina clans)

  3. Bobo the Clown

    “The Chinese script was invented in China.” That is a huge ‘gadurr’ right there.

  4. the Confucian philosophy of law that the Japanese adopted.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s