Chinese Vernacular Fiction in 18th-c. Japan


A review of Locating China in Time and Space: Engagement with Chinese Vernacular Fiction in Eighteenth-Century Japan, by William Christopher Hedberg.

William Hedberg’s dissertation considers a diverse array of eighteenth-century Japanese Sinologists’ responses to the emerging presence of Chinese vernacular literature. His research illuminates the genre’s effect on Japanese scholars’ perception of relations between China and Japan, the development of new modes of Sinological studies, and the formation of scholarly and literary communities concentrated on Chinese vernacular writings. In his introduction, Hedberg highlights an important Japanese cognitive transformation concerning “China.” Vernacular texts presented a different image of China that, to Japanese, appeared foreign, impenetrable, exotic, and “Other-ly.” The result was a three-pointed impression that included Japan, “China” of the past, and the newly apprehended contemporary China. The vernacular texts associated with contemporary China then evolved as a scholarly and literary domain distinct from traditional classical studies.

Chapter 1 overviews representative responses to vernacular texts by examining a wide range of texts, including scholarly essays and the prefaces and afterwards to dictionaries and literary works. Ogyū Sorai 荻生徂徠 (1666-1728), an authority in archaic studies, was keenly aware of the discrepancy between classical and contemporary Chinese language, yet promoted the study of spoken Chinese for its usefulness in reading classical texts. Cheng Shuze 程順則 (1663-1734), a scholar and diplomat of Ryukyu, a kingdom that had a direct political connection to Qing China, recognized the practical importance of vernacular texts for training students in spoken Chinese. Yanagisawa Kien 柳沢淇園 (1704-1758) highlighted the vernacular novel’s linguistic and pedagogical serviceability for students who hoped to be interpreters. Meanwhile, a scholar of the Tsushima domain, Amenomori Hōshū 雨森芳州 (1668-1755), who was well versed in Chinese and Korean, insightfully distinguished written texts from spoken language and downplayed the use of vernacular fiction for educational purposes.

The second half of Chapter 1 shifts its focus from scholarly views to those of professional interpreters, translators, and annotators of vernacular Chinese. As vernacular Chinese fiction such as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Water Margin gained popularity in Japan, some of the professionals with facility in spoken Chinese capitalized on the emerging need for interpreting vernacular fiction. One representative is Okajima Kanzan 岡島冠山 (1674-1728), a reputable Nagasaki interpreter who later left for Kyoto and Edo to pursue classical studies. Kanzan edited reference books of Chinese terms and phrases; notably, these contain both classical and vernacular entries, with each entry indicating the contemporary Chinese pronunciation. The mixture of classical and vernacular language suggests Kanzan’s intention to maintain a tie to traditional scholarship while making use of his special knowledge of spoken Chinese. Suyama Nantō 陶山南濤 (1700-1766), who studied spoken Chinese in Kyoto, produced a competitive response. Nantō compiled the Chūgi Suikodenkai 忠義水滸伝解 (An Explication of the ‘The Water Margin,’ 1757), in which he explained difficult terms in Shuihu zhuan 水滸伝. He emphasized the illegitimacy of reading vernacular texts with reference to classical Chinese, often demonstrating the different meanings of a character in the two registers. He approached vernacular fiction with academic rigor and linguistic authenticity, aiming to establish vernacular studies as independent from classical studies.

Following the overview of representative responses, Chapter 2 pursues the evolving impact of vernacular texts in the latter half of the eighteenth century. By the middle of the century, Chinese vernacular fiction was deeply embedded in the Japanese literary imagination, even inspiring the formation of new genres such as the yomihon and sharebon. The major vernacular works, especially the Water Margin, were popularized through translations, adaptations, and ukiyoe prints. As the visibility of Chinese fiction increased, Japanese interests expanded beyond the philological to include aesthetic and narratological dimensions. The authors examined in this chapter include the scholar-writers Hattori Nankaku 服部南郭 (1683-1759), Seita Tansō 清田儋叟 (1719-1785), and Tsuga Teishō 都賀庭鐘 (1718-1894). While Nankaku’s teacher Sorai recognized the usefulness of learning contemporary Chinese pronunciations, the poet-scholar Nankaku rejected vernacular studies on the ground of its vulgarities. He defended the literary arena of classical Chinese as an appropriate preserve for the elite. In contrast, Tansō and Teishō advanced their engagement with vernacular literature. The examination of Tansō’s writings on vernacular literature includes his unpublished commentary on the Water Margin edited by Jin Shengtan and other works exhibiting Tansō’s digestion and application of theoretical terms and critical stances on narratives. Tansō valued history and historiography, and he read fiction as historical allegory. Reflecting his embrace of this stance, he occasionally rejected Jin Shengtan’s interpretations and developed his own criticism.

The last text examined in this chapter is a vernacular translation of selected Japanese plays into Chinese musical drama pieces (zaju 雑劇). This work, titled Shimeizen 四鳴蝉 (Four Cries of the Cicada), is attributed to Tsuga Teishō and includes translations of two plays and partial translations of two plays by Chikamatsu Monzaemon. Hedberg’s analysis centers on translations of the plays, Yuya 熊野 and Yorimasa 頼政. In his preface to the work, Teishō contrasts the elegant, lofty theater with the folksy, lively Chinese drama. In transforming the austere plays into popularized zaju form, Teishō strategically utilized both elegant and vulgar languages, collapsing the aesthetic polarities. Tansō and Teishō participated in the community of vernacular Chinese by autonomously analyzing the aesthetic and structural features of Chinese fiction and drama.

The final two chapters analyze Chinese vernacular translations of representative Japanese works. Chapter 3 discusses Okajima Kanzan’s translation of a widely read Japanese historical tale, the Taiheiki. The translator’s seriousness in this endeavor is demonstrated by his concern for historical accuracy and consultation of different versions of the Taiheiki. A preface by Kanzan’s student extols vernacular fiction as a genre of cultural prestige and compares Kanzan to Luo Guanzhong, the putative author of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Water Margin. Concluding his analyses, Hedberg argues that Kanzan’s Taiheiki engi suggests a desire to conceptualize Chinese vernacular writing as “an elite practice that both sets Kanzan apart from his Japanese contemporaries and establishes credentials for participation in a wider sphere of literary discourse” (p. 262).

The final chapter explores signs of Chinese interest in Japanese cultural products. The “China House” (Tōjin yashiki 唐人屋敷) in Nagasaki, accommodating approximately 2,000 Chinese visitors, presented an alluring environment for cross-cultural exchanges. A record evidences a few examples of Chinese merchants who learned to sing jōruri ballads or who studied the Japanese kana syllabary as they copied waka poems. The central texts examined are Chinese translations of Japanese popular drama by Shū Bunjiemon 周文次右衛門 (d. 1825), a descendant of a Chinese émigré and an official Nagasaki interpreter. Shū’s unpublished translations include a short excerpt of the third act of Chikamatsu’s Battles of Coxinga and an entire translation of the famous play Chūshingra. Although Shū’s translations are faulted with many errors, it is apparent that he intended to transform the jōruri plays into authentic yanyi narratives of the sort familiar to Chinese readership. Names and historical information that would be unfamiliar to non-Japanese are explained, and wordplay relying on Japanese linguistic features is annotated where necessary. Shū’s close attention to the texts’ legibility for the Chinese reader and the fact that they were produced in the vicinity of the China House imply the author’s assumption of Chinese readership.

Shū’s Chūshingura translation later took another turn. A new Chinese translation, titled Chūshinko 忠臣庫 and conspicuously based on Shū’s work, was published in 1815. Although the alleged Chinese authorship is denied in current scholarship, the preface claims that Hongmengzi 鴻濛子, a Chinese author who was fascinated by the story, aspired to make the Chūshingura translation more readable for wider circulation. While Chūshinko utilizes more features typical of the Chinese novel, it obviously targets Japanese readership, as illustrated by the heavily glossed colloquial expressions and the assumed familiarity with Japanese terms and culture. Hedberg evaluates different Chūshingura translations as “a body of work that playfully reconceptualizes and reformulates cultural boundaries and flows of information between China and Japan” (p. 324).

Hedberg’s dissertation impresses the reader with its breadth of examined texts, both published and unpublished, Chinese and Japanese. By conducting comprehensive research on diverse discourses on Chinese vernacular texts, Hedberg carefully maps eighteenth-century Japanese Sinologists’ diversified responses and evolving approaches to Chinese vernacular literature. Rather than investigating a unidirectional influence of Chinese vernacular fiction onto Edo-period Japanese literature, Hedberg focuses his attention on an active Japanese engagement with vernacular texts. The study provides a vision of the larger transcultural literary community in which a few qualified Japanese eagerly participated. While kanshi, or poetry in classical Chinese, constitutes a solid part of Edo-period literary scholarship, the Japanese intellectual commitment to and literary endeavor in vernacular Chinese has been little explored. Hedberg’s research illuminates the significance of the reverberant impact of a newly imported body of vernacular literature. Equipped only with vernacular Chinese and its associated fictional formats, Japanese writers were able to envision a transnational circulation of popular, contemporary Japanese texts such as jōruri plays. This dissertation freshly expands our insight into Sino-Japanese literature during the Edo period.

Mari Nagase
Asian Studies Program
Augustana College, Illinois

Primary Sources

Chūshingura engi 忠臣蔵演義, translated by Shū Bunjiemon 周文次右衛門
Shimeizen 四鳴蝉, by Tsuga Teishō 都賀庭鐘
Suikoden hihyōkai 水滸伝批評解, by Seita Tansō 清田儋叟
Taiheiki engi 太平記演義, by Okajima Kanzan 岡島冠山

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2012. 358 pp. Primary Advisor: Wilt L. Idema.

Image: Illustration from Shuihuzhuan, by Kuniyoshi.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like