Brush Conversation in the Sinographic Cosmopolis: Interactional Cross-border Communication in Literary Sinitic in Early Modern East Asia

Chor Shing David Li (Editor), Reijiro Aoyama (Editor), Tak Sum Wong (Editor)

Research output: Authored / edited bookEdited book (as editor)Academic researchpeer-review


Research in Sinitic brushtalk (漢文筆談) is by no means terra incognita, but the bulk of research to date has been carried out and published mainly in East Asian languages: Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese – in that order of relative numerical significance (see Li, Aoyama and Wong 2020 for an indicative list of references in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese). By contrast, there has been little research in English focusing on brushtalk as a modality of cross-border communication, interactively face-to-face (but see Clements 2019; Li 2020). Where Sinitic brushtalk is mentioned, it is typically ancillary to some other major theme, such as:

•the historical spread of script-specific written Chinese (Literary Sinitic or wényánwén 文言文) to what is now North and South Korea, Japan and Vietnam (e.g., Clements 2015; Denecke 2014; Handel 2019; Kornicki 2018; Whitman 2011; cf. literacy development in Old Japan, Lurie 2011);

•lingua-cultural encounters and literary exchange between (early) modern China and Japan (e.g., Fogel 1995, 2002, 2008, 2014; Howland 1996; Keaveney 2009);

•early modern East Asian diplomacy (e.g., Japanese-Korean, Clements 2019; Japanese-US, Tao 2005), or

•anti-colonial struggle in Vietnam in late 19th and early 20th centuries (e.g., DeFrancis 1977: 161-162; Marr 1971: 112-113).

Kornicki (2018: 101) points out that “the history of brush conversation in East Asia is yet to be written”. With neither book-length treatise nor a single special issue of an international journal devoted to this topic, the research gap is all the more glaring. Such an imbalance is being addressed. Our paper in Global Chinese (Li, Aoyama and Wong, 2020), 'Silent Conversation through Brushtalk (筆談): The Use of Sinitic as a Scripta Franca in Early Modern East Asia' is to our knowledge the most recent journal article written in English devoted to this script-specific interactional phenomenon after Clements (2019).

This proposed edited monograph is conceived to introduce Sinitic brushtalk to general readers. Our goal is to demonstrate that brushtalk was once a vibrant yet forgotten modality of interactional cross-border communication between literati of Literary Sinitic in sinographic East Asia until the 1900s.

References Cited:

Clements, Rebekah. (2015). A cultural history of translation in Early Modern Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Clements, Rebekah. (2019). Brush talk as the ‘lingua franca’ of East Asian diplomacy in Japanese-Korean encounters (17th-19th centuries). Historical Journal. (accessed 28 July 2019).
DeFrancis, John. (1977). Colonialism and language policy in Viet Nam. The Hague: Mouton.
Denecke, Wiebke. (2014). Worlds without translation: Premodern East Asia and the power of character scripts. In Sandra Bermann & Catherine Porter (eds.), A companion to translation studies (pp. 204−216). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
Fogel, Joshua A. (1995). The voyage of the Senzaimaru to Shanghai: Early Sino-Japanese contacts in the modern era. In J.A. Fogel (ed.), The cultural dimension of Sino-Japanese relations: Essays on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (pp. 79-94). New York: M. E. Sharpe.
Fogel, Joshua A. (2002). Japanese travelers to Shanghai in the 1860s. In Joshua A. Fogel and James C. Baxter (eds.), Historiography and Japanese consciousness of values and norms (pp. 79-99). Kyoto: International Research Center for Japanese Studies.
Fogel, Joshua A. (2008). A decisive turning point in Sino-Japanese relations: The Senzaimaru voyage to Shanghai of 1862. Late Imperial China 29.1 Supplement: 104-124.
Fogel, Joshua A. (2014). Maiden voyage: The Senzaimaru and the creation of modern Sino-Japanese relations. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
Handel, Zev J. (2019). Sinography: The borrowing and adaptation of the Chinese script. Leiden: Brill.
Howland, Douglas R. (1996). Borders of Chinese civilization: Geography and history at empire's end. Durham & London: Duke University Press.
Keaveney, Christopher T. (2009). Beyond brushtalk: Sino-Japanese literary exchange in the interwar period. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Kornicki, Peter Francis. (2018). Languages, scripts, and Chinese texts in East Asia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Li, David C.S. (ed.) (forthcoming). Sinitic Brushtalk (漢文筆談): Special issue on the use of Literary Sinitic as a scripta franca in early modern East Asia. China and Asia. June 2020.
Li, David C.S., Aoyama, Reijiro, Wong, Tak-sum. (in press). Sinitic Brushtalk (漢文筆談): Literary Chinese as a scripta franca in early modern East Asia. Global Chinese.
Lurie, David B. (2011). Realms of literacy. Early Japan and the history of writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Marr, David George. (1971). Vietnamese anticolonialism 1885–1925. Berkley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press
Tao, De-min 陶德民. (2005). Negotiating language in the opening of Japan: Luo Sen’s journal of Perry’s 1854 expedition. Japan Review 17: 91−119.
Whitman, John. (2011). The ubiquity of the gloss. Scripta: International Journal of Writing Systems 3. (accessed 28 July 2019).
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationLondon & New York
Number of pages329
ISBN (Print)9780367499402
Publication statusPublished - 29 Apr 2022
Event東亞漢字文化圈中的語言文化交流國際研討會 Two-day International Symposium at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University: Cultural and Linguistic Interactions Across Sinographic East Asia - The Hong Kong Polytechnic University , Hong Kong, Hong Kong
Duration: 6 Jun 20197 Jun 2019

Publication series

NameRoutledge Studies in the Early History of Asia


  • Sinosphere
  • Sinographic cosmopolis
  • Early Modern East Asia
  • Sinitic brushtalk
  • Brush conversation
  • Scripta franca/written lingua franca
  • Classical Chinese
  • Literary Sinitic
  • Modality of communication
  • alphabetic script
  • morphographic script
  • logographic script

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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