Silent Conversation through brushtalk (筆談): The Use of Sinitic as a Scripta Franca in Early Modern East Asia

Chor Shing David Li, Reijiro Aoyama, Tak-Sum Wong

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review


Literary Sinitic (written Chinese, hereafter Sinitic) functioned as a ‘scripta franca’ in sinographic East Asia, which broadly comprises China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea, and Vietnam today. It was widely used by East Asian literati to facilitate cross-border communication interactively face-to-face. This lingua-cultural practice is generally known as bĭtán 筆談, literally ‘brushtalk’ or ‘brush conversation’. While brushtalk as a substitute for speech to conduct ‘silent conversation’ has been reported since the Sui dynasty (581–619), in this paper brushtalk data will be drawn from sources involving transcultural, cross-border communication from late Ming dynasty (1368–1644) until the 1900s. Brushtalk occurred in four recurrent contexts, comprising both interactional and transactional communication: official brushtalk (公務筆談), poetic brushtalk (詩文筆談), travelogue brushtalk (遊歷筆談), and drifting brushtalk (漂流筆談). For want of space, we will exemplify brushtalk using selected examples drawn from the first three contexts. The use of Sinitic as a ‘scripta franca’ seems to be sui generis and under-researched linguistically and sociolinguistically. More research is needed to unveil the script-specific characteristics of Sinitic in cross-border communication.

漢字以往在東亞文化圈起交際文字之作用,東亞文人恆以之作面對面的跨國界互動交流,中國、朝鮮、日本及越南皆如是。這旣是語言習慣,亦是文化習慣,一般稱之為「筆談」。以筆談替代口語作緘默 交談之記錄,已早見於隋代,而本文之筆談則取材自明清時期記載跨越文化和國界交流之語料。筆談現象可分爲問訊型及互動型兩種,並反覆出現於四類語境:公務筆談、詩文筆談、遊歷筆談及漂流筆談。篇幅所限之故,此文舉例說明首三種語境下所產生之筆談。運用漢字作書面交際語似自成一格,而涉及語言學及社會語言學方面的討論亦不多。漢字於跨國界溝通用途上的文字特質,更是有待探討。
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1
Number of pages23
JournalGlobal Chinese
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2020


  • Sinosphere
  • Sinographic East Asia
  • Classical Chinese
  • Sinitic
  • scripta franca
  • morphographic script


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