Writing-mediated interaction face-to-face: Sinitic brushtalk (漢文筆談) as an age-old lingua-cultural practice in premodern East Asian cross-border communication

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Drawing on Chinese-Japanese transnational and transcultural interaction in the mid-nineteenth century, this article illustrates how Sinitic brushtalk functioned as an effective modality of communication between Chinese and Japanese literati who did not have a shared spoken language. The illustrations are adapted from personal diary-like travelogues of Japanese travelers to Shanghai on board the Senzaimaru in 1862 and participants in the Japanese mission to the United States in 1860. The recollection of the brushtalkers with their Chinese interlocutors whom they met on the way, including those during their return journey from the US while calling at trading ports like Batavia and Hong Kong, provides elaborate details on how writing-mediated improvisation using brush, ink, and paper allowed Japanese travelers with literacy in Sinitic to engage in “silent conversation” with their literate Chinese counterparts. A third historical context where Sinitic brushtalk was put to meaningful use was US–Japanese negotiations during Commodore Perry’s naval expedition to Edo Bay in 1854, where Luo Sen, bilingual in Chinese (spoken Cantonese) and English, was hired to perform the role of secretary. Throughout the negotiations, Luo was able to perform his duties admirably in part by impressing the Japanese side with his fine brushtalk improvisations. While misunderstanding and miscommunication could not be entirely avoided, the article concludes that until the early 1900s writing-mediated interaction through Sinitic brushtalk in face-to-face encounters functioned adequately and effectively as a scripta franca between literate Japanese and their Chinese “silent conversation” partners both within and beyond Sinographic East Asia. Such a unique modality of communication remained vibrant until the advent of nationalism and the vernacularization of East Asian national languages at the turn of the century.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)193
Number of pages233
JournalChina and Asia
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 24 Feb 2021


  • writing-mediated interaction face-to-face; pragmatics; Sinitic brushtalk (漢文筆談); drifting brushtalk (漂流筆談); premodern and early modern East Asia

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