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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In Western societies, speaking is construed as an interactive social activity while writing is widely perceived as a solo or private endeavor. Such a functional dichotomy did not apply to the “Sinographic Cosmopolis” in premodern East Asia, however. Based on selected documented examples of writing-mediated cross-border communication spanning over a thousand years from the Sui dynasty to the late Ming dynasty, this paper demonstrates that Hanzi 漢字, a morphographic, non-phonographic script, was commonly used by literati of classical Chinese or Literary Sinitic to engage in “silent conversation” as a substitute for speech. Except for a “drifting” record co-constructed by Korean maritime officials and Chinese “boat people,” all the other examples featured Chinese–Japanese interaction. While synchronous cross-border communication in written Chinese has been reported in scholarly works in East Asian studies (published more commonly in East Asian languages than in English or other Western languages), to our knowledge no attempt has been made to examine such writing-mediated interaction from a linguistic or discourse-pragmatic point of view. Writing-mediated interaction enacted through Sinitic brushtalk (漢文筆談) is compatible with transactional and interactional language functions as in speech. In premodern and early modern East Asia, it was most commonly conducted using brush, ink, and paper, but it could also take place using a pointed object and a flat surface covered with a fluid substance like sand, finger-drawing using water or tea on a table, and so forth. Such an interactional pattern appears to be unparalleled in other regional lingua francas written with a phonographic script such as Latin and Arabic. To facilitate research into the extent to which this interactional pattern is script-specific to morphographic sinograms, a “morphographic hypothesis” is proposed. The theoretical significance of writing-mediated interaction as a third or even fourth known modality of synchronous communication—after speech and (tactile) sign language—will be briefly discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)193-233
Number of pages41
JournalChina and Asia: Journal in Historical Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2021


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

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Cultural Studies


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