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Buddhism and the Rise of the Written Vernacular in East Asia: The Making of National Languages

Victor H. Mair
The Journal of Asian Studies
Vol. 53, No. 3 (Aug., 1994), pp. 707-751
DOI: 10.2307/2059728
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2059728
Page Count: 45
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Buddhism and the Rise of the Written Vernacular in East Asia: The Making of National Languages
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Abstract

The premise of VICTOR H. MAIR's wide-ranging article is that written Chinese emerged not as transcribed speech, but rather as a special, radically shortened cipher with its own grammatical and expressive conventions. He calls this written form Literary Sinitic (LS) and finds the disparity between it and any form of spoken Chinese, which he refers to under the general heading of Vernacular Sinitic (VS), is of a wholly different nature than the contrast between written Latin and any modern written or spoken Romance language. Indeed, he argues, Literary Sinitic remained incapable of serving as a means of recording spoken Chinese or any other language. Thus, for Mair, the question becomes: How did vernacular written forms emerge in a milieu in which Literary Sinitic dominated intellectual life? He finds the earliest instances of written Vernacular Sinitic occur typically in Buddhist texts. He believes the Buddhist emphasis on the principle of teaching through the local dialect (desa-bhasa) was a major impetus for the development of written vernacular, but concludes it is difficult to determine exactly which aspects of Buddhism had the greatest influence on the slow maturation of written Vernacular Sinitic. Mair's article broadens the consideration of written Chinese that Daniel Gardner (50.3 [August 1991]:574-603); Chad Hansen (52.2 [May 1993]:373-99), (52.4 [November 1993]:954-57); and Marshall Unger (52.4 [November 1993]:949-54) have explored in recent issues.

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