Languages in early China
note: This post was originally published by Daan on the Sinoglot daughter site “Nothing Undone”. Today that site is being absorbed by the main blog and all the posts and comments have thus been brought over. We are therefore re-posting this today to introduce you to Daan and his work. Enjoy. -KP
When we think of the languages used in traditional China, we almost always naturally think of Classical Chinese first. After all, it is the language which we need to learn in order to read most of the well-known philosophical treatises and histories from the Warring States period and the Qín and Hàn dynasties. But that does not mean it was the only language in use in traditional China.
First of all, as Norman (1988: 83) points out, Classical Chinese is a written language, used in China from roughly 400 BCE to 200 CE. It is not a spoken language (or vernacular), but it was based on the vernacular of the era in which it emerged. After the fall of the Eastern Hàn dynasty in 220 CE, Classical Chinese was codified and remained in use among literati as as a written language until the early 20th century. It was not the only written language to be used, though, as the language used in later written works reflected the enormous changes in the spoken language as time went by, not least because of the influence of the rise of Buddhism on the Sinitic languages. I should write a bit on that another day, as it’s an interesting story in its own right. For now, let us restrict ourselves to the languages in China before the collapse of the Eastern Hàn dynasty (which I’ll call early China).
So, a written language, customarily called Classical Chinese, was used in the late Warring States period, in the Qín dynasty and in the Hàn dynasties. But there were other languages as well. Old Chinese, which I’ve previously discussed on this blog, was in use a few centuries prior to the emergence of Classical Chinese, and is the language of such texts as the Book of Songs (詩經, Mandarin: Shījīng). Pulleyblank (1995: 3) also points out that even within Classical Chinese, there is considerable linguistic diversity. He distinguishes four different dialects within the language, noting that this has not been exhaustively researched yet.
But does that mean that all languages spoken in early China were Sinitic? Well, not quite. The Hàn are a well-established ethnic group in modern days, by far the largest in the People’s Republic of China. Its members generally speak Sinitic languages. But back in early China, many other ethnic groups lived in what is now China, some of which survive to this day, whereas others assimilated into Hàn culture, and many more still simply perished.
Well-known oracle bone scholar Zhū Qíxiáng counts references to 41 different ethnic groups in the corpus of oracle-bone texts (1998: 371). It is probably safe to assume these did not all speak Sinitic languages, even though there may be no traces left of their languages, as they were never written, at least as far as we can ascertain. Zhōu and Yóu (1990: 266) investigate the different fāngyán (often rendered as “dialects”, which is not an ideal translation: see here) used during the time the Book of Songs was compiled. They estimate that back then, around a dozen different Sinitic fāngyán were spoken in the cradle of Chinese civilisation, the Yangtze Delta, with another ten non-Sinitic languages spoken by the ethnic groups in neighbouring areas.
Sadly, not a whole lot of information survives on these ethnic groups, let alone their languages. And the different Sinitic fāngyán are not easily distinguished in our written sources either, as those were written in either Old or Classical Chinese, as we have discussed. But at least, it is interesting to think about how these fāngyán and the non-Sinitic languages spoken in the area must have influenced each other, and to theorise about how speakers from different areas communicated with each other. If anyone knows more about this, or if you have any thoughts you’d like to share, please leave a comment!
Jerry Norman. Chinese. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Edwin G. Pulleyblank. Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
Zhōu and Yóu 1990
Zhōu Zhènhè 周振鶴 and Yóu Rǔjié 游汝杰. Fāngyán yǔ Zhōngguó wénhuà 方言與中國文化 [Fāngyán and Chinese culture]. Táiběi 台北： Nántiān Shūjú 南天書局 [SMC Publishing].
Zhū Qíxiáng 朱歧祥. “Yīnchū zhànzhēng shǐgǎo: Yīn Wǔdīng shíqī fāngguó yánjiū. 殷初戰爭史稿 — 殷武丁時期方國研究 [Draft history of wars in the early Shāng dynasty]”. In: Jiǎgǔwén yánjiū 甲骨文研究 [Research into the oracle-bone language]. Táiběi 台北: Lǐrén 里仁.