Reading kuzushiji, kanbun, and other premodern Japanese

Over two years ago Matt wrote an introduction to reading Edo literature. The books that he chose seem to be pretty haphazard and some can no longer be located. Since I’m trying to accomplish the same thing, here is a list of online resources that have helped me. I have no special talent for foreign languages, but if there’s premodern stuff you really want to read, it’s my experience that even if you are not a language genius, a few tools can help you get far.

Kanbun 漢文

Kanbun is classical Chinese, but it also refers to Sino-Japanese with diacritical marks. Think medieval Latin, but a bit more garbled. In Japan, kanbun is generally learned in the 2nd year of middle school (8th grade).

One option is to simply learn classical Chinese directly. My school is using a textbook by the late Prof. Archie Barnes which can teach you classical Chinese from scratch. If you already know Japanese this is a waste of time. Also, this textbook has some errors and omissions in it; there is no particularly good classical Chinese textbook for English speakers out there. Finally, this textbook is not a good preparation for reading medieval Japanese kanbun from scratch.

If you want to learn kanbun like a proper Japanese schoolboy, you will find it a lot easier than one might expect from looking at frightening walls of Chinese text. Japanese Wikibooks has a guide that can be mastered in a number of minutes. For more complex kanbun there is a high school guide that takes a couple of hours.

To look up Chinese characters you need a good kanji dictionary. If you are learning English->Chinese, Mathews’ dictionary is pretty standard. But it is not very fun, especially because you are more likely to induce errors into your translation from the outdated nature of the book than to make new discoveries. If you want real fun, get Kanjikai, which is up to date and will challenge your Japanese knowledge.

When reading original texts you will find that some variant characters that are not locatable in Kanjikai or any standard dictionaries at all. This is just a pain in the butt because there is no easy way to look these up. If you don’t have a knowledgeable specialist on hand, your best bet is to plug a guess into Hanzi Normative Glyphs and see if your character comes up.

Kuzushiji 崩し字

A while ago a blog post about how to read kuzushiji floated through Reddit. I scanned through it, opened up the PDF file (mirror), and thought to myself, “is this guy a masochist?” That was the end of my thoughts about kuzushiji until this year, when I attempted to read an Edo period document myself, opened up the PDF file again, and thought, “am I a masochist?”

Understanding how kuzushiji works makes it no less insane. Digging in deep, I found a set of Waseda University OpenCourseWare lectures from 2004. Listen to these and you might begin to see an approach to deciphering the doctor’s prescription scribbles that are pre-Meiji literature. However, the course will by no means give you the ability to actually read the things.

The only online resource I know of for this is U Tokyo’s mysteriously named SHIPS, and it will not be very helpful because you have to know roughly what kanji you are looking for.

Vocabulary and Grammar

If you run into some medieval Japanese that doesn’t appear in a modern dictionary, you should really just get a high school prep book (they have anime versions!), but Googling it rarely fails me. You may run into a website called Gejirin proffering an attempt at definition. This is a website devoted to the parahistorical document Hotsuma Tsutaye and is basically amateur-run. Don’t rely on it like you would a full medieval dictionary, but it can help point you in the right direction.

Grammar is something I’m just starting to wrap my head around. There is stuff out there online, but this too probably requires a formal textbook.

Posted: September 27th, 2013 | Japan













Posted: September 13th, 2013 | Kultur

Why were the common people called “black heads”?

In 221 BC the First Emperor renamed the Chinese common people to 黔首 “black-headed ones”. Why was this?

Chinese, Japanese, English, and French language sources were surveyed.

  • Baidu Baike: The First Emperor declared an “age of water”. Water is associated with the color black, so the common people were wearing black headscarves.
  • René Guénon: Black is associated with “anonymity”, but also with the Center and stillness, i.e. the “Middle Country”, and therefore with the purity of the “non-manifested”. (Note: Guénon was laboring under the false impression that it was the entire people, not the common folk, who were called “black heads”. Black is associated with north in China.) [source: Symbols of Sa. Sc.]
  • Wu Kun (吳崐, 1552-1620): The hair of the common people was black.[source: 黄帝内经素问吴注]
  • E.S.B.: Perhaps the hair of the nobility was not black.
  • Daijisen: Because they didn’t have any hats.

Posted: September 10th, 2013 | History 8 Comments »