East Asian Writing Systems

Home >


This introduction to the CJV Writing Systems is an attempt to set down as succinctly yet comprehensively as possible my own summing up of the writing systems of the three languages on this site. The approach, background, and emphasis of each section are somewhat different.

My notes on Japanese are based on my own observations of almost 30 years' learning and using the language. They reflect my conviction, which grew through the years, that the Japanese writing system represents a makeshift arrangement developed from the Chinese system. The Chinese section is an attempt to break away from the old 'you can actually see the horse in this character' type of analysis to look at the way characters actually represent the language, and specifically the way in which they obscure the reality of the word as a linguistic unit. The section on Vietnamese takes a different tack. By looking at the now discarded chu nom writing system, it's possible to see not only how Vietnam fitted into the world of Chinese characters, but also the possibility of breaking away from it.

I was encouraged to put my ideas down by my discovery of the book Asia's Orthographic Dilemma by Wm. C. Hannas. Published by the University of Hawaii Press in 1997, this book is a highly polemical account of Chinese characters and their deleterious effects on the languages of East Asia. Hannas's book is the direct source of some material on this site, especially with regard to Vietnamese.

But I owe Hannas a debt greater than any specific points that might be attributed to his work. The first time I read Hannas was a breath-taking experience. Hannas goes out of his way to demolish virtually all the cherished myths held by East Asians about the usefulness and indispensableness of Chinese characters. While I don't always agree with either the specifics of Hannas's discussions or the tone of his argumentation, I found it a refreshing change to read someone who was willing to boldly slash though the half truths and polite fictions that govern a lot of traditional perceptions.

The ultimate thrust of Hannas' book is that Chinese characters should be abolished. That is not the argument of this site. However, teasing apart the tangled web that is woven among characters, syllables, morphemes, and words is one of my concerns, and in order to do so it is first necessary to set the characters aside and look at the languages without them. Only then is it possible to properly analyse the way the characters interact with the three languages and their role in interaction between them (in the case of Vietnamese, of course, in a mostly historical or etymological role).

For the chu nom of Vietnam, I have relied on the Tu Dien Chu Nom, a dictionary of chu nom by Vu Van Kinh, published by the Nha Xuat Ban Da Nang in 1996. I also relied partly on Ken Lunde's CJKV Information Processing, published by O'Reilly in 1999. However, while Lunde's is an excellent book, its coverage of chu nom is exceedingly brief and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. To fill in the details, I mainly relied on the above dictionary and Hannas's book.

For information on the Chinese writing system I have also relied on Chinese by Jerry Norman (Cambridge, 1988), The Chinese Language Today by Paul Kratochvil (Hutchinson, 1968), and Modern Chinese by Ping Chen (Cambridge, 1999).

Back to Top