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Influences of Chinese Language

In an earlier historical period, the Chinese character script was the only script used to write the languages of Japan, Korea and Vietnam, three countries that are China's closest neighbors. A number of Chinese characters are still used today to write certain Japanese words (the Japanese language has long since developed its own written characters, the hiragana and katakana scripts), and a lesser number of Chinese characters are still in use to write Korean.

Monk Jianzhen

Jianzhen, a monk in Tang Dynasty who had tried to travel to preach for 6 times, but only succeeded at the last time. He died in Japan

On the other hand, the language of Vietnam, which belongs to the Austro-Asiatic family of languages of Southeast Asia rather than to the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, has now gone over entirely to an all-Latin (i.e., Romanized) alphabet.

Finally, it goes almost without saying that many of the written Chinese ethnic minority languages are greatly indebted to the ancient Chinese character script.

The Chinese Influence on Written Japanese

Even though the Japanese people could easily develop a new set of written characters to replace the hold-over Chinese characters that they still use – called kanji in Japanese – they have weighed the pros and cons of this and have decided that it is simply not worth the effort. There would of course be a great deal of hassle with such a change, since everyone would have to learn the new character system, and given that older people tend to be averse to radical changes, it would probably have to be done over at least a generation, where a new generation of school children learn both character systems, and once there is no one around who is dependent on the older, kanji characters, then a clean break could be made.

But why bother? Also, there may be some value in not severing the link to the ancient, heavily Chinese-influenced past; severing that link might also be construed as a form of denial. As it is, kanji is an integral part of Japan's cultural history, alongside the many other events, for good and for bad, that characterize Japan's relationship to China, so there is a certain degree of integrity involved in preserving the ancient written Chinese characters, an integrity that speaks well of the character, in fact, of the Japanese people, much like the recent natural disasters (viz., the earthquake and the resulting tsunami) tested and demonstrated the fine side of the Japanese people.

The Chinese Influence on Written Vietnamese

An ideo- and pictographic written language for Vietnamese, Chữ nôm, was developed already in the 13th century, though written Vietnamese wasn't really widespread in Vietnam – even if Chữ nôm made a brief appearance in Vietnamese governments near the end of the 14th century/ the beginning of the 15th century (the Vietnamese continued to use traditional Chinese, or Hán tự ("Chinese writing"), as it was called) – until after independence from France in the middle of the 20th century, though by that time, Chữ nôm had been superseded by the new, Romanized script.

Chữ nôm was in widespread but limited use from the 17th century onward, though only as a literary language, while "Chinese writing", or Hán tự, continued to be the primary written language of Vietnam.

However, during the 17th century, thanks to a bit of help from Portuguese missionaries and traders (in particular, thanks to the Portuguese Jesuit missionary, Alexander de Rhodes), the Vietnamese people developed a Romanized script, Quốc Ngữ, which was eventually adopted throughout the country after independence from France.

During the colonial period, when Vietnam was under French influence, the French language replaced Chinese as the official language of government and of the state education system; in fact, many French words found their way into the Quốc Ngữ script and are still in currency today, just as English, German, the Scandinavian languages, etc., all have borrowed heavily from the French language. However, the greatest influence on the Vietnamese language in terms of borrowed concepts – irrespective of the final script system that would be used to express those borrowed concepts – is not the French but the Chinese language. It is widely recognized that about 60% of the modern Vietnamese lexicon can be identified as Hán-Việt (Sino-Vietnamese) in origin.

The Chinese Influence on Written Korean

Not unlike the Vietnamese, who, as we have seen, developed their own language script during what is called the late Middle Ages/ early Renaissance period in Europe, though the indigenous Vietnamese script (aka "national script") never quite caught on until much later, the Koreans developed their own language script, hangul (yet, note the Chinese character-syllable "han" even here!), in the 1440s, when a team of scholars was commissioned for this very purpose by King Sejong the Great (CE 1397-1450), yet hangul first caught on during the period the late 19th century/ early 20th century. Prior to this, the Chinese script, hanja (literally, "Chinese characters", or in other words, "Chinese writing"), was employed by the Koreans.

It is a bit hard to imagine how the Koreans –and for that matter, the Japanese and the Vietnamese – could make do with a script that was designed to express Chinese thought when the spoken language of China's neighbors contained thoughts, or ideas, that were unique to those other languages. This must surely have put a straightjacket of sorts on expression. After the creation of hangul, indigenous Korean words – including spoken words that had not earlier been rendered in hanja – were thereafter written in hangul, even alongside (intermixed with) the hanja script.

For all its independence from the Chinese script in later years, the vocabulary of the Korean language, not unlike the vocabulary of the Vietnamese language, is made up of a great deal of Chinese words (called hanja-mal or hanja-eo (i.e., Sino-Korean)) – in fact, over 50% of the Korean lexicon stems from the Chinese language. Also, because both the Vietnamese and the Korean peoples continued to write texts in "Chinese writing" up until the modern period, a Vietnamese or Korean scholar of history is forced by circumstances to learn "Chinese writing" in order to study their respective ancient texts.

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