Chinese, Buddhist Influences on Vernacular Literature in

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Until the progressive May Fourth Movement of 1919, the preferred medium for writing in China for the previous three millennia had always been one or another form of Literary Sinitic, also called Classical Chinese. From at least the Han period (206 b.c.e.–220 c.e.), and perhaps from its very inception, Literary Sinitic was an artificial language separated from everyday speech by an enormous gulf. Consequently, command of the highly allusive literary language was possible only for a small proportion of the population, roughly 2 percent, who could afford to devote years of study to it.

With the advent of Buddhism in China during the last century of the Han dynasty, a demotic style of writing that was closer to speech—here referred to as Vernacular Sinitic—gradually began to emerge. The same characters were used to write both Literary and Vernacular Sinitic, but the morphemes, and especially the words, grammar, and syntax differed radically between these two kinds of Sinitic writing.

Buddhism and language

The question of exactly how a foreign religion like Buddhism could have had such an enormous impact on linguistic usage in China is extraordinarily complex. Some of the factors involved are: (1) a conscious desire on the part of Buddhist teachers and missionaries (starting with the Buddha himself) to speak directly to the common people in their own language; (2) the maintenance of relatively egalitarian social values among Buddhists in contrast to a strongly hierarchal Confucian order; (3) an emphasis on hymnody, storytelling, drama, lecture, and other types of oral presentation; and (4) the perpetuation of sophisticated Indian scholarship on linguistics, which highlighted the importance of grammar and phonology as reflected in actual speech, in contrast to Chinese language studies, which focused almost exclusively on the characters as the perfect vehicle for the essentially mute book language. Probably of overriding importance, however, was the nature of the process of translating texts written in Sanskrit and other Indian and Central Asian languages into Chinese. This usually involved teams of Chinese and foreign monks who knew each other's language only imperfectly. Their discussions on various renderings, conducted orally, resulted in bits of vernacular seeping into what was otherwise a basically Literary Sinitic medium. This vernacular coloration, coupled with the massive borrowing of Indic words (it is estimated that approximately thirty-five thousand new names and terms entered Chinese through the agency of Buddhism) and even grammatical usages and syntactic structures, led to the creation of a peculiar written style that may be referred to as Buddhist Hybrid Sinitic or Buddhist Hybrid Chinese.

As people from various walks of life, both inside and outside of the Buddhist establishment, became familiar with the notion that it was possible to write down elements of spoken language, the length of the written vernacular grew from occasional words to a stray sentence or two, and then to a few sentences or even a whole paragraph. Eventually, entire texts written in heavily vernacularized Literary Sinitic came to be composed. In this manner, Vernacular Sinitic was born in China.

Dunhuang manuscripts

The first sizable collection of texts consisting of more than a few words or lines that are conspicuously vernacular were recovered in the early twentieth century from the famous cave library of manuscripts at Dunhuang, located at the far western end of the northwestern province of Gansu. Sealed up during the early part of the eleventh century, the cave yielded more than forty thousand manuscripts that are currently preserved mainly in Paris, London, and Beijing, although there are smaller collections in St. Petersburg (Russia), Japan, Finland, and elsewhere. Most of the manuscripts are sūtras that were already well known, but there are also several hundred uniquely important documents and texts that provide detailed information about daily monastic and lay life. In particular, the Dunhuang manuscripts include about 150 texts dating to the eighth through tenth centuries (primarily from the later part of that period) that represent the earliest group of vernacular narratives in China.

For the first half century of research on the Dunhuang manuscripts, the entire corpus of vernacular narratives was referred to as bianwen (transformation texts), and this loose usage still continues to find acceptance in many quarters, largely out of sheer habit. Technically speaking, bianwen are characterized by, among other features, the prosimetric form (alternating between spoken and sung portions), vernacular language, the special verse-introductory formula "X chu, ruowei chen shuo?" ([This is the] place [where X happens], how does it go?), and a close relationship to pictures. Bianwen were originally restricted to religious themes, but they were later also used to describe secular subjects, such as heroes from the past and the present. Another significant aspect of bianwen is that they were copied by lay students and derive from a tradition of oral storytelling with pictures, whose most outstanding practitioners were women from secular society.

To be distinguished from bianwen are other Dunhuang vernacular genres called jiangjing wen (sūtra lecture texts, elaborate exegeses of specific scriptures), yazuo wen (seat-settling texts, prologues for the sūtra lecture texts), yinyuan (circumstances, stories illustrating karmic consequences), and yuanqi (causal origins, tales illustrating the effects of karma). These vernacular prosimetric genres, which were strictly religious in nature, were used for particular services and were characterized by specific pre-verse formulas. Unlike bianwen, with its lay background, jiangjing wen, yazuo wen, yinyuan, and yuanqi seem to have been produced and used by monks of varying status.

Like bianwen, these vernacular genres were preserved only at Dunhuang. Although intensive research has demonstrated that such types of literature must have been current elsewhere in China, no printed or manuscript evidence survives to document them. How did it happen that material proof for such popular genres survived only in a remote, peripheral region? The answer is simple. No one was interested in preserving anything written in the vernacular. In other words, vernacular manuscripts were not considered worth preserving and should, by all rights, have been left to disintegrate, which, outside of Dunhuang, is precisely what happened. In addition, Dunhuang's remoteness from the mainstream traditions of central China probably contributed to the chances for preservation of the written vernacular. Until recently, it was considered by proper Confucian literati to be almost immoral to write in the vernacular, and they certainly would not have taken pains to preserve vernacular texts for future generations. However, since the Dunhuang cave monasteries were so thoroughly Buddhist and located on the frontier, the keepers of the libraries there deemed even bianwen, jiangjing wen, yazuo wen, yinyuan, and yuanqi to be worthy of protection. The dry climate of the desert region also played a key role in the preservation of the Dunhuang manuscripts. Finally, by sheer chance, the Dunhuang manuscripts were placed in a side cave in the early years of the eleventh century, where they were sealed up, plastered over with wall-paintings, and forgotten for ten centuries. When they were rediscovered at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was as though a time capsule had been opened, preserving unchanged a marvelous slice of life, thought, and art from Tang (618–907) and Five Dynasties (907–960) China.

Manifestations in Chan, fiction, and drama

Not long after Tang lay Buddhists and the monks who preached to them decided there was nothing wrong in trying to write down their stories and sermons more or less as they had spoken them, adherents of the Chanschool of Buddhism began to use the vernacular when recording the yulu (dialogues) of their masters. Around the same time, a few eccentric lay Buddhists who went by such names as Han Shan (Cold Mountain) and Wang Fanzhi (Brahmacārin [Devotee] Wang) also liberally sprinkled their verse with vernacularisms.

Once Buddhists had shown the way and it became obvious that writing more or less the way one spoke was possible, then secular vernacular writing similarly became feasible. Imperceptibly, there arose what modern scholars have come to call the koine, a sort of proto-Mandarin that served as a lingua franca to bridge the gap of unintelligibility among the numerous Sinitic fangyan (topolects or so-called dialects). The consequences of this phenomena for the development of subsequent Chinese popular literature were profound. This was particularly true of fiction and drama, where many of the same linguistic and stylistic conventions that had been employed by Buddhists for their vernacular stories and lectures persisted in popular literature.

Thus, with the Buddhist sanctioning of the written vernacular, a sequence of revolutionary developments occurred that radically transformed Chinese literature for all time. Moreover, hand in hand with vernacularization came other Buddhist-inspired developments in Chinese literature. Aside from Buddhist topics, such as the Tang monk Xuanzang's (ca. 600–664) pilgrimage to India that was immortalized in the Ming-dynasty (1368–1655) novel Xiyou ji (Journey to the West), the very notion that fiction was something fabricated out of whole cloth, something created by the mind of the author, can be traced to Buddhist sources. Prior to the advent of Buddhism, there was no full-blown fiction (in the sense that it was something "made up") in China. Instead, there were only short anecdotes, tales based on historical events, and what were known in the Six Dynasties (222–589) period as zhiguai (accounts of abnormalities). Even the latter were thought to be based squarely on events that had really happened. Hence the role of the author was merely to record some extraordinary incident. During the Tang dynasty, there arose a genre called chuanqi (chronicles of the strange). Like zhiguai, chuanqi were written in Literary Sinitic and maintained the pretense that they were relating an incident or series of incidents that had actually transpired. However, chuanqi are much more inventive and elaborate than zhiguai. This sort of fertile fictionalizing was fostered by ontological pre-suppositions, such as māyā (illusion) and ŚŪnyatĀ (emptiness), brought to China with Buddhism.

Similar developments occurred in drama, where, along with increasing vernacularization, came Indian practices that were transmitted via Buddhism. Among these are the introduction of himself directly to the audience by a character upon entry to the stage, face painting, fixed puppetlike gestures and postures, and so forth. Such resemblances to Indian theater are particularly pronounced in southern Chinese drama.

Another type of Indian fiction and drama that can be found in China is dramatic narrative or narrational drama. In India, there was a seamless continuum of oral and performing arts that ranged from storytelling to puppet plays and the human theater. The vast majority of genres in this tradition subscribed to the notion that a succession of narrative moments or loci was being related by the bard or portrayed by actors. Furthermore, most Indian oral and performance genres that have dramatic narrative as their organizing principle consist of a combination of singing and speaking. All of these attributes, in fact, apply to the Chinese vernacular tradition of oral performance. Thus vernacularization is by no means an isolated instance of Buddhism's impact upon Chinese fiction and drama, although it may well be the single most distinctive characteristic.

While the Buddhist tradition of vernacular, prosimetric narrative became secularized in fiction and drama, the religious expression of this literary form also continued in such genres as baojuan (precious scrolls). Late Ming and Qing accounts reveal that "precious scrolls" were very popular as a form of entertainment and instruction.

Ultimate impact

Despite the enthusiastic favor the written vernacular found with the bulk of the populace, who through it were increasingly empowered with literacy, to the end of the empire in 1911, the mainstream Confucian literati never accepted anything other than Literary Sinitic as a legitimate medium for writing. To them the vernacular was crude and vulgar, beneath the dignity of a gentleman to contemplate. But merchants, storytellers, craftsmen, physicians, and individuals from many other walks of life paid no heed to this opinion and proceeded to forge a fully functional written vernacular on the foundations that had been laid by the Buddhists of medieval China. In the end, they created a national language called guoyu, a term that can ultimately be traced back to the Sanskrit expression desśabhāṣā (language of a country).

Although there are a few examples of vernacular elements in non-Buddhist texts from before the Tang period, they are extremely rare. A careful examination of the trajectory of the early written vernacular in China reveals that it is unmistakably and overwhelmingly related to Buddhist contexts. In other words, it is safe to say that Buddhism legitimized the writing of the vernacular language in China.

See also:Apocrypha; Buddhavacana (Word of the Buddha); Entertainment and Performance; Languages; Poetry and Buddhism


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Victor H. Mair