In my last column, on Aug. 5, I discussed how Japanese people still find it practical to use kanji (Sino-Japanese ideographs) when adopting new foreign terms and modern concepts.
Writing in the “Meikai, yōkai (明解要解, A need for clear understanding)” column in the Sankei Shimbun (Aug. 20), Masaji Oshida explored the topic of how many new kanji terms coined in Japan have also taken root in China.
Oshida took up the theme after reading a letter from Liu Meixiang, a Chinese-language instructor living in Tokyo.
“Japanese during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) translated knowledge from the West into kanji, which helped China to understand the world,” Liu writes. “I wonder what China would be like today if Japanese hadn’t done so.”
The term wasei kango (和製漢語, Japan-made Chinese words) is used to describe such borrowings. The prefix wa in wasei is taken from the second character in 大和 (Yamato, alternatively read as Daiwa), an ancient name for Japan , which is commonly used to form such words as wafū (和風, Japanese style), wabun (和文, Japanese writing) and washoku (和食, Japanese cuisine).
Examples of Japanese words adopted into Chinese
直接 chokusetsu (direct)
注射 chūsha (injection)
出口 deguchi (exit)
伝染病 densenbyō (contagious disease)
電子 denshi (electron)
動脈 dōmyaku (artery)
原子 denshi (atom)
百貨店 yakkaten (department store)
入口 iriguchi (entrance)
時間 jikan (time)
決算 kessan (closing of accounts)
企業 kigyō (business)
小型 kogata (compact)
工業 kōgyō (industry)
広告 kōkoku (advertisement)
国際 kokusai (international)
空間 kǖkan (space)
民族 minzoku (people)
農民 nōmin (farmer)
大型 ōgata (large scale)
歴史 rekishi (history)
劣勢 ressei (inferiority)
政党 seitō (political party)
社会 shakai (society)
市場 shijō (market)
自然科学 shizen kagaku (natural science)
所得税 shotokuzei (income tax)
出版 shuppan (publishing)
主体 shutai (main subject)
相対 sōtai (relative)
体育 taiiku (physical education)
体操 taisō (calesthenics)
投資 tōshi (investment)
優勢 yǖsei (superiority)
絶対 zettai (absolute)
To make his point, Oshida began the article with three common Chinese terms: 1) chūka jinmin kyōwakoku (中華人民共和国, People’s Republic of China), 2) ittō dokusai seiken (一党独裁政権, government by single-party dictatorship) and 3) kōkyū kanbu shidō shakaishugi shijō keizai (高級幹部指導社会主義市場経済, socialist market economy guided by high-ranked cadres).
Somewhat remarkably, with the exception of chūka (中華, central flower, i.e., China) all the compound words above are of Japanese origin.
The Sankei cites a work by Wang Binbin on the subject of foreign-word borrowings into Chinese. A majority of the loan words were taken from Sanskrit and Persian, but about one-tenth were from Japanese, of which perhaps 70 percent relate to sociology or the natural sciences.
According to Wang, many Chinese, humiliated by the encroachment of Western powers from the mid-19th century, felt Japan’s rapid modernization worthy of emulation as a way to resist “Western Imperialism.”
Wang writes, “Basically, the Japanese translated these words for us. Japan has always spanned the gap between China and the West.”
Most word transmissions are believed to have taken place over the four decades before the Sino-Japanese war began in 1937, during which time some 60,000 Chinese came to Japan for study.
How were the new concepts developed, and by whom? The article does not go into specifics, but the words Japanese coined for such concepts as tetsugaku (哲学, philosophy, literally “wise learning”) or shūkyō (宗教, religion, literally “honor teaching”), were easily understood by educated Chinese.
Upon further investigation, I found the word keizai (経済, economy) appears to have been adopted from a dictum by Cao Pi, founder of the Wei Dynasty in the 3rd century A.D., that goes keisei zaimin (経世済民, “maintain order in the world and the people will be relieved”). So the concept for “economy” is condensed from a wise, ancient ruler’s observation that social stability benefits people’s lives.
Borrowings from Japan continue. According to Ms. Liu, Japan still makes its influence felt in Chinese, although many new adoptions, such as furin (不倫, marital infidelity) and denwa sagi (電話詐欺, telephone fraud), tend to carry a negative connotation.
“Now more than ever, the Japanese language is having a major influence on Chinese,” Liu told the Sankei. “Kanji may have originated in China, but thanks to wasei kango, China has come to know about the world and learned things. I’d like more people in China to know about this aspect of Japan.”
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