Inspired by the NEH’s former Bridging Cultures initiative, this proposed conference brings scholars from Asia and the West into a direct conversation about the way that the classical Chinese written language has contributed to the shaping of cultural identities in the so-called Sinosphere (China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam). For hundreds of years, the culture groups in this broad geopolitical area of Asia shared a great many political and social values, religious beliefs, and artistic and literary traditions. These common cultural features were recorded and transmitted in the same basic written language—classical or literary Chinese (known as guwen/wenyan in China, Kanbun in Japan, Hanmun in Korea, and Hán văn in Vietnam). The umbrella term for this common language is “the literary Sinitic”—a term designed to recognize the fact that although guwen/wenyan originally developed in China, it had a vibrant life of its own in other areas of East Asia. This huge but understudied body of written documents offers us extraordinarily rich resources for examining issues of cultural continuity and change in this important region of the world. Unfortunately, after the political and social turmoil in East Asia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which caused all four cultures to abandon their use of the literary Sinitic, these important documents have been largely ignored, leaving a substantial gap in our understanding of the relationship between the histories and cultures of East Asia.

Past studies of these documents, on the few occasions when they have been undertaken, have generally adopted a China-centered approach, treating the three other countries of East Asia as lesser versions of China, downplaying their own unique histories and ignoring the diverse and manifold cultural consequences of their individual use of the literary Sinitic. Another problem has been that studies of East Asia in modern times have tended to view the historical interactions between China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam within the framework of certain dominant Western methodologies, particularly the simplistic “impact-response” model, rather than seeing these complex interactions on their own terms, as they developed across space and over time. Our preliminary research strongly suggests the need to break down the longstanding dichotomies that have been established in prior scholarship between center and margins, self and “other,” empire and tributary states, “civilization” and “barbarism,” and so forth. Instead, we will view each culture and each state on equal terms. When seen in this way, documents written in literary Sinitic can no longer be considered simply as the extended products of Chinese culture; rather, they become—as they have always been, in fact—the products of a complex, sophisticated and continuous process of cultural interaction, exchange, and transformation. The term Sinosphere, then, refers only to the shared use of Sinitic; it does not privilege China in any way.

In short, a close reading of this vast yet understudied body of literature will not only enhance our knowledge of the complicated process by which East Asian cultures negotiated their respective identities, but also contribute to a larger academic conversation about similar processes in other parts of the world.