The Japanese word originally meant "Classical Chinese writings, Chinese classic texts, Classical Chinese literature". This evolved into a Japanese method of reading annotated Classical Chinese in translation. It came to be that much Japanese literature intended for Japanese readers was written in literary Chinese using this annotated style. As this was the general writing style for official and intellectual works for many centuries, Sino-Japanese vocabulary makes up a large portion of the modern Japanese language lexicon, and much old Chinese literature is accessible to Japanese readers in some semblance of the original.


The Japanese writing system originated through adoption and adaptation of Written Chinese. Japan's oldest books (e.g., Kojiki and Nihon Shoki) and dictionaries (e.g., Tenrei Banshō Meigi and Wamyō Ruijushō) were written in kanji and kanbun. Other Japanese literary genres have parallels; the Kaifūsō is the oldest collection of Kanshi (漢詩 "Han/Chinese poetry") "Chinese poetry composed by Japanese poets". Burton Watson's (1975, 1976) English translations of kanbun compositions provide a good introduction to this literary field.

Roy Andrew Miller notes that although Japanese kanbun conventions have Sinoxenic parallels with other traditions for reading Classical Chinese like Korean hanmun 한문 (漢文) and Vietnamese chữ nho (字儒), only kanbun has survived into the present day. He explains how

in the Japanese kanbun reading tradition a Chinese text is simultaneously punctuated, analyzed, and translated into classical Japanese. It operates according to a limited canon of Japanese forms and syntactic structures which are treated as existing in a one-to-one alignment with the vocabulary and structures of classical Chinese. At its worst, this system for reading Chinese as if it were Japanese became a kind of lazy schoolboy's trot to a classical text; at its best, it has preserved the analysis and interpretation of large body of literary Chinese texts which would otherwise have been completely lost; hence, the kanbun tradition can often be of great value for an understanding of early Chinese literature. (1967:31)

William C. Hannas points out the linguistic hurdles involved in kanbun transformation.

Kambun, literally "Chinese writing," refers to a genre of techniques for making Chinese texts read like Japanese, or for writing in a way imitative of Chinese. For a Japanese, neither of these tasks could be accomplished easily because of the two languages' different structures. As I have mentioned, Chinese is an isolating language. Its grammatical relations are identified in subject-verb-object (SVO) order and through the use of particles similar to English prepositions. Inflection plays no role in the grammar. Morphemes are typically one syllable in length and combine to form words without modification to their phonetic structures (tone excepted). Conversely, the basic structure of a transitive Japanese sentence is SOV, with the usual syntactic features associated with languages of this typology, including postpositions, that is, grammar particles that appear after the words and phrases to which they apply. (1997:32)
He lists four major Japanese problems: word order, parsing which Chinese characters should be read together, deciding how to pronounce the characters, and finding suitable equivalents for Chinese function words.

According to John Timothy Wixted, scholars have disregarded kanbun.

In terms of its size, often its quality, and certainly its importance both at the time it was written and cumulatively in the cultural tradition, kanbun is arguably the biggest and most important area of Japanese literary study that has been ignored in recent times, and the one least properly represented as part of the canon. (1998:23)
A promising new development in kanbun studies is the Web-accessible database being developed by scholars at Nishōgakusha University in Tokyo (see Kamichi and Machi 2006).

Conventions and terminology

Compositions written in kanbun used two common types of Japanese kanji (漢字 "Chinese characters") readings: Sino-Japanese on'yomi (音読み "pronunciation readings") borrowed from Chinese pronunciations and native Japanese kun'yomi (訓読み "explanation readings") from Japanese equivalents. For example, can be read as adapted from Chinese dào (道 "way, path") or as michi from the indigenous Japanese word meaning "road, street".

Kanbun implemented two particular types of kana: okurigana (送り仮名 "accompanying script") "kana suffixes added to kanji stems to show their Japanese readings" and furigana (振り仮名 "brandishing script") "smaller kana syllables printed/written alongside kanji to indicate pronunciation".

Kanbun – as opposed to Wabun (和文 "Wa (Japan) writing") meaning "Japanese text, composition written with Japanese syntax and predominately kun'yomi readings" – is subdivided into several types.

  • jun-kanbun (純漢文 "pure/genuine Chinese writing") "Chinese text, composition written with Chinese syntax and on'yomi Chinese characters"
  • hakubun (白文 "white/blank writing") "unpunctuated kanbun text without reading aids"
  • Wakan konkōbun (和漢混交文, "mingled Japanese and Chinese writing") "Sino-Japanese composition written with Japanese syntax and mixed on'yomi and kun'yomi readings"
  • hentai-kanbun (変体漢文 "deviant/abnormal Chinese writing") "Chinese modified with Japanese syntax; a Japanized version of classical Chinese"

Jean-Noël Robert describes kanbun as a "perfectly frozen, 'dead,' language" that was continuously used from the late Heian Period until after World War II.

Classical Chinese, which, as we have seen, had long since ceased to be a spoken language on the mainland (if indeed it had ever had been), has been in use in the Japanese archipelago longer than the Japanese language itself. The oldest written remnants found in Japan are all in Chinese, though it is a matter of considerable debate whether traces of the Japanese vernacular are to be found in them. Taking both languages together until the end of the nineteenth century, and taking into account all the monastic documents, literature in the widest sense of the term, and texts in "near-Chinese" (hentai-kanbun), it is entirely possible that the sheer volume of texts written in Chinese in Japan slightly exceed what was written in Japanese. (2006:32)

Inasmuch as Classical Chinese was originally unpunctuated, the kanbun tradition developed various conventional reading punctuation, diacritical, and syntactic markers.

  • kunten (訓点 "explanation mark") "guiding marks for rendering Chinese into Japanese"
  • kundoku (訓読 "explanation reading") "the Japanese reading/pronunciation of a kanji character"
  • kanbun kundoku (漢文訓読 "Chinese writing Japanese reading") "a Japanese reading of a Chinese passage"
  • okototen (乎古止点 "inflectional dot marks) "diacritical dots on characters to indicate Japanese grammatical inflections"
  • kutōten (句読点 "phrase reading marks") "punctuation marks (e.g., 、comma and 。 period)"
  • kaeriten (返り点 "return marker") "marks placed alongside characters indicating their Japanese ordering is to be 'returned' (read in reverse)"

Kaeriten grammatically transform Classical Chinese into Japanese word order. Two are syntactic symbols, the | tatesen (縦線 "vertical bar") "linking mark" denotes phrases and the reten (レ点 "[katakana] re mark") denotes "return/reverse marks". The rest are kanji commonly used in numbering and ordering systems: 4 numerals ichi "one", ni "two", san "three", and yon "four"; 3 locatives ue "top" , naka "middle", and shita "bottom"; 4 Heavenly Stems kinoe "first", kinoto "second", hinoe "third", and hinoto "fourth"; and the 3 cosmological sansai (三才 "three worlds", see Wakan Sansai Zue) ten "heaven", chi "earth", and jin "person". For written English, these kaeriten would correspond with 1, 2, 3; I, II, III; A, B, C, etc.

As an analogy for how kanbun numerically marks Chinese sentences with Subject Verb Object (SVO) word order into Japanese Subject Object Verb (SOV), John DeFrancis (1989:132) gives this English (another SVO language) literal translation of the Latin (another SOV) Commentarii de Bello Gallico opening.


Two English textbooks for students of kanbun are by Crawcour (1965, reviewed by Ury 1990) and Komai and Rohlich (1988, reviewed by Markus 1990 and Wixted 1998).

Unicode kanbun

The Unihan subset of the Unicode Standard includes 16 kanbun annotation superscript marks. Alan Wood (linked below) says: "The Japanese word kanbun refers to classical Chinese writing as used in Japan. The characters in this range are used to indicate the order in which words should be read in these Chinese texts."

Two Unicode kaeriten are grammatical symbols (㆐㆑) for "linking marks" and "reverse marks". The others are organizational kanji for: numbers (㆒㆓㆔㆕) "1, 2, 3, 4"; locatives (㆖㆗㆘) "top, middle, bottom"; Heavenly Stems (㆙㆚㆛㆜) "1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th"; and levels (㆝㆞㆟) "heaven", earth, person".


The illustration to the right exemplifies kanbun. These eight characters are the well-known first line in the Han Feizi story (chap. 36, 難一 "Collection of Difficulties, No. 1") that first recorded the word máodùn (Japanese mujun, 矛盾 "contradiction, inconsistency", lit. "spear-shield"), illustrating the irresistible force paradox. In debating with a Confucianist about the legendary Chinese sage rulers Yao and Shun, Legalist Master Han Fei argues that you cannot praise them both because you would be making a "spear-shield" contradiction. The context, in a word-for-word English translation, reads:

A-man from-Ch'u was-selling spears, shields. Praising them, he-said: My shields are so-hard-that [of all] things none can defeat-them. Again, praising his spears, he-said: My spears are so-sharp-that [of all] things none can defeat-them. Someone said: What if with your spear [I were to] defeat your shield? That man was not able-to respond." (tr. Wu 1997:111)

Since Chinese and English both have Subject-Verb-Object grammatical order, literally translating this first sentence is straightforwardly understandable, excepting the final particle zhě 者 "one who; that which", which is a nominalizer that marks a pause after a noun phrase.

Chǔ rén yǒu dùn máo zhě
Chu man was selling shields and spears (nominalizer)

The original Chinese sentence is marked with five Japanese kaeriten as:

To interpret this, the character 有 "was" marked with shita 下 "bottom" is shifted to the location marked by ue 上 "top", and likewise the character 鬻 "sell" marked with ni 二 "two" is shifted to the location marked by ichi 一 "one". The re レ "reverse mark" indicates that the order of the adjacent characters must be reversed. Or, to represent this kanbun reading in numerical terms:
1 2 8 6 3 5 4 7

Following these kanbun instructions step by step transforms the sentence into Japanese Subject-Object-Verb grammatical order. The Sino-Japanese on'yomi readings and meanings are:

So jin jun mu yo juku sha
Chu man shields spears and sell (nominalizer) was

Next, Japanese function words and conjugations can be added with okurigana, and Japanese to と "and" can be substituted for Chinese 與 "and":

Lastly, kun'yomi readings for characters can be annotated with furigana. This practice, which is commonly provided in texts intended for Japanese children and students, would be unnecessary for educated native speakers. This sentence's only uncommon kanji is hisa(gu) 鬻ぐ "sell, deal in", a literary character which neither Kyōiku kanji nor Jōyō kanji includes.
The completed kundoku translation with kun'yomi reads as a well-formed Japanese sentence:
So hito ni tate to hoko o hisa gu mono a ri
Chu man (subject) shields and spears (direct object) sell- ing man wa- s
Coming full circle, this annotated Japanese kanbun example back-translates: "There was a man from Chu who was selling shields and spears."


  • Aldridge, Edith. 2000. "Principles of Hentai Kanbun Word Order: Evidence from the Kojiki," in Language Change in East Asia, ed. Thomas E. McAuley, pp. 207-232. Stanford University Press.
  • Crawcour, Sydney. 1965. An Introduction to Kanbun. Michigan Center for Japanese Studies.
  • DeFrancis, John. 1989. Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems. University of Hawaii Press.
  • Hannas, William C. 1997. Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. University of Hawaii Press.
  • Kamichi Kōichi 上地宏一 and Machi Senjurō 町泉寿郎. 2006. " The Kambun Database at Nishôgakusha University 二松学舎大学 日本漢文文献目録データベース". EAJRS Conference
  • Komai Akira and Thomas H. Rohlich. 1988. An Introduction to Japanese Kanbun. University of Nagoya Press.
  • Markus, Andrew. 1990. " Review Essay" [of Komai and Rohlich 1988]. Sino-Japanese Studies 3.1:60-63.
  • Miller, Roy Andrew. 1967. The Japanese Language. University of Chicago Press.
  • Robert, Jean-Noël. 2006. " Hieroglossia, a Proposal", Nanzan Institute for Religion & Culture Bulletin 30:25-48.
  • Ury, Marian. 1990. "Learning Kanbun" [Review of Crawcour 1965]. The Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese 24.1:137-138.
  • Watson, Burton. 1975. Japanese Literature in Chinese: Volume 1, Poetry and Prose in Chinese by Japanese Writers of the Early Period. Columbia University Press.
  • Watson, Burton. 1976. Japanese Literature in Chinese: Volume 2, Poetry and Prose in Chinese by Japanese Writers of the Later Period. Columbia University Press.
  • Wixted, John Timothy. 1998. " Kanbun, Histories of Japanese Literature, and Japanologists". Sino-Japanese Studies 10.2:23-31.
  • Wu, Kuang-ming. 1997. On Chinese Body Thinking: A Cultural Hermeneutic. E.J. Brill.

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