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).
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.
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.
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 レ reten (レ点 "[katakana] re mark") denotes "return/reverse marks". The rest are kanji commonly used in numbering and ordering systems: 4 numerals ichi 一 "one", ni 二 "two", san 三 "three", and yon 四 "four"; 3 locatives ue 上 "top" , naka 中 "middle", and shita 下 "bottom"; 4 Heavenly Stems kinoe 甲 "first", kinoto 乙 "second", hinoe 丙 "third", and hinoto 丁 "fourth"; and the 3 cosmological sansai (三才 "three worlds", see Wakan Sansai Zue) ten 天 "heaven", chi 地 "earth", and jin 人 "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).
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.
The original Chinese sentence is marked with five Japanese kaeriten as:
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:
Next, Japanese function words and conjugations can be added with okurigana, and Japanese to と "and" can be substituted for Chinese 與 "and":
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