This summer, for the first time, the Inter-University Center (IUC) in Yokohama, about which we have posted before, offered an intensive summer course on how to read kanbun. It was quite common in Japan in certain periods, in certain circles, and/or in certain types of texts, to write not in a form resembling classical or modern Japanese, but rather in a form resembling classical Chinese, and called kanbun 漢文. This summer course at the IUC was aimed at teaching us how to read such texts – texts written using Chinese word order and grammatical structures, often with a minimum of kana – and in particular how to read them in(to) Japanese. For those studying pre-modern or early modern Japanese history or literature, depending on the period and the topic, being able to read such texts can be crucial.
I was particularly glad to see such a course being offered, because, firstly, I know from experience the high quality of teaching at the IUC and great effectiveness of its programs, and secondly, because opportunities for kanbun training are truly few and far between in the United States (as, I imagine, is likely the case in Europe, the Commonwealth, and elsewhere as well). Only a handful of schools in the US, including Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, U Washington, UCLA, and perhaps a few others, offer courses in kanbun as part of their regular school-year course offerings; to my knowledge, even schools very strong in Japanese Studies such as the U. of Michigan and U. of Hawaii do not, or at least not with any regularity. As for summer courses, there are a number of summer workshops held by various universities, either regularly or on occasion, but I get the impression that many of these do not include any actual step-by-step classroom instruction, and instead are intended chiefly for people who can already read kanbun, and either desire practice and/or which to work together with one another to help decipher specific documents (if you’ve been to one of these workshops, and especially if I’m mistaken about this point, please let us know in the comments!).
An excerpt from a 17th century rangaku text.
That out of the way, let’s talk about the course itself. This year, it took place over the course of three weeks, from June 21 to July 11, meeting for four hours each day, and led by veteran members of IUC’s regular full-time faculty.
Class Size and Level
We had a nice, intimate group of just three students, but if there had been enough interest, the sensei would have accepted up to eight students. All of us were, I think, more or less on the same level, with some familiarity with classical grammar (古典文法 aka 文語) and maybe some minimal or introductory degree of exposure to kanbun. The course is absolutely intended as an introductory kanbun course, and so there is no expectation or requirement of any level of prior kanbun experience; all in all, I don’t think any of the three of us felt the bar was set too high, or that we were out of our depth. Note, by the way, though, that all instruction is in Japanese, and that speaking English (or any other foreign language) is off-limits at the Center, so a certain level of conversational ability in modern Japanese is required. But, if you’re ready to be studying kanbun, you’ve got all of that under your belt already.
Course Structure & Content
Much like a modern language course that might be divided between learning grammar points in the morning, and practicing application (speaking, writing, reading, listening) in the afternoon, the kanbun course was likewise divided between learning specific points in the mornings, and practicing reading actual texts in the afternoons.
Each morning, we would go over the concepts and homework from the previous day, get introduced to a new concept, and work on worksheets with examples selected specifically to illustrate each concept. These concepts, or points, included (1) elements of the construction of kanbun, such as word order and certain specific characters with special functions or meanings, and (2) kaeriten, marks sometimes (but not always!) added in to help guide the reader as to the proper order in which to read the characters [according to Japanese sentence structure]. If you’ve ever seen a kanbun text, you’ll probably recognize these, even if you didn’t know what they were at the time. Kaeriten, as seen above, include things like 一、二 marks and 上、下 marks that tell you to read a certain set of characters first and then jump back up to another character, as well as what’s called レ点 (re-ten), a mark which indicates that the two characters surrounding it should be flipped.
As for “elements of construction,” even though we are reading the characters in a different order from how they are written, that order is still relevant, and I think one of the most eye-opening and important things I learned this summer is that we can understand the function or role of a term within the sentence structure by looking at its position relative to the verb – subjects (of a given verb) always come before the verb, and objects (of the verb) always come after it. Previously I’d see a string of characters such as 「師授弟子書」 and have no idea whether it was the teacher granting (授ける) a book to the student, or the student granting a book to the teacher, or for that matter the book granting a teacher to the student. But now I understood that since 師 comes before the verb 授（ける）, and 弟子 after it, and 書 after that, it most likely means 「師は弟子に書を授ける」 (the teacher gives/gave a/the book to the student), and not some other way around. “Elements of construction” also includes connecting particles, adverbs, negations, and the like; this is where we learn why and how 不忍池 is read “Shinobazu ike,” how 於 and 與 function like the Japanese particles に and と。。と, and how a complex idea such as 「まさに。。。んとす」 （もっと。。。～しようとする） can be represented by a single character located somewhere within the clause.
This provided the basic building blocks for beginning to read kanbun. Without this, I’d still be reading characters just straight down, in order as written, or else trying any and every possible combination that might make sense, and continuing to find certain characters complete obstacles. What does 不及 mean when used in kanbun? What about 盍、将、江、or 而?
Afternoon: Reading Practice
The afternoons were then spent looking at actual documents, to get a feel for a variety of styles, from various periods. We looked at some Meiji period documents, including the Imperial Rescript on Education and writings by Fukuzawa Yukichi, as well as very brief selections from Confucius, Mencius, and Zhu Xi, a letter written by Hiraga Gennai, and one written by a prominent daimyô about the kurofune (i.e. the arrival of Commodore Perry). Some days we each read quietly on our own, in the manner of classwork, looking up kanji and otherwise working through the structures and meaning of each phrase before coming back together as a group to read in turns; other days we simply took turns reading, straight off the bat, when the documents were a bit easier. For a few days at the very end of the course, time was devoted to working together, as a group, on documents chosen by the students, i.e. documents of particular relevance to our respective research topics. The very last few days of the course, we then split up to each focus separately on our separate respective documents, somewhat in the manner of a study hall, getting help from the sensei whenever we asked.
We thus covered both hakubun (pure kanbun, composed of only Chinese characters, with no kana and no kaeriten), and various forms of kakikudashi bun (forms incorporating either kaeriten and/or kana for particles, verb conjugations, etc.), as well as sôrôbun, a form especially common in the Edo period, which incorporates a lot of kana, along with intimidating-looking ultra-polite phrases such as 奉申上候 (もうしあげたてまつりそうろう) or 可申渡候 (もうしわたしべきそうろう). Incidentally, all documents were either in katsuji (modern typeface) or, in the case of woodblock printed materials, were eminently legible. The course did not cover any kind of kuzushiji or reading calligraphy, nor was ability in that required.
Homework each day involved one or two sides of a worksheet of short kanbun phrases illustrating the points we’d discussed in the morning, as well as reading the remainder of the document or excerpt we looked at together in the afternoon. On a number of occasions, the three of us ended up going out to a café together directly after class, and working together on the homework; it generally took around an hour and a half to two hours, which still left plenty of time, if we had wanted to, to go out in town, meet up with other friends, or do other work/research. Over the weekends, in particular, we had plenty of time to engage in other activities, taking advantage of being here in Japan.
The sensei recommend bringing whatever dictionaries and classical grammar materials (e.g. textbook) one is familiar with, though Kanjigen 漢字源 and Kôjien 広辞苑 seem to be of particular usefulness, alongside a basic J-E dictionary, and classical dictionary 古語辞典. Having access to Google, JapanKnowledge, and/or other Internet resources, e.g. on a laptop or smartphone, also proved quite useful.
Beyond these, the course itself requires no textbook, and all the instructional materials are provided by the sensei as handouts. I plan to bind them together, in some simple fashion, and keep them as a guidebook, or textbook, to refer back to.
This having been the first year this program was offered at the IUC, it was something of an experimental test case, but I certainly hope it is offered again, and that it might come to be offered regularly; if you are interested, feel free to voice your interest by emailing the IUC’s Stanford office, and with luck we will hear next spring a new call for applicants. And, I would be happy to answer any questions you may have about my experience with the program this summer – feel free to comment below.
All images courtesy Wikimedia Commons.