The Transformation of Language and Society in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, c. 1870-1950.

Amid Western imperialism and the rise of nationalism in East Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a massive shift in language practices took place between about 1870 and 1950, as regional hegemony shifted from China to Japan. Bound for two millennia by their common use of Classical Chinese, elite literati in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam all moved away from that abstruse lingua franca and turned to the creation of new national vernaculars. Outside of China, the creation of new national vernaculars was a repudiation of China itself. Classical Chinese was no longer a universal language of truth, but rather the cultural heritage of an foreign power. In the past, scholars have generally taken a “diffusionist” view of the rise of national standard languages—the state pushes for the wider adoption of such languages, and other forces (principally economic modernization) facilitate its diffusion. But such a view is too mechanistic and Eurocentric, and an examination of other, less-familiar cases lends itself to a revised interpretation. I argue for a more “integrationist” perspective: language nationalization was a state-led and top-down process directed at remaking society.