Edoardo Gerlini

WHEREAL: Sinitic writing as Japan’s cultural heritage


Edoardo Gerlini, professor of Classical Japanese at the Department of Asian and North African Studies, tells us about his Marie Skodowska-Curie Global project, WHEREAL: World Heritage and East Asian Literature – Sinitic writings in Japan as Literary Heritage

This project focuses on the relationship between literature and “heritagisation”, i.e. the process that leads to the development of cultural heritage, both national and international. The project was supervised by Professor Bonaventura Ruperti of Ca’ Foscari and by Professor Kimiko Kono of Waseda University. It focussed on kanbun texts from the 8th and 9th centuries by adopting an unusual research approach, that of heritage studies. Therefore, it suggests that “textual heritage” should be a new category and that in general the implications of cultural heritage are wider than most people imagine, not only across time, but also in today’s world. In this interview, Professor Gerlini tells us about his project. 

What is kanbun and why did you focus on its relationship with cultural heritage?

Kanbun is the word for Classical Japanese, which has lately been referred to as “Sinitic” or “Sinitic writing” in order to weaken the link with contemporary China and highlight that this language was not used only in China, but was a written lingua franca for East Asia – rather like Latin in Medieval Europe.

In Japan and in other countries in East Asia, other forms of writing developed from Sinitic writing, both in terms of characters and in terms of style and text structure, precisely because Sinitic writing was the only continental model that was available at the time. 

The starting point of my research is not completely new: in fact, during the last 20 years there has been an interest in the Japanese kanbun literary tradition and this is what has allowed Japan to be placed in a wider cultural context. On the other hand, the novelty of my research is that I am focussing on kanbun from a heritage studies perspective. It is an interdisciplinary area of research. In fact, while in most fields of enquiry in Humanities and Social Sciences there are attempts to explore the meaning of heritage inside the field itself, literary studies and philology have not focused on these questions yet, with very few exceptions. 

I decided to apply the theory of heritage studies to the Japanese philology of Sinitic texts: is it Chinese or Japanese literature? Until recently, kanbun was used by intellectuals, many people with an average educational background were able to read it, and the most important official documents (such as the first Japanese constitution during the Meiji period, 1889) were basically written in Sinitic.

We must not forget that Japan is the only country in the world in which Chinese characters (or kanji, in Japanese) are commonly used – the same is no longer true in Vietnam and Korea, where nevertheless they used to be used. This fact helps us understand classical writing in terms of heritagisation – the process whereby, today, we decide why a certain element from the past belongs to our cultural heritage. This might seem topical, but in actual fact it has always been this way in history. So the question is, how far can we date back this process with kanbun?

My research focussed mainly on pre-modern Sinitic texts written in China. The aim was to establish the moment from which we can talk about cultural heritage and about the way in which Japanese people at the time related to Sinitic culture and made it their own. At the same time, the heritage studies perspective allows us to draw interesting conclusions by reassessing Japan not only as a country, but also as a player in a specific cultural scenario which is different from ours, in the Western world, but that has some common traits. Consider, for example, diglossia, the situation in which one community uses two languages for different purposes – this phenomenon is similar to what we experience with the use of English in the academic world. How does bilingualism influence our relationship with “our” culture? How will European linguistic and cultural identity change during the next few years?  

What has emerged from this research?

I focussed in particular on the analysis of the prefaces and afterwords of some poetry anthologies dating back to the 8th and 9th centuries, written in Japanese using Sinitic writing. In these prefaces, the editors of the collections explain the reasons behind their selections; they often highlight that their main objective is to ensure that these samples of “sublime” literature do not disappear, in order to protect this textual, written cultural heritage. I have always focussed on poetry, so this research interest was quite natural to me, but these texts are particularly significant in terms of heritagisation. For example, one of the most important poetry collections in Japanese, Kokinshū (10th century), has a Sinitic preface, which however tries to demonstrate the value of poetry in Japanese: it is a strategy which is quite similar to the one used by Dante for Italian vernacular in his De vulgari eloquentia (in Latin). 

Another aspect which I devoted particular attention to was the fact that the authors of these texts take examples from the continental tradition for reasons that we may deem “personal” – for example, to demonstrate the virtues of the Japanese emperor of which they were subjects, comparing him to the mythical emperors of Chinese antiquity. 

In other words, Japanese authors appropriate a textual heritage to respond to “local” needs. This is an example of heritagisation. Heritage, in fact, is not just “the past”, but the part of the past that is of interest today, and that is the object of cultural and social practices of selection and enhancement.

What influence did the pandemic have on your work? 

As for many other people, the pandemic was an unexpected situation that at first had a negative impact on the final phases of the project. However, by going online we were able to manage things, and other opportunities arose. For example, we were able to organise a workshop on textual heritage that 200 scholars from all around the world participated in. Among the participants there was also Professor Edward Kamens from Yale University, who had already worked on the relationship between Japanese literature and material culture. He invited me to hold a lecture in one of his seminars at Yale, which would not have been possible without this “digital revolution”. 

The time I spent in Waseda was also very productive, because I was able to travel before lockdown. In 2019 I spent a month at Harvard for the summer school of the Institute of World Literature, and at the end of 2019 I presented my research during a workshop at Peking University, in collaboration with Professor Kono.

The most penalised part of the project was the contact with European institutions that work with cultural heritage, because of the difficulty with travelling during the pandemic, but at least the plans that involved courses at Ca’ Foscari went as scheduled. Actually, one of the consequences of the pandemic was the possibility of purchasing antique books in Japan with the funds I could not invest in travelling around Europe. With a view to bringing what I have learnt back to Ca’ Foscari, I would like my students to be able to examine physical texts when we return to our classrooms. One of the final results of this project which has been delayed slightly is also the publication of a kanbun manual, together with Professor Kono. 

To what extent has the concept of cultural heritage penetrated into civil society and in what way does it enable us to discuss classics? Are texts that are recognised as cultural heritage in UNESCO lists? 

The UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage has two lists: one is for “endangered heritage”, such as endangered or minority languages, while the other, the “representative list”, has the somewhat controversial aim, that of representing the cultural diversity of the world, for more or less endangered elements. We might expect that certain literary texts appear in this second list, such as the most representative texts of every language tradition, but this is not the case. The Divine Comedy, for example, is certainly part of Italian cultural heritage, but it is not included in the UNESCO lists; the same can be said about many other great literary works that are often classified as “world literature”. 

In order to explore the meaning of textual heritage, I organised a workshop in Waseda and a symposium, Textual Heritage for the 21st century, at Ca’ Foscari, with Andrea Giolai, a Ca’ Foscari alumnus at Leiden University. We asked ourselves how to define a text as cultural heritage and what the consequences are. There is no simple and straightforward answer to this question: one of the results of my Marie Curie research was that it has paved the way for new research themes. Another important aspect of the symposium was the dialogue we had with scholars from other fields and research ares: we listened to lectures on Indian classics and dance, on Spanish songbooks in a Hebrew Mediterranean community, on tablature notations for Chinese music in Japan, and on the inscriptions on Egyptian pyramids and the transition from drawing to writing (in a lecture by Emanuele Ciampini e Francesca Iannarilli). All of the participants wanted to understand what happens to a text when it is passed on through generations, when it becomes textual heritage. It was certainly one of the best results we had during these three years, also because the workshop in Waseda was in Japanese and therefore could not attract the same variety of academics. 

Heritage studies enable us to move away from the schemes that we rely on and to discuss things with scholars from other fields of study, such as economics and law. This variety was evident in the panel that I coordinated during the fifth biennial conference organised by the Association of Critical Heritage Studies held in August 2020. This conference included experts in architecture and urban studies, as well as in historical maps (such as Ca’ Foscari alumna Sonia Favi) and the director of the Venice Centre for Digital and Public Humanities (VeDPH), Franz Fischer. All of these moments allowed us to appreciate the value of this cross-section approach. Our ambition is to contribute to the renovation of the Humanities in the 21st century. For now, we are working on the creation of a miscellaneous volume that can collect these initial contributions.

The need to rethink culture always stems from issues in society, also from a political perspective: philology can help us highlight this need. When Emperor Naruhito rose to the throne on 1 May 2019, the name of the new era corresponding to his reign was officialised as Reiwa (令和), an expression drawn from a passage in one of the most ambitious Japanese poetry collections, Man'yōshū (8th century). During a press conference the then prime minister, Shinzo Abe, highlighted the Japanese nature of this expression while skating over the fact that the passage is actually a preface written in Sinitic language and that makes explicit reference to the Chinese culture of the Six Dynasties. This is a very recent example of appropriation and reuse (some may even consider it abuse) of past culture and of Sinitic textual heritage. 

The ICH programme has strong political implications. It may be the least Eurocentric programme in UNESCO, and it was promoted by Japan (at the time, the president of UNESCO was Japanese). Today, Japan occupies the second place per number of elements included, following China and ahead of Korea. Countries in East Asia have invested a lot in these processes. Mount Fūji was included in the UNESCO World Heritage list, not as natural heritage but as cultural heritage, precisely because of its fundamental contribution to the formation of the Japanese national identity. These present-day dynamics often reflect the political motivation behind institutional heritagisation. This is also true of the postmodern period: the collections I have studied are imperial anthologies, or initiatives that we might consider “state-driven” that, in the Emperor’s view, were intended to have an impact beyond artistic enjoyment. 

Moreover, today’s political discourse tends to use the term “heritage” to refer to cultural politics. On the other hand, the Italian equivalent, “patrimonio”, emphasises that the relationship with the past is valuable and related to identity. My studies focused on the shared heritage of Japan and China, but a similar approach can be applied to Europe and the European Union: what is our shared heritage, and what are its current effects on our cultural identity? Wondering what cultural heritage is and how it works is important, and a seemingly far-away perspective such as the Japanese point of view can be quite useful: it can help us define our cultural identity and prompt us to question the supposed principles of “universality” of culture. In our interconnected world, observing different contexts — such as 9th century Japan and Europe — shows us that a country’s geography contributes to the definition of its cultural heritage, but it also shows us that this process goes beyond geographical and political borders. As we compare our present to the past -- a past in which there were different attitudes towards culture and tradition — we can re-evaluate contemporary perspectives with relativism, and we can question ourselves as actors in present-day processes of heritagisation.  

As for me, I hope I have demonstrated that philology can play an important role in this dynamic by focusing our attention on the processes of construction and reconstruction of cultural heritage that can work in unexpected ways. After all, when we translate a classical text or propose a new edition, we are doing heritagisation. I hope that this project will be a stimulus for other “classical” colleagues, so that they can reposition their role in the academic and non-academic society of the 21st century. 

Author: Rachele Sveltana Bassan / Translator: Joangela Ceccon