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Kanbun

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  • Japanese: 漢文 (kanbun)

Kanbun (lit. "Chinese writing") is a category of types of Japanese writing which employ kanji (Chinese characters) exclusively, or almost exclusively, with minimal or no use of phonetic kana. The term most often refers to what might more specifically be called hakubun - Classical Chinese, or Japanese emulations of it, which incorporate no kana - but the umbrella term kanbun can also include a number of related forms developed specifically in Japan, known as hentai kanbun (lit. "changed form Chinese writing").

When written by Japanese scholars of Chinese subjects, e.g. Confucian scholars or Zen monks, kanbun can sometimes include turns of phrase and individual characters more typically Chinese, which are not more widely used in Japanese. However, the reverse is also true, as Japanese often wrote in a form closely emulating Classical Chinese, but incorporating particular characters and turns of phrase original to Japan, which would be unfamiliar to a Chinese reader.

Types of Kanbun

  • Hakubun (白文, lit. "white writing") - Classical Chinese, or Japanese emulations of it, with minimal or no kana. The defining feature of hakubun is the absence of any kundoku marks or other reading aids. Hakubun is written in a Chinese word order, and must be read either in Chinese, or by mentally rearranging the word order and interpreting the unwritten particles, conjugations, and so forth in order to read this Chinese-like form as Japanese.
  • Kundoku bun (訓読文), also kanbun kundoku - Hakubun with marks placed alongside the characters, in order to help the reader convert the Chinese-like form into something readable as Japanese. These marks chiefly include the re-ten (レ), placed between two characters to indicate they should be read in reverse order. For example, 「不可」 can be read as a compound, fuka, or, with a re-ten, one would read the second character (可, beki), and then the previous character, as bekarazu. The other most common kundokuten (kundoku marks) are numbers (一、二、三) and the characters for upper and lower (上、下), which are used to indicate that an entire phrase (marked 一, one, or 上, upper) should be read before going back to return to a phrase marked ニ (two) or 下 (lower). This occurs because Chinese grammar employs a very different word order, and sentence structure, from Japanese.
  • Kakikudashi bun (書き下し文) - roughly meaning "written down," in the sense of being lowered down or broken apart to a simpler level, kakikudashi bun are kanbun (hakubun or kundoku bun) texts that have been rewritten to resemble regular Japanese grammar and sentence structure, at least to some extent. These texts have the characters rearranged to follow Japanese (rather than Chinese) word order, and have the kana inserted. Thus, a phrase like 「相触無滞可出之」, which in kundokutai (kundoku form) would be just as is, but with a few re-ten and ones and twos set between the characters, would in kakikudashi be rearranged to read something like 「相触れ滞り無くこれ出すべき」 (ai fure todokoori naku kore dasu beki), meaning roughly "the shogunal proclamation (fure) should (beki) be sent out (dasu) without delay (todokoori naku).
  • Sôrôbun (候文) - one of the most prominent forms of hentai kanbun in the Edo period, sôrôbun is a form which uses both kanbun word order and kana extensively. Distinctively Japanese, it would not be easily legible to a Chinese reader, unlike other forms of kanbun which use kanji more exclusively. Sôrôbun relies extensively on particular set phrases, and ends a great many of its clauses and sentences in the copula verb sôrô (候). Though often called an "epistolary style," this is misleading as sôrôbun was used quite extensively in the Edo period, both for letters, petitions, and other communications, and also for a wide variety of records and other sorts of official documents.
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