The Emergence of Buddhist Colloquial Chinese: Studies in the Formation of the Pre-modern Vernacular in China (completed)

The project is concerned with the fascinating interplay between language and religion in medieval China.

About the project

The late Táng, Five Dynasties, and early Sòng periods (ca. 9th till 12th century) are crucial for the study of the development of the Chinese language. From the Táng period onwards, an increasing number of texts were written in vernacular Chinese or in a mixture of vernacular and Literary Chinese. Before that time Classical Chinese was the prevailing medium and vernacular elements of the respective contemporary spoken language only rarely surfaced in written texts. In addition, the origin of many grammatical markers of Modern Mandarin as well as many Chinese dialects can be directly traced back to the late Táng.

The study of early Vernacular Chinese and Buddhist Hybrid Chinese (BHC) is essential for an understanding of the development of the Chinese language and an important link in the development from Classical to Modern Chinese. Without the study of this period of language development, many semantic and syntactic features of Modern Mandarin and Modern Chinese dialects cannot be properly understood.

Although this stage of language development has received increasing attention during the last 15 years in China and Japan, systematic studies are still only in their beginnings. In the West, specific studies of this crucial period are still very rare. One of the reasons for the rather limited number of studies in the West is the difficulty of the source materials.

The key texts of this period are indeed heterogenous in nature. Frequently, the narrative parts of certain texts of this period are written in a type of Classical Chinese, whereas the dialogues are written in vernacular Chinese. However, since Chinese is a "cumulative" language, not only colloquial elements of the respective contemporary language appear in the text, but usually also colloquial elements typical for earlier periods of language development. In addition, dialect words occasionally intrude the text. Besides the narratives and dialogues, frequently other genres appear in the texts, such as numerous citations from Buddhist and non-Buddhist scriptures, Buddhist poems, appraisals, hymns, songs, and funeral inscriptions.

This extremely complex hybrid nature of the texts with regard to their semantics, syntax, and genre features make them difficult to approach and understand, and demands from the reader and researcher thorough knowledge in a variety of subjects.

The sustained detailed analysis of texts written in early vernacular Chinese is not only a crucial aspect of the TLS project, but for any systematic account of Chinese linguistic history. Many important syntactic (and also many semantic!) features of Modern Chinese can be traced back to this period.


The overall aim of the project is to define important syntactic and semantic features of Late Middle Chinese (LMC) and Early Vernacular Chinese. Other important aspects are the formation of Buddhist genres during the Táng and the Sòng periods, and the socio-political background of these developments.


The project is conducted in coopoeration with other IKOS researchers and with leading sinologists from universities in China, Europe, and the USA. Concrete cooperation includes TLS (ed. in chief: Christoph Harbsmeier), a project on the digitalisation and annotation of Zǔtáng jí 祖堂集 conducted by Christian Wittern (Kyoto Univ.), and international scholars invited to conferences organized by the project director.


Published May 27, 2010 11:26 AM - Last modified Oct. 27, 2017 1:15 PM


Christoph Anderl